When you travel, and find yourself in a city like London, you inevitably run across books about the city’s history, current events, and people. You want to buy and bring them all home as mementos or souvenirs of your experiences, despite the added weight in your carryon or checked baggage.
London: The Illustrated History is one of those books. But do yourself a favor and buy it and read it before you go. It will help immeasurably help you understand what you’re seeing and experiencing. And, oversized and lavishly illustrated as it is, you won’t have to lug it home on the airplane.
Edited by Cathy Ross and John Clark, the book includes the work of more than 30 academics and Museum of London staff, who contributed with illustrations, photographs, artwork, short essays and sidebars. Each section and each page have something interesting to offer the reader about the history of London.
The book is divided into 15 historical periods: prehistory; Roman London; early and later medieval London; the Tudors, early and later Stuart London; the Georgian era; Regency London; the early and later Victoria period; Edwardian London; London between the great wars of the 20thcentury; London in World War II and the period immediately after; 1960s and 1970s London; and modern London.
Given the millennia of history and the wealth of information available, the volume still manages to provide a broad overview of kings and commoners, history made by heroes and lived by the people, high and popular culture. The reader sees what shopping in Regency London at the upper-class Burlington Arcade (still operating today on Piccadilly, next to the Royal Academy of Art), and dancing in taverns like Max’s, where sailors, coal heavers, dustmen, and “men and women of colour” rubbed shoulders on the dance floor. And if your interests run to Roman London, you can get a view of the arena that lies beneath the Guildhall and the Roman houses below the former Billingsgate Market (I’ve gotten to see both, on two separate visits).
London is a coffee table book, to be sure, but it is a gem of a guide to the city’s history. It’s also a solid introduction to the city if you’re planning to visit or vacation there.
Top illustration: The Quadrant, Regent Street, 1822, designed by John Nash.