Ok so for the first post of 2018 (or the 2nd, I suppose, since the last post ended up coming shortly after midnight) I am going back in time six months to some sketches I did not post back then. Back home, back to my native city of London. It’s funny, I’ve been away from London for a quarter of my life now. It will always be my city, but as each year goes by I feel further and further away. Yet no city ever continuously gives me more to discover. Almost two decades ago I was a tour guide, on an open-top bus with a microphone and a rainjacket, and in my spare time I would read history books, or explore streets on foot, looking for the stuff that has always been there but I have overlooked, walked past, ignored. When I was a teenager I would on weekends take the tube down to a different part of town, literally just to look around, as if marking my territory. I wasn’t just looking for old historic sites, but newsagents, shortcut alleyways, I wanted to see how the city connected together. London changes daily, a story that keeps being written. So on my last trip back, I took a day sketching down a stretch of the City that I’ve overlooked for too long. At the top, Smithfield Market. I’ve wanted to sketch this building for so many years and, well it’s just a little out of the way from my usual routes. It always requires a special journey, despite its centrality. It is essential London, yet, like Farringdon, feels like ‘not my London’, I feel like a stranger. And it’s quiet around here, there’s not a lot of foot traffic on a Saturday. This part of London has always creeped me out a little; it feels haunted. I would come down this way on weekends when I was younger and end up escaping back to the inhabited world of Oxford Street or Charing Cross because it was just so dead; now, this appeals to me more. Smithfield has a history alright. Located just outside the historic wall (the name comes from Old English smēðe feld, meaning smooth or level field) and was a place of many historic public gatherings, most notably the one at the end of the Peasant’s Revolt when Wat Tyler was killed by the Mayor, and in fact Smithfield has seen many famous executions, such as William Wallace. There were also great medieval tournaments here, but it is most well known these days for its market, which also dates back to the middle ages. The large covered Smithfield Market, primarily a meat market, was built in the 1860s by Sir Horace Jones. A couple of years ago a friend of my family, whose dad worked for years at Smithfield, told me I had to sketch it, and soon, so I promised one day I would. Now, redevelopment seems to be moving forward and it’s been announced that the Museum of London will move in to part of the market building. This section, looking up West Smithfield, is currently abandoned. Still feels haunted on a Saturday afternoon.
Holborn Viaduct is about as haunted as it comes. Look at it, it says ghostly London all over it. Even those dark statues look like cowled spectres from down here in the street. That red Victorian ironwork. Those dark arches. The lamps. Newgate prison was once in this area, leaving Holborn full of ghost stories, but this part of the city doesn’t need the stories. Poking through the modern towerblocks, crossing the busy tarmac carriageway, the whole place itself feels like a ghost. We don’t make places like this any more.
Finally, the Black Friar pub. Even the name feels creepy. That robed friar above the door. Yet this was the place that surprised me the most. I remember this area near Blackfriars Bridge as being constantly under construction, an easy place to get lost. And suddenly, this area feels open and brand new. The modern Blackfriars station just blew me away, and stepping out of it and looking across to this old tavern I had always known but never steeped into, and looking across the river toward the Shard and the modern changing metropolis, this was yet another London surprise. Maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner. The way the Black Friar is wedged into this junction was a delight to sketch, a nice test of perspective skills. It was pretty early still (I am listing these sketches backwards) but the pub was open so I popped in for a cup of tea. The interior is remarkable. The pub itself was built in 1875 on the site of the Dominican priory of Blackfriars, and is filled with carved wooden panels cheekily showing off priory life, in a comical fashion. One day I will sketch the interior, but on this day I just sketched one of the stained glass windows, of a friar standing next to a gate.
I do miss London! I want to explore this part of town, with all its ghosts and histories, in my 2018 sketchbook. I’ll need to wait until summer…