Ever wondered about the fetching frog-green illustration hanging along the western wall of Guildhall Library? It is in fact a reproduction of the greater part of a view of the City of London from the south side of the river at Southwark. The original of The South Prospect of the City of London, created by an anonymous artist around 1720, is in the print collection formerly at Guildhall Library and now part of the graphic collections at London Metropolitan Archives.
The available wall space only allows us to reproduce the area on the north bank of the Thames: the north end of London Bridge is just visible, but the river itself has disappeared. Part of the view is behind the computers dedicated to electronic resources and the City of London Libraries catalogue: the Thames, were it reproduced, would flow just beneath the keyboards.
St Paul’s Cathedral dominates the skyline with the sister spires and towers of the City churches, and this head-on view from the south bank has a direct impact far from the glittering obliquity of Canaletto’s slightly later paintings of the City from further upriver. The Cathedral represented here is strangely proportioned: the east end is (incorrectly) gabled; an apse is only cursorily suggested by a few strokes; the south transept projects but the sculpted pediment and the south portico are hardly visible.
The towers at the west end are not as built; in fact they are hardly towers at all. What we see can be read horizontally in terms of the two orders, one superimposed on the other, but the stages of the south-west tower do not read vertically above the main cornice. It almost looks as if a pair of exotic pepper pots have been dropped at random on the west end of the Cathedral: possibly they relate to an earlier stage of Wren’s design copied from another engraving. In reality among the City churches only the tower of St Mary-le-Bow is comparable in scale to the grandeur of the Cathedral’s west towers.
To the west of the South Prospect, the spire of St Bride Fleet Street appears slightly attenuated, though the tiers of the ‘wedding cake’ are recognisable. In the east, the Monument makes a clear mark of exclamation. St Michael Crooked Lane should be in three circular stages, but appears here with a regular spire, and St Andrew Holborn, just to the east of St Bride Fleet Street, lacks the urns at its pinnacle.
By way of consolation we can see a number of the Wren churches that have subsequently been demolished: All Hallows Bread Street, St Michael Queenhithe, St Antholin Watling Street, and St Dionis Backchurch, to name but a few.