Victorian London was the largest, most fashionable, and most prosperous city in the world; vibrant and flourishing it was the hub of commerce from around the globe the streets of which it was said were paved with gold – but it had a dark and sinister underbelly.
Within walking distance of the gilded grandiloquence and peacock pomposity of the West End where the rich attended upon by servants relaxed in their clubs, frequented concerts, and visited the theatre lay the East End a place of squalor and degradation, of filth and violence populated by drunkards, beggars, thieves, prostitutes, and opium addicts. A tarnished mirror reflection loathsome to the Victorian imagination best forgotten and best left alone.
One man thought otherwise and was determined to frequent its cramped streets, its dark alleys, its illicit dens of sin and vice and to record what he saw, though he did so dressed in rough working man’s clothes and under police escort. He was the French artist and engraver, Gustave Dore.
The result of Dore’s excursions into the lesser known London was his book of 180 images and engravings titled London: A Pilgrimage (1872). It was to prove a commercial success but it was not to be without criticism: why did Dore focus so much on poverty? Was it the natural antipathy a Frenchman towards the English? He was accused of not depicting what he saw but scenes from his own clearly disturbed mind but already a successful and well-established artist Dore could ride rough-shod over any criticism. He was good at what he did, his illustrations always sold well and he had been offered a £10,000 advance to record his perceptions of the world’s greatest city, any complaints could only add to his lustre.
But Dore visited the East End at his peril, or so he thought, and as a result he rented a covered carriage and hired a police inspector familiar with the tenements and vice dens of the city as a guide and to provide security. Yet even now working at night and disguised as a working man (though the artist’s materials and sketch pad may have indicated otherwise) he rarely remained long drawing quick outlines and sketches by lamplight before disappearing back into the darkness to complete the work in his studio.
London: A Pilgrimage proved a bestseller particularly on the Continent exposing as it did the other side of Empire and Victorian self-satisfaction.
Gustave Dore, a popular but always controversial artist died in Paris on 23 January, 1883, aged 51.