Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 17, 2001
James Ayres Building the Georgian City Yale University Press, 1998. 280 pp.; 42 color ills.; 302 b/w ills. Cloth $70.00 (0300075480)
Elizabeth McKellar The Birth of Modern London: The Development and Design of the City 1660–1720 Manchester University Press in association with Palgrave Macmillan, 2000. 263 pp.; 59 b/w ills. Paper $35.00 (0719040760)
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Two recent works significantly extend our understanding of the architectural history of London and English provincial towns and cities. Elizabeth McKellar’s masterful study of the economic and statutory forces that shaped the appearance of London’s domestic buildings offers the first major reconsideration of the metropolis since the publication of Sir John Summerson’s 1945 Georgian London. James Ayres’s overview of the technological innovations and craft traditions that enabled the emergence of the Georgian urban landscape stands as an important synthesis of information gathered by architectural and social historians over the past fifty years. Both books are important additions to the growing literature on the emergence of the modern city.

McKellar begins her study of London dwellings by situating her contribution relative to Summerson’s influential earlier work. Her purpose, however, is not to critique Summerson’s contribution, but to build on its insights and place its conclusions in a more sharply defined historical context. McKellar also limits her study to the consideration of houses, whereas Summerson addressed a greater array of private and public buildings. “The core of the book,” writes McKellar, is “concerned with issues of production and practice,” and “seeks to explore the relationship between process and form” (2). (In this regard, McKellar’s work resonates with concerns raised in James Ayres’s work reviewed below.) The strength of McKellar’s contribution lies largely in the precision of its evidence and focus of her argument. Drawing on documentary sources relating to the subdivision of urban estates, McKellar charts the financial strategies that speculators and builders employed. What she demonstrates is that much of the city’s physical development occurred as the product of small-scale endeavors. The common view of the London landscape constituted of uniform terraces undertaken by aristocratic land developers is largely flawed. The more common practice involved the complex and often cutthroat negotiation of freeholds, leases, and subleases in which builders undertook building projects. In some instances these endeavors extended to just two or three buildings, in others the development of a lot of ground might occur over a period of years. In many instances, ambitious builders risked their resources and lost all. McKellar has effectively wrought the stories behind those individual histories into a collective biography.

Where the first half of McKellar’s work details the infrastructure that enabled London’s late seventeenth- and eighteenth-century, the latter part of her monograph looks at the evidence of buildings. Drawing on a variety of sources including period plan collections, McKellar maps out a core of early London housing types and speculates on the design sources that shaped their appearance and internal organization. The design traditions reflected in the houses erected by London builders through the greater eighteenth century is a topic that is gaining increasing attention, and McKellar situates her discussion on design sources and processes by directly addressing the manner in which architectural ideas were communicated and preserved. First, she moves away from the evidence of architectural drawings, and in doing so exposes the processes of architectural practice and custom to closer scrutiny. Then, she explores the interpretive tensions between classicism and vernacular design. Although McKellar leaves this discussion unresolved, she maps the parameters of a debate that others will enjoin.

Of particular note in McKellar’s argument is the architectural evidence of London’s burgeoning eighteenth-century periphery and suburbs, houses located in such locales as Greenwich, Deptford, and Islington. Although the examination of actual buildings falls outside the intent and methodology of McKellar’s insightful study, their importance to her larger argument is not diminished. Recent studies undertaken by the Survey of London, the London office of English Heritage, and the now sadly disbanded Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England, have revealed a startling array of dwelling design options available to builders in the decades following the Great Fire of 1666. McKellar’s work participates in this larger body of emerging research that focuses directly on the physical evidence of ordinary, eighteenth-century London houses.

