Wednesday, 8 May 2013

There are no people in these old photos of London staircases - yet they're utterly alive

Home House, Portman Square, c.1910

I came across these photographs of London staircases on the excellent Spitalfields Life website yesterday (here). I was struck by how extraordinarily alive they seem, despite the complete absence of people. I can hear the creak of wooden stairs under my feet, people chatting upstairs, discreet clatterings from the kitchens and muffled cries from the street; I can feel the stair carpet under my feet and the coolness of the bannister rail under my hand; and I can smell the polish and the cigar smoke...

I can appreciate the beauty of old buildings when I visit them, but, they don't really excite my historical imagination the way photos of those buildings do  - and only old black and white photos will do the trick. Maybe it works the way radio and books do by allowing room for the imagination to breathe - pictures demand a response. Whatever, if you're another fan of old photos, there are tons of similarly evocative ones to be found on Spitalfields Life. Meanwhile, here are some of my favourites:

2 Arlington Street, c.1915
Goldsmiths' hall, c.1920

4 Catherine Court, Shadwell, c.1900
Grocers' hall, c.1910
Ironmongers' hall, c.1910
1 Horse Guards Avenue, c.1932


  1. I very much enjoyed this post - especially the link to the staircases of Old London. Tower of London/Traitor's Gate - I wonder how many poor cowering bastards have been dragged up these steps? Staircase at Wapping - worth at least one thousand pages of Dickens [unkind]. Anyway, very good post. The great sadness is, of course, that none of these wonderful staircases will ever be built again given the guttersnipes that have have dominated the post-war architectural establismnent. The chief GS shares a name with my best friend so I will desist.

    1. Agreed - I think the problem with the guttersnipes you refer to (Piano and Rogers are just as bad as the chap who shares a surname with your friend) is that, unlike the architects who designed these wonderful staircases, their designs would suggest that they have absolutely no interest whatsoever in human beings or the architectural context in which their carbuncles will appear.