King's College London
Exhibitions & Conferences
Stories of Strand-Aldwych

Sir John Gilbert, A scene on the Strand

`Sir John Gilbert, A scene on the Strand. [1]`Sir John Gilbert, A scene on the Strand. [1]

This sketch titled ‘A Scene on the Strand, London, 20th November 1873’ was produced by Sir John Gilbert RA, a well-known Victorian illustrator and engraver. Gilbert, like the Hammersmith-born Maury, was also a native Londoner, born in Blackheath in 1817. In the annotated sketch “a little thin, tall, staring creature” is seen “fascinated with the golden glitter in a jeweller’s window” on the Strand. This scene is at its heart about wealth the moral complexity of wealth disparity. The “creature” knelt down on the ground is entirely “absorbed in wonder” by the sight of the glittering jewels before him, no doubt very far removed from the sorts of objects he may encounter in daily life. The jewels are just centimetres away, the glass window representing an impenetrable barrier between his world and the next. Visible yet entirely intangible. The woman who walks past, notices the kneeling man and is “filled with compassion” for his plight and yet seems lacking intent or ability to do anything to help. Due to various forces, the site of such extreme poverty is now rare on the Strand, and in central London more generally. The image therefore presents a moral challenge which, thanks to the obscuration of modern poverty, is quite unfamiliar to modern visitors to central Londoner.

Gilbert’s sketch gives us a window into the great variety of lives led in Victorian London. It also shows the Strand in a now unrecognisable manner. There is no little indication of the chaos of Maury’s Strand, instead we are shown the busy commercial and social centre the Strand used to be. We may extrapolate and imagine the street bustling with ambulant shoppers of various social strata, browsing the wares of the many different shops. Of course, there would have been horse and coach traffic to contend with, but this feels somehow less threatening than the prospect of a stream of double decker buses. Whilst some shops do remain at the western end of the Strand, the idea of it a commercial centre is certainly long lost. Gilbert’s image then gives another chapter in the life of the Strand. One which, like the man kneeling outside the jeweller’s window, we may observe but will always intangible and foreign in relation to our present reality.


 

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