James Ayres’s Building the Georgian City offers a very different but complementary approach to understanding the architectural development of London and the multitude of smaller cities and towns in England. Ayres offers a remarkable synthesis of period documentary evidence and meticulous field-based observation in his overview of building materials, practices, and labor. Primarily a work of description rather than interpretation, this book is an essential starting point for anyone with a yen to understand the mechanics of the eighteenth-century building trades. Ayres’s introduction situates his text as “a celebration of the building craftsmen of the post-medieval pre-industrial past” and to “emphasize the importance of empirical decision making, conscious or unconscious, as part of the design process” (1, 2). In essence, Ayres compiles a chronicle of building crafts that looks at physical process—how materials are prepared and assembled—and the complex relationships between custom, skill, innovation, and client-craftsman contexts. While Ayres’s “Georgian” city occupies the span of the greater eighteenth-century (c. 1680-1840), its chronology is defined as the period “suspended between medieval tradition and industrial innovation” (7). The urban emphasis of the book, however, is less clearly articulated for, as the author implies, many of the practices he discusses possess their rural and village equivalents.

The ensuing eight chapters can be divided into two groups. First, two overview essays look first, at pattern and process in land acquisition, building economics, and planning, and then at the infrastructure of labor and building materials. The remaining chapters are divided by material and craft, a division Ayres draws from eighteenth-century perspectives on the organization of the English building trades. In succession, these chapters provide an intensive introduction to stone, brick, timber, hardware, plumbing and glazing, and plastering and painting. His discussion of brickwork, as an example, begins with a focused overview of brickmaking and then progresses through an orderly discussion of bricklaying. Embedded in his disquisition is an abundance of information on formulas for brick clays, types of bricks, tools, and the hierarchy of tasks. Each of these chapters is distinguished by a richness of detail that is factually exhaustive. Ayres’s fluid writing style goes a long way toward making the information accessible, but the level of detail (even for those who already have some familiarity with this material) is, at moments, daunting. Although a glossary at the end of the book and the index assist the reader in keeping their facts and thoughts organized, they are of limited use in finding the way back to some of the information. Throughout Building the Georgian City, Ayres remains true to his stated purpose of providing a systematic overview. Endnotes enable readers to find their way to some supplementary materials. In the case of the chapter on brickwork, the lead note directs the reader to N. Lloyd’s A History of English Brickwork (1925), but neglects Alex Clifton-Taylorâs and R. W. Brunskill’s instructive and more recent Brickwork (1977, 1982) until much later.

Readers should be aware of the subthemes that inform Ayres’s work. First, there is a wistful tone that laments the passing of a world of craft overrun by the mass manufactures of industrial England. Recent works by a Dan Cruikshank and Neil Burton, Elizabeth McKellar, and others suggest the extent to which eighteenth-century building practices established the pre-conditions of industrialization through processes of specialization and speculation. Second, Ayres’s also underpins aspects of his arguments with earlier interpretive positions that have evolved significantly in the last thirty years. Most notable among these is his debt to W. G. Hoskin’s thesis on the rebuilding of rural England anthologized in Provincial England: Essays in Social and Economic History (1965), which was superceded by R. Machin’s subsequent “The Great Rebuilding: A Reassessment” published in Past and Present (1977). Building the Georgian City, however, will stand as an important reference work for those who seek an introduction to the materials, techniques, and organization of the building trades in eighteenth-century Britain and British North America. The organization of the lucidly written text enables readers to find their way readily to the information they need.

Together McKellar’s and Ayres’s contributions significantly advance our understanding of the mechanics of craft and practice that made the architectural face of eighteenth-century urbanism. McKellar’s contribution urges us to revisit the economic and design contexts that gave rise to Georgian London. Her discussion of the role of classicism within that architectural culture encourages us to look at the Georgian city in its vernacular context. Ayres’s reminds us that, despite the historically high visibility of academic influences on the fabric of the Georgian city, buildings were more often the dynamic synthesis of individual practice and the conventions and economics of the building trades. Together, The Birth of Modern London and Building the Georgian City invite us to revisit the ways in which we think about the forces that sculpted the contours of the eighteenth-century urban world.

Bernard Herman
University of Delaware.

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.