Spitalfields Life introduced me this week toÂ John Thomsonâ€™s Street Life in London. Thomson gave us the monthly photographic magazine Street Life from 1876 in which he published photographs of London life, each with pen portraits and vignettes from Adolphe Smith. The photographs are available to view at the Bishopsgate Institute, which has copyright on the photos themselves (sidenote: can there really still be copyright in photos that are almost 140 years old?).
The main thing that struck me looking at these images was the nature of watchfulness which existed on London streets. Many of the pictures (like the one of the shoe-shine I’ve shown here) are haunted by onlookers, often children, just gazing out at the camera, which presumably was still a pretty unusual sight in working-class London. They stand as if they’re just there, hanging out on the street. It struck me that all these people would today be collapsed into sofas gazing at their television screens. But back in the day, when no televisions existed, no radios even, people must have watched life itself out in the street. The thought that connected to that was that so much of the literature of the 19th century, principally that of Dickens, is all about appearances and action and external events. People watched people doing things. I wonder what the flight to the sofa and the living room in the 20th century did to our thinking, and did to our literature. Did it turn us into more internalised, self-obsessed things? Or did the images from around the world and beyond the world that the television made available to us broaden our horizons? Or are soap-operas just another way of standing in the street and watching the world go by?
â€œtheir former prestige has disappeared, the silent highway they navigate is no longer the main thoroughfare of London life and commerce, the smooth pavements of the streets have successfully competed with the placid current of the Thames.â€
Beautiful, that, isn’t it?