Before the London fire, 1666

Corner of Hosier Lane, West Smithfield – Drawn April 1795 (spitalfieldslife.com)

An engraver by trade, John Thomas Smith trod this earth two centuries ago (1766-1833), and was also known as “Antiquity Smith.” He etched buildings in London that had survived the Great Fire of 1666, many of which were being demolished in his own time. Some of these etchings were collected five years ago in a post by “the gentle author,” whose real name I could not find on his blog, called “Spitalfields Life,” after the famous district in London’s East End (the nobs lived in the West End). These drawings are from his post “John Thomas Smith’s Ancient Topography.”

This is a second part of my series on architectural drafting, which began with a post on drawings by Phiz that illustrated Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop. I think it more likely that this post on Smith features images performed with drafting tools. Those of Phiz – surely not. These of Smith – maybe not. The rapid disappearance of drafting tools from commercial availability was the idea that sparked this series. But let us carry on anyhow.

In the following passage, Smith’s work is introduced to readers by the gentle author – whose blog’s motto is “In the midst of life I woke to find myself living in an old house beside Brick Lane in the East End of London.” Here is that passage:

Two centuries ago, John Thomas Smith set out to record the last vestiges of ancient London that survived from before the Great Fire of 1666 but which were vanishing in his lifetime. You can click on any of these images to enlarge them and study the tender human detail that Smith recorded in these splendid etchings he made from his own drawings. My passion for John Thomas Smith’s work was first ignited by his portraits of raffish street sellers published as Vagabondiana and I was delighted to spot several of those familiar characters included here in these vivid streets scenes of London long ago.

And here are some of those street scenes:

About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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10 Responses to Before the London fire, 1666

  1. Pingback: Angst and online drafting tools | Architecture Here and There

  2. Pingback: A draftsman in watercolor? | Architecture Here and There

  3. artandarchitecturemainly says:

    The amount of detail that John Smith recorded in these heroic etchings shows moving walls and slipping roof lines, even before the terrible fire damage happened in 1666. Was he being literal, or was he predicting the damage about to come?

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    • I cannot imagine, Art&Arch, that he could foretell the future fire, so I imagine he was cataloging the essential vulnerability of buildings generally to gravity and time. But recall that these buildings were mostly 150 yearrs old when he drew them, since he worked in the late 1700s and early 1800s and his subjects (at least herein) were some century and a half old by then. The buildings probably looked much more spry when they were built.

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  4. LazyReader says:

    Ahh the innocent times before we figured out wood was flammable.
    In acuality In Japan, wood is a chief building material.
    Yakisugi or charring, scorched wood surface (burn timber clad) kep i insect proof, mold resistant and less prone to fire.

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    • Interesting, Lazy. In Providence RISD has just built a dormitory of wood whose surface is treated so that it does not look like wood. What idiots! Of course it has received drooling publicity in the architectural press. Are wood buildings now that rare?

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  5. Craig Coonrod says:

    Hi David, enjoyed the engravings. Is there a collection(site) that one could go to see more? Thank you. Craig

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    • You’re welcome, Craig. There is a link to the gentle author’s post on Smith at the end of my post’s first paragraph. I used most of his work from that post, but at his post you can click to further enlarge the drawings. And there is also a link to some of his drawings of street people – vagabonds – toward the end of the quoted paragraph from Smith, which is called “Vagabondia.” Very interesting stuff. I’m sure more can be found with a web search.

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  6. Daniel Morales says:

    Just gorgeous! Thanks.

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