Although he was a Frenchman who never learned any English, the illustrator Gustave Doré drew some of the most evocative and enduring images we have of Victorian London. The ones that are most familiar today are those depicting the poverty, alienation and squalor of the emergent industrial metropolis, but there are other, lesser-known ones that celebrate its more opulent and exuberant aspects.
“Over London by Rail” Gustave Doré c 1870.
“Houndsditch” by Gustave Doré, [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. (1872).
The above two portrayals epitomise the vision of a dismal and desperate (albeit picturesque) urban landscape that we most associate with Doré. But the marvellous volume in which they first appeared, “London: A Pilgrimage”, published in 1872, contains 180 Doré sketches which illuminate a tremendous variety of social groupings and settings.
For the book, Doré, in company with the journalist Blanchard Jerrold who wrote its text, set out to range over London as freely as they might and produce a record of what they found in words and pictures. Over several years they explored the capital’s high-life and low-life, both indoors and out, from the hard-grafting East-End dock landscape to the hushed sanctity of Westminster Abbey.
At one point they attended a garden party in the grounds of Holland House, which was then a sparkling rendezvous of aristocratic society, though it was substantially destroyed by incendiary bombs in 1940 and its ruin now stands in the public open-space of Holland Park.
“Holland House, A Garden Party” by Gustave Doré, 1872 http://www.victorianweb.org/art/illustration/dore/london/23.html
“We are Pilgrims,” Jerrold wrote in the book’s introduction, “wanderers, gipsy-loiterers in the great world of London…Under the magic influence of its vastness; its prodigious unwieldy life, and its extraordinary varieties of manners…”.
I would have loved to have been a “wanderer” and a “gypsy-loiterer” in the “great world” of Victorian London. But would I have seen what Doré drew? Well, in the first place I would not have had access to the high-society locations such as Holland House that Jerrold & Doré’s connections opened up to them. But, more importantly, Doré reputedly worked from memory, and only when he was back in his Parisian studio at that. There is a correspondingly dreamlike, fantastical sheen to his visions that seems at one remove from reality. As with Dickens’ word-invocations of Victorian London, one has to remember that Doré’s output has been filtered through a highly individual artistic imagination.