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April 2013, No. 1321 – Vol 155

Surveying London


Surveying London

The offices of The Burlington Magazine occupy two adjoining corner houses, the façade facing Duke’s Road, the side windows looking onto Woburn Walk, just south of Euston Road. They are part of an unusually elegant L-shaped speculative development of three-storey terraced houses with integral shops, created on the edge of the Duke of Bedford’s Bloomsbury estate by the pioneering builder–speculator Thomas Cubitt in 1822–25. They have miraculously survived much local redevelopment as well as bombing in the Second World War which prompted the investigation by the Survey of London of the surviving fabric of the area. The results were described in the rather dry mode of the day in volume 21 of the Survey, published in 1949, a time when the investigators were fulfilling the requirement for making an inventory of the historic fabric of the buildings: they were not given to the value judgments permitted, for example, to John Summerson, one of the Survey’s contributors, in his Georgian London (1945). He regarded this ‘almost perfect design’ as the best example in London of the designed shopping street. As noted in a review of the much later Survey volumes on Clerkenwell in this Magazine in March 2009, the writers of the Survey are now well equipped to judge and they allow themselves to comment more on the quality and significance of the buildings discussed, albeit sparingly.1 In the recently published Woolwich (vol.48), we are left in no doubt of the distinction of the Baroque Town Hall of 1903–06, the most ambitious complex of its period in London, or of the national importance of the London County Council’s experiment in system building, the Morris Walk housing estate of 1962–66. Woolwich, the riverside district to the east of the capital where in 1512 Henry VIII established the Royal Naval Dockyards, formally part of London since 1855, is, in the words of the Survey, ‘a place where history demands respect’. The Survey, in its first excursion into South London since 1956 (Lambeth, vol.26), has duly accorded such respect and will shortly extend its southern Thames-side coverage with the publication of volumes on Battersea later this year.

The Survey of London is unique in the depth and breadth of its description and analysis of the architecture and planning of a capital city. In addition to the forty-eight parish volumes that have so far appeared, it has also published eighteen monographs on individual buildings. The books are substantial and readable and, at their best, they balance selective topographical coverage with the thematic discussion which is possible when the area affords a significant range of examples. The Survey has only two rivals in Europe. The Commission du vieux Paris was begun in the same decade as the Survey, the 1890s, but it has remained primarily an inventorying and recording body, complemented since 1964 by the national Inventaire général. Unlike the Inventaire, the Commission places little emphasis on publication. In Austria, the federally administered Österreichische Kunsttopographie has published fifty-nine volumes since 1907, six of which have been devoted to Vienna, the most recent (vol.44), on secular buildings in three central districts, appearing in 1980. Essays on the history and growth of the city are followed by an alphabetically arranged, illustrated catalogue of buildings, followed in turn by a section on public housing, providing a basis for city planning and public education. All three of these surveys are regarded as fundamental to the public support necessary for preservation and well-informed future development: all are publicly funded. The volumes of the Survey may not be best-sellers but they are a staple of institutional and local libraries, and since the whole series has been made available through British History Online it has become much more accessible and easily searchable with over 70,000 hits per month. Being online also offers the possibility of updating, or even becoming a forum for the contributions of local historians.

The Survey was founded in 1894 on the initiative of the architect C.R. Ashbee to record and publicise buildings under the threat of demolition in a city subject, then as now, to rapid change. For over a century, it enjoyed the institutional support successively of the County and Greater London Councils, the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments and, since 1999, English Heritage. Under the latter, despite reductions in staffing, it has enjoyed a particularly productive period, with handsome, superbly illustrated volumes produced in association with Yale University Press and the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art. These relationships are now at risk.

At the time of English Heritage’s assumption of responsibility, the Survey had nine posts; now it has five – four full-time and two half-time. English Heritage, suffering along with the rest of the public sector the funding cuts of the present government, has imposed 34 per cent cuts which fall heavily on architectural and archaeological research in order to protect statutory functions, notwithstanding the fact that those functions of protection and designation of monuments and sites depend upon the knowledge and analysis which only research can provide. Very recently, the Survey was granted a stay of execution, with funding assured until March 2015. But this means that in a period of harsh economic austerity, this long-established, nationally important body has just two years to find a new host capable of covering approximate costs of £500,000 per year for staff, graphics, photography and accommodation. Sources of private funding have been inves­tigated and, although the times are not propitious, finite amounts for specific tasks could no doubt be identified. But private funding is necessarily geared towards specific outcomes, and this would seriously compromise the comprehensiveness of an approach which depends on continuity of staffing and purpose.

It may be that the university sector could provide the answer, since the current Research Excellence Framework, the process through which departments now receive substantial funding, covers the period 2008–13, a period of sustained excellence in the Survey’s publications. To qualify for this, however, the Survey would need to be with a new academic host by mid-2013. As staff embark upon new research in the Central London district of Marylebone, the future of the Survey must be a cause for alarm for all who care about the understanding of the history and evolution of a great city and its people.

1    See J. Bold’s review of the Clerkenwell volumes, nos.46 and 47, in this Magazine, 151 (2009), pp.176–78.