London is a city that feels perpetually unfinished, its skyline punctuated by cranes and its pedestrians penned in by workmen’s barriers. In a sense, this is what gives the place much of its character: without the guiding hand of a Haussmann or a Niemeyer to lend unity, London is a haphazard patchwork, in which Georgian, Brutalist, Norman, High Tech, Gothic and Art Deco are rammed together in random and often surprising combinations. The venerable illustrator David Gentleman revels in the city’s almost carefree interaction with its past – take the Tube platform decorations he designed for Charing Cross, which place Medieval woodcuts in a sleekly modern setting. In this selection of watercolours – first executed in the mid-1980s – he sets out to document the chaotic, ebullient results of an ancient street plan encrusted with centuries of architecture.

Given the protean nature of the city, it is remarkable how similar London still looks to those pre-Gherkin, pre-Lloyd’s building days, when the Thames Barrier was only recently completed and the GLC was still ensconced in County Hall. Gentleman’s buildings are not measured and delineated with an architect’s set square, but sketched freehand, such that Tower Bridge, for example, takes on the rubbery flexibility of a bouncy castle astride the Thames. The artist also avoids the faux-picturesque censorship of the postcard image, preferring to depict the cityscape in all its rough-and-tumble variety. Thus the terracotta Gothic of Alfred Waterhouse’s Prudential building in Holborn is shown flanked by a pair of mirrors – a highly reflective 1980s office block on one side, the Daily Mirror building on the other. The Tower of London is painted with Richard Seifert’s Natwest Tower standing in for one of the turrets, while in a striking monochrome image, the wedding-cake spire of St Bride’s Church is picked out against the looming slate-grey silhouette of the Barbican. One spread contains a particularly masterful juxtaposition of the nave of St Paul’s with the interior of Leadenhall Market – Wren up against Victorian cast-iron Baroque, God and Mammon in a composite image.

Gentleman’s accompanying text is good-humoured and erudite, with an ear for an apt aphorism. “London,” he observes, “is like a stately home where the current caretakers, cramped for space and feeling things have got shabby, have thrown out the antique furniture and covered the garden with asphalt.” It is, then, regrettable that the prose is marred by a proliferation of slapdash typos – but, in some ways, even this is appropriate. For in London, as in this book, crass carelessness sits cheek by jowl with considered beauty.


First published in World of Interiors issue 338. Reproduced with permission.


David Gentleman’s London

by David Gentleman  (Antique Collectors’ Club)

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