One day when Fuseli and Haydon were walking together, they reached the summit of a hill whence they could catch a glimpse of St. Paul’s.
There was the grey dome looming out by fits through rolling drifts of murky smoke. The two little lion-like men stood watching “the sublime canopy that shrouds the city of the world.” Now it spread and seethed like the incense from Moloch’s furnace; now it lifted and thinned into the purer blue, like the waft of some great sacrifice, or settled down to deeper and gloomier grandeur over “the vastness of modern Babylon.” That brown cloud hid a huge ants’ nest teeming with three millions of people. That dome, with its golden coronet and cross, rose like the globe in an emperor’s hand—a type of the civilisation, and power, and Christianity of England.
The hearts of the two men beat faster at the great sight.
“Be George!” said Fuseli, shaking his white hair and stamping his little foot, “be George! sir, it’s like the smoke of the Israelites making bricks for the Egyptians.”
“It is grander, Fuseli,” said Haydon, “for it is the smoke of a people who would have made the Egyptians make bricks for them.”
It is of the multitudinous streets of this more than[Pg 2] Egyptian city, their traditions, and their past and present inhabitants, that I would now write. I shall not pass by many houses where any eminent men dwell or dwelt, without some biographical anecdote, some epigram, some illustration; yet I will not stop long at any door, because so many others await me. I have “set down,” I hope, “nought in malice.” Truth I trust has been, and truth alone shall be, my object. I shall stay at Charing Cross to point out the heroism of the dying regicides; I shall pause at Whitehall to narrate some redeeming traits even in the character of a wilful king.
The growth of London, and its conquest of suburb after suburb, has roused the imagination of poets and essayists ever since the days of Queen Elizabeth.
When James I. forbade the building of fresh houses outside London walls, he little foresaw the time when the City would become almost impassable; when practical men would burrow roads under ground, or make subterranean railways to drain off the choking traffic; when cool-headed people would seriously propose to have flying bridges thrown over the chief thoroughfares; when new manners and customs, new diseases, new follies, new social complications would arise, from the fact of three millions of men silently agreeing to live together on only eleven square miles of land; when fish would cease to inhabit the poisoned river; when the roar of the traffic would render it almost impossible to converse; when, in fact, London would grow too large for comfort, safety, pleasure, or even social intercourse.
It is difficult to select from what centre to commence a pilgrimage. For old Roman London we might start from the Exchange or the Tower; for mediæval London from Chepe or Aldermanbury; for fashionable London from Charing Cross; for Shaksperean London from the Globe or Blackfriars. Even then our tours would be circuitous, and sometimes retrograde, and we should turn and double like hares before the hounds.
I have for several reasons, therefore, and after some consideration, decided to start from Temple Bar, and walk[Pg 3] westward along the Strand to Charing Cross; then to turn up St. Martin’s Lane, and return by Longacre and Drury Lane to Lincoln’s-Inn-Fields.
That walk embraces the long line of palaces which once adorned the Strand, or river-bank street, the countless haunts of artists in St. Martin’s Lane, the legends of Longacre, the theatrical reminiscences of Drury Lane, and the old noblemen’s houses in Lincoln’s-Inn-Fields. It comprises a period not so remote as East London, and not so modern as that of the West End. It brings us acquainted not only with many of the contemporaries of Shakspere and Dryden, but also with many celebrities of Garrick’s time and of Dr. Johnson’s age.
If this is not the best point of departure, it has at least much to be said in its favour, as the loop I have drawn includes nothing intramural, and comprises a part of London inhabited by persons who lived more within the times of memoir-writing than those in the farther East,—a district, too, more within the range of the antiquary than the newer region of the West.
I trust that in these remarks I have in some degree explained why I have spent so much time in pouring “old wine into new bottles.”
A preface is too often a pillory made by an author, in which he exposes himself to a shower of the most unsavoury missiles. I trust that mine may be considered only as a wayside stone on which I stand to offer a fitting apology for what I trust is a venial fault.
It is the glory of my old foster-mother, London, I would celebrate; it is her virtues and her crimes I would record. Her miles of red-tiled roofs, her quiet green squares, her vast black mountain of a cathedral, her silver belt of a river, her acres and acres of stony terraces, her beautiful parks, her tributary fleets, seem to me as so many episodes in one great epic, the true delineation of which would form a new chapter in the History of Mankind.And Last updated on: Sunday, 06-Sep-2020 15:16:59 BST