Neil Rhind, Julian Watson and Peter Kent
Blackheath Society, 2013
I’ve been waiting for this book for what seems like ever. Ever since I heard about a ‘lost’ panorama of 18th Century Greenwich’s ‘ordinary’ buildings I’ve been desperate to see what messrs. Rhind, Watson and Kent would do with it. I didn’t pester. No. Not at all…
It has been a long time coming – logistical issues, and a backlog of the authors’ various other books meant this one kept going on the back burner. But then this year has shown me a few things about back burners too…
The importance of the discovery of a bunch of photocopies of a then unknown ‘townscape’ in 2006 wasn’t immediately obvious. It had sat, unlabelled, in Wiltshire’s County Records Office. The originals were in a collection at Wilton House – not the obvious place to look for panoramas of Greenwich, especially if you didn’t know they existed.
I’ll leave the story of how it was found, what it was doing in Wiltshire and why the Earl of Pembroke might want a bunch of, to be honest, rather sketchy drawings of a town in Kent to the book, which takes the reader through it all step by step, answering questions logically and without the hysteria I probably would have plunged into had I been the Phantom to have made this particular discovery.
No – it’s not definitely Hawksmoor’s work – no one can be definite about these things. But the authors put up a spirited argument for his having a hand in it – after all, he was Clerk of Works at Greenwich and he did make other plans of the town.
Whether or not it is in Hawksmoor’s hand is, frankly though, less exciting than what the drawings actually represent. All the main buildings of Greenwich in the early 18th Century, even down to the humbler dwellings that no one usually bothers to record.
If you check the drawings against the buildings that still stand it’s clear the images are pretty accurate, so it’s worth taking a punt that the sketches of ones we’ve lost are also correct. They’re not works of art – they’re just quick line drawings for record purposes – but they’re better than nothing which is what we had before.
So – back to the book. What the authors have done is take each section of the panorama and study it in detail. Peter Kent has created then-and-now drawings in his inimitable style (there’s never going to be any question about HIS work in the future…) so it’s easy to see what was where and Neil Rhind and Julian Watson have filled in the historical details, and added photographs. To be honest some of the photos don’t really have much connection with the drawings save to create context but that’s hardly surprising. The whole point of this discovery is that something has been found where before there was nothing.
It’s written in the detailed, accurate yet easy-on-the-eye style that historians have come to expect from these three Greenwich heavy-hitters. I gobbled it up in an evening, but it still sits on the Phantom coffee table for repeated dips.
An important book in the local history armoury – not so much recommended as required.