How much would a 17th century Londoner recognize their home city if they visited it today? A new exhibition opening this weekend at London’s Guildhall Galleries asks just that, featuring views of London from 1616 and 2016 side by side. The answer is perhaps predictable—not a lot—but the journey there is fascinating.
The exhibition’s window into the subject is two remarkably detailed panoramic views of the city. The old panorama is by Dutch artist Claes Jansz Visscher, a famous 6.5-foot-long engraving of London, portrayed as if seen from the skies above the Thames’ south bank. A genuinely iconic view of the city created before most of London was destroyed by fire in 1666, this intricate view has scarcely been rivaled since. It is all the more impressive when you learn that Visscher never actually visited Britain.
The modern panorama, created by artist Robin Reynolds, attempts to recreate Visscher’s view as exactly as possible, which it does with great skill. The one difference: it shows the same view as it appears today.
So much has changed it’s hard to know where to start. In Visscher’s view, for instance, St. Paul’s Cathedral—not yet rebuilt by Christopher Wren—is still a gothic hulk. The city’s spires are easily its tallest structures, so high and numerous it makes London look like a giant’s pin cushion.
The new St. Paul’s, completed in 1720, is almost as prominent today, thanks to height controls of buildings surrounding it. But now its neighbors on the skyline are cranes and residential towers.
Further upstream in Visscher’s panorama, Old London Bridge—its southern gatehouse bristling with the heads of the executed—is still covered in houses, and crosses a far wider river.
In Reynolds’s modern version, towers also dominate the view, but this time it’s London’s new knot of squat, eccentric skyscrapers that looms over the rooftops.
Look closely elsewhere, however, and a few aspects of the city haven’t much changed. On the Thames’ southern bank, Southwark Cathedral (pictured in the details above) is still there, as are the dome-capped towers of the Tower of London’s keep.
There’s also one unexpected returnee. In Visscher’s view we clearly see the Globe Theatre, flanked by a bear garden and surrounded by vegetable plots in what was then a notoriously rough part of town.
Inspect Reynold’s view closely and you’ll notice that the theater is back, its thatched roof appearing just to the right of the slim Millennium Bridge after having been reconstructed and reopened in 1997. In the interim, the bear garden site has gone up in the world. It has now been replaced by Tate Modern, the world’s most visited art museum, itself occupying a former power station.
These survivors might not seem like much for a city that’s roughly 2,000 years old, but the Great Fire and attacks by the Luftwaffe both took their toll. A first glance might also not reveal a larger truth: London still often feels like an ancient city, even if it doesn’t look like one. Echoes of the past are everywhere. Streets now lined with modern steel and glass have names like Crutched Friars and French Ordinary Court, while construction often unearths century-old plague pits. Remnants of medieval ramparts blend surprisingly well with 1960s brutalism, while when the Thames’ sludge and shingle is laid bare by low tide, antique clay pipes from sailors poke out of the mud like so many bleached bones.
The Robin Reynolds panorama might not contain much that remains from 400 years ago, but somehow Visscher’s city is still underneath, sleeping but unquiet.
The exhibition “Visscher Redrawn 1616 — 2016” runs at London’s Guildhall Galleries from February 20 to November 20, 2016.