Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

The Spirit of London, by Paul Cohen-Portheim

9781849940283This book was first published in 1935, and has been re-published in its lovely Batsford Brian Cook dust-wrapper. I’ve had it for over a year now; it was a welcome Christmas present, especially for someone like me who enjoys vintage reads.

Paul Cohen-Portheim, painter and writer, was born in Austria and was a visitor to England at the start of the First World War, painting in Devon – when he was of course interned for the duration. Once free again, he settled in his beloved London, bearing no grudge. He wrote a small number of books about life in England, of which this is the only one I’ve read, and completed this one just before he died.

I have recently returned to this book after a couple of years of setting out consciously to explore London. I’ve lived within easy range of it now for about 40 years, and have constantly been going there for a purpose. However, recently (thank you, bus pass) I have been taking time to look around me, and it occurred to me, not how much London had changed since this book was written (though it has), but how much of what it describes can still be seen. Although London was still growing in the thirties, and grew some more, the shape of the greater city that we see today was already there.

The author not being a native of England can bring a fresh eye to things that I take for granted. His chapters describe the street scene in London, and how it differs in the smaller segments that make it up. He traces the bones of the medieval city in the current layout of the City of London; and although he was writing of a time when the skyscape was dominated by Wren’s post-Fire churches (including those not lost in the Blitz), that street-plan pretty well persists to this day. The Gherkin, the Cheesegrater and the Walkie-talkie may have risen up to dwarf the remaining towers and spires, but their footprints still fit within this essentially medieval street-map. And when I stand on the South Bank, outside Tate Modern, I am astonished to note how enormous St Paul’s is, and how well it holds its own in scale with these new monster buildings.

Cohen-Portheim was writing in the thirties, and that is the period when a lot of what we see in London crystallised. The buildings of the Strand, Piccadilly, Regent Street and Whitehall were still relatively new and fresh. He wrote with some wonder of the spreading suburbs, unconstrained at that time by the Green Belt, which made London appear as though it could spread its two-storey, one-family homes forever. He brings a European opinion to this, so completely opposite to the received idea, that these dwellings were little slices of heaven, in comparison with the high-rise, concentrated, cheek-by-jowl living in European cities. This he puts down to the fact that London spilled out of it surrounding defences centuries ago, and once the likes of Westminster and Southwark started to grow, there was no mental constraint on continuing to spread. So, instead of the usual dirge for the tedium of the suburbs, this is a paean of praise for them.

Further chapters describe the major buildings and landmarks, the astonishing wealth of parks and green space, the shopping quarters (have the smelling salts ready for an analysis based on gender and class assumptions of the time – but still with that slightly ironic, non-native perception of it), London as a centre of art and culture (as a painter, it is the visual arts that excites him most). He does discriminate, and pronounces one building of high, another of not so high quality, but he is looking for the strength and beauty of all ages of architecture, pouring judicious praise on the latest buildings to appear, such as the magisterial Shell Building in the Strand, but with a passing regret for the older buildings swept away for or dwarfed by them. He describes the street-life of the city, and this is where there is a real difference: the major events that bring throngs onto the streets still persist, such is the strength of ceremonial tradition. The Lord Mayor’s Show, the State Opening of Parliament, the Changing of the Guard – these are set in aspic. But the popular parades, and the gathering places such as Trafalgar Square and Marble Arch – these do not have the same presence. His perception of the make-up of London’s visiting population is now very much the period piece – no longer can one be certain that the the Strand attracts visitors from the Dominions – but that is all part of its vintage charm.

The book is republished with the Batsford imprint, its branding complete – the high quality cloth binding, the heavy cream paper, the spacious typesetting, the supremely elegant Brian Cook dust-wrapper. It has one or two real eye-snagging typos – I wonder if they are new, or whether, in a spirit of homage they are carried over from the original? Hmmm. The text is not the most elegant writing, but is enjoyable for its insights from a resident outsider and its snapshot of pre-war London, in which an aerial shot of the Crystal Palace is still bang up-to-date. Which brings me to the illustrations, which are copious – moody, well-chosen black and white photographs (naturally), not afraid to include people as well as landmarks, and all adding up to a portrait of a lively, living city. This is a period piece, but what has surprised and charmed me is the extent to which I might still be able to carry it round with me as a guide book, particularly in the West End. Complete with a new Foreword by Simon Jenkins, and the original, rambunctious introduction by Raymond Mortimer, this is well worth a look for anyone who enjoys London’s dubious charms.

Paul Cohen-Portheim: The Spirit of London. London, B. T. Batsford Ltd., 1935. Reissued 2011. 116pp + photos.
ISBN: 9781849940283

4 comments on “The Spirit of London, by Paul Cohen-Portheim

  1. heavenali
    March 14, 2014

    Sounds interesting I like the idea of London in the 1930’s, and I really love that vintage style cover.

  2. Jackie
    March 14, 2014

    This sounds like a lovely book(barring the period prejudices) and I’m hoping to find it over here. I’m pleasantly surprised that so much of what he describes remains today. Wonder if that’s even possible in most American cities?
    That cover is very eye-catching and very nicely done!

  3. rosyb
    March 15, 2014

    I love the cover too! Publishers, take note :)

    Perhaps for someone not so familiar with London as you, Hilary, it would offer less. But such an equivalent book for my home city would be an interesting read.

  4. Conor
    March 18, 2014

    I greatly enjoyed your piece on ‘The Spirit of London’, which brought it vividly to life. I collect (and sell) these Batsford books on the British landscape and buildings with the beautiful Brian Cook dustwrappers, and they mostly make marvellous reading. As for Commonwealth visitors not using the Strand, I can assure you it was thronged with them when I drove down it one Sunday evening last year. I suspect many were members of the LSE and Kings College there. I’d recommend Ian Nairn’s thrillingly written book ‘Nairn’s London’. Do write some more like this!

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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