The best books about London of 2017

Robert Bevan
Animal magic: Allegro Strepitoso, 1932, by Carel Weight, from London in the Company of Painters by Richard Blandford: Tate/Tate Images

In East End Vernacular: Artists Who Painted London’s East End Streets in the 20th Century (Spitalfields Life Books, £20, Buy it now) edited by The Gentle Author, Spitalfields’ gentle blogger broadens David Buckman’s earlier book on the East London Group of largely working-class, topographic painters of the Twenties and Thirties to cover painters up to the present.

Many of the originals earned a crust as commercial artists or other more humble trades. Elwin Hawthorne began painting on cleaning cloths but after a spree of success ended up using one of his paintings as a shelf in a coal bunker, while Grace Oscroft was an assistant in a Bow bicycle shop. A few works are joyful but most are devoid of people, lending a melancholy to the recording of vanishing streets and communities.

London in the Company of Painters (Laurence King, £26, Buy it now) by Richard Blandford is an entertaining if random sweep across the entire city, dabbing here and there from the 17th century onwards, that manages to encompass both Whistler classics and Rut Blees Luxemburg’s London Dust (a 2012 photograph rather than a painting).

London: Prints & Drawings before 1800 (Bodleian Library/London Topographical Society, £27, Buy it now) by Bernard Nurse focuses on the art of the printer in pre-industrial London via the splendid holdings of the Gough Collection at Oxford University. Alongside well-known depictions of the Thames and the City are lesser-known details of London suburbs. Together these books provide just a fragment of the riches flowing from a continued fascination with London’s topography.

At a time when all council estates are demonised ahead of social cleansing, Cook’s Camden: The Making of Modern Housing (Lund Humphries, £36, Buy it now) by Mark Swenarton, with beautiful photographs by Tim Crocker and Martin Charles, is a powerful reminder of how successful the modernist project could be in the right hands.

Post-Modern Buildings in Britain (Batsford/Twentieth Century Society, £18, Buy it now) by Geraint Franklin and Elain Harwood shows how postmodernist design is also being re-evaluated, and this stylishly written round-up by Historic England historians demonstrates how prominent London was in providing this sometimes problematic, if inventive, alternative to modernism. The splashy architecture has its own appeal but, even with a measure of critical distance, often feels superficial when compared with Camden’s concrete poetry.

Far from being terra nullius, some 5,000 people worked in and around the 2012 Olympic site before the Games came to town. Dispersal: Picturing Urban Change in East London (Historic England, £30, Buy it now) by Marion Davies, Juliet Davis and Debra Rapp demonstrates how a complex creative and industrial ecology was displaced via compulsory purchase. Before that happened, the authors took photos and interviewed businesses, from glassmakers to kebab assemblers, and then set out to find out what had happened to them since; too many have not survived their relocation. Though drily-written, the book still offers lively portraits of a slice of manufacturing London that once gave Britain its first petrol, plastics and dry cleaning.

Soho: The Heart of Bohemian London by Peter Speiser, Camden Town: Dreams of Another London by Tom Bolton and Bloomsbury: Beyond the Establishment by Matthew Ingleby (British Library, £10, Buy it now) make up a trio of fast and furious historical tours of London neighbourhoods, each with their slants, strengths and weaknesses. The Camden volume has too many doubtful facts and clichés and Bloomsbury concentrates on the literati at the expense of a physical experience of the streets but all are readable introductions if rather less authoritative than one would expect from the British Library.

Heading towards 1,000 pages, South-East Marylebone Part I & II (Survey of London, £135, Buy it now) make up volumes 51 and 52 of the Survey series that has been steadily recording London’s architectural history parish by parish since 1894. These two cover a chunk of the historic West End in unrivalled detail following years of rigorous research. The gargantuan project was threatened after English Heritage ditched it but survives at UCL. Coverage of the entire city, however, remains an architectural historian’s pipedream.

Iain Sinclair’s dreamy meanderings have been poking a sharp stick into London’s overlooked corners for decades and he returns again and again to his home neighbourhood of London Fields and its cast of characters from the homeless to film-makers. The Last London: True Fictions from an Unreal City (Oneworld, £15, Buy it now) is a lament for what is being lost in the homogenised and gentrified global city.

Its title is a nod to Derek Jarman’s film The Last of England but could as easily refer directly to Ford Madox Brown’s painting of emigrants exiled from their own city. Here though, Sinclair’s circling obsessiveness and drifting style too often become Victor Meldrewish rants about mobile phone users, bearded hipsters and canalside cyclists, rather than drawing you into his esoteric and archaeological world.

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