By Jerry White
London within the eighteenth century used to be a brand new urban, risen from the ashes of the nice fireplace of 1666 that had destroyed part its houses and nice public constructions. The century that used to be an period of full of life growth and large-scale tasks, of swiftly altering tradition and trade, as large numbers of individuals arrived within the shining urban, drawn through its large wealth and gear and its many diversions. Borrowing a word from Daniel Defoe, Jerry White calls London “this nice and substantial thing,” the grandeur of its new structures and the glitter of its excessive existence shadowed through poverty and squalor.
A nice and great Thing bargains a street-level view of town: its public gardens and prisons, its banks and brothels, its workshops and warehouses—and its bustling, jostling crowds. White introduces us to shopkeepers and prostitutes, women and men of style and genius, street-robbers and thief-takers, as they play out the superb drama of lifestyles in eighteenth-century London. What emerges is an image of a society fractured by means of geography, politics, faith, history—and in particular by means of type, for the divide among wealthy and terrible in London was once by no means higher or extra damaging within the glossy period than in those years.
regardless of this gulf, Jerry White indicates us Londoners going approximately their enterprise as bankers or beggars, reveling in an enlarging global of public pleasures, indulging in crimes either nice and small—amidst the tightening sinews of strength and rules, and the hesitant beginnings of London democracy.
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Extra info for A Great and Monstrous Thing: London in the Eighteenth Century
28 Notwithstanding ridicule in rhyme and prose and on the stage of the cits’ aspirations, the villages and hamlets around London proved an irresistible lure in every direction. They grew bloated and cockneyfied in the process: ‘Middlesex’, it was said in 1730, was ‘almost all London’. It was in this century that the metropolitan shadow first fell darkly over countryside that would eventually emerge as Greater London. In Essex, for instance, Stratford (‘where there are above two hundred little Country Houses, for the Conveniency of the Citizens in Summer’ in 1722), Plaistow, Leyton, Walthamstow, Wanstead and Woodford (where there were said to be 162 ‘mansions’ in 1762) all gained in population and wealth.
Actually the evidence is overwhelming that despite all the difficulties and the undoubted ups and downs, there was always some money to be made from new building in London. Never for a moment in this first half-century did London stop growing entirely. 25 Indeed, contemporaries were troubled less by slump or stagnation than by the worrying consequences of a metropolis that continued remorselessly to eat into the countryside around it. A madcap proposal by government to restrict all new London building to the existing foundations of demolished structures was laughed out of the House of Commons in 1710, but the anxieties it reflected were clearly deeply felt.
Not, though, that architectural practice in London followed their lead with anything like uniform acceptance of the new fashion. Eclecticism was the only consistent characteristic of London building design from the age of Wren onwards. Architects not only pursued a range of styles in their projects; they might happily combine one or more styles in any building coming under their hand. For this reason alone, Gibbs’s less than wholehearted espousal of the new fashion deterred few commissions. His talents as an architect were manifest and many.