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Aestheticizing the Ancestral City: antiquarianism, topography and the representation of London in the long eighteenth century

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To assert its distinction, modernity has always looked backwards as well as forwards. During the eighteenth century London underwent a steady process of transformation as numerous ancient buildings were demolished in the name of urban improvements. As these modernizations went forward a concomitant rise of antiquarian sentiment prompted a plethora of engraved representations which aimed to keep the past in view. This essay considers the evolution, dissemination and reception of such cumulative antiquarian representations from the nostalgia for Hollar’s bird’s-eye view of pre-Fire London to the moral judgements implied in John Thomas Smith’s later etchings of dilapidated and impoverished sites of antiquity. By charting the changing aesthetics and interests of this genre, this essay discusses the ambiguous relationship between the publishing of antiquarian representations and the status and preservation of the sites that they depicted. It also asks whether the circulation of such representations helped to ground urban identity at a time when the city was in a constant and disorienting state of change.

Document Type: Original Article


Affiliations: The Museum of London

Publication date: November 1, 1999


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