Victorian London was the largest, most fashionable, and most prosperous city in the world. A vibrant and flourishing place it was the hub of commerce from around the Empire the streets of which it was said were paved with gold. But it had a dark and sinister underbelly.
Whereas the residents of the West End luxuriated in their wealth, attended their clubs, visited the theatre, and were waited upon by servants within walking distance of the peacock pomposity of gilded grandiloquence lay the East End a violent place of filth, squalor, starvation, and degradation. A place in the popular Victorian imagination of beggars, drunkards, opium addicts, prostitutes, and thieves. Somewhere best forgotten about let alone visited.
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 – 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 imagination: