One city, two drawings, 400 years

A drawing of present-day London updating Visscher’s 17th century panorama presents a fascinating insight into the city

Visscher's panorama of London four hundred years on.
Visscher's panorama of London four hundred years on. · Credit: London Metropolitan Archives

Visscher Redrawn at the Guildhall Art Gallery is completely engrossing. The idea is a corker – to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Claes Jansz Visscher’s important panorama of London, the gallery commissioned artist Robin Reynolds to create a new panorama giving the same view from the South Bank across the river and over the city. The two are displayed side by side for easy comparison.

They are both fascinating, especially if you’re a Londoner, not only for what they depict but for the virtuosity they entail. Reynolds spent two years on his contemporary panorama, executed in pen and ink.

Visscher’s 6.6ft wide depiction of the city is regarded as the most important visual record of London before much of it was destroyed by the 1666 Great Fire half a century later. It’s likely that the artist didn’t actually visit the capital but relied on earlier works as source material for his engraving. Either way the result is compelling in its detail – a fairly low-rise city of densely packed buildings, the skyline punctuated by many spires and landmarks such as the old St Paul’s Cathedral and London Bridge, and the Tower of London. The relatively diminutive size of the city in the 17th century, which soon turns to fields beyond the City walls, is apparent. A game of spot the familiar surviving landmark is quite a challenge beyond the Tower, the Globe and Southwark Cathedral. The latter’s site (then St Mary Overie) was possibly the location for the original viewpoint of the North Bank, reckons Reynolds.

The viewer is immediately struck by the presence of the many boats and ships with their billowing sails and the industriousness of the river in comparison with the empty expanse of the (now narrower) Thames in Reynolds’ drawing. Nowadays, however, the same stretch of river has seven bridges compared with the one in Visscher’s day, underlining the critical importance of Tower Bridge in the 17th century.

Both have meticulous detail – from the severed heads displayed on sticks at Bridgegate like grisly lollipops in Visscher’s picture to the graffiti at the side of the railway tracks in the later work. Reynolds himself can be spotted on the top of Southwark Cathedral tower.

So how did Reynolds go about creating the modern day panorama? He says Google Street View was a huge assistance in addition to the many photographs he took for reference, while trips up The Shard were also informative. As he researched the project, he got to know the quirks of the original, which elevated the churches and St Paul’s Cathedral in particular and gave a slight fisheye effect to the centre of the picture. Likewise, Reynolds too allowed himself some licence to show more of the Gherkin than is strictly visible from his chosen viewpoint, and raised the Guildhall slightly to make it visible.

Visscher Redrawn by Robin Reynolds. With a lot more bridges.
Visscher Redrawn by Robin Reynolds. With a lot more bridges.

Though up-to-date in its depiction of the buildings – including for example the extension to the Tate Modern – the 21st century drawing is fairly lacking in people and cars, quite deliberately. Instead, Reynolds restricts these mainly to a few references to figures in the original, such as a barrowman pushing a cart across a road, and to references to 41 of Shakespeare’s works in commemoration of the 400th anniversary of his death.

But the main event in Reynolds’ picture is the skyline itself, dominated by the plethora of recent skyscrapers and the many cranes in the process of building still more. While we all know they’re there and may catch sight of them many times a day going about our business in London, seeing their full impact on the skyline in this panorama is still rather arresting. The Tower of London, one of the few buildings featured in both pictures, will surely outlast them all.

Visscher Redrawn, until 20 November 2016, Guildhall Art Gallery, Guildhall Yard, London, EC2V 5AE