LONDON by John Russell


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 An elegantly idiosyncratic, leisurely and--at its most successful--revealing stroll through London's highways and byways that transcends the coffee-table genre. A long-time art critic for the the New York Times, British- born Russell is an erudite guide to the city he made his home for over 50 years (if one at times rather too fond of the sound of his own voice). He takes the reader on a wholly personal, unsystematic, yet surprisingly thorough ramble through London's long history and its labyrinthine social topographies as well as its protean physical aspect. Though he occasionally lapses into travelogue bromides (``there is no better school of life than the streets of a great city''), more often Russell succeeds in finding neglected perspectives that help us reimagine a city made overfamiliar by mass tourism and media: a history of London's 19th-century salon culture, an explanation of what goes on behind the closed doors of the city through a history of its architecture, and, throughout, a refreshing emphasis on London as the living and working home of millions of ordinary folk rather than a picturesque museum. Having come to know the city in its imperial twilight, Russell does sometimes fall prey to nostalgic Edwardianisms (for instance, in his rose-tinted and pompous descriptions of Parliament); but at his best he combines the historian's long view, the aesthete's appreciative gaze, and the social critic's inquiring eye to paint a bracingly complex picture of a city whose heritage continues to evolve--such as his account of the Docklands transformation from commercial and imperial hub to the sometimes combustible social laboratory of the new London. At its unstuffy best, Russell's ``tour'' is brought to vivid life by his unfailingly apposite selection of paintings, engravings, architects' drawings and photographs, in general excellently reproduced (though on occasion large-scale images have been reduced beyond comfortable scrutiny). Russell for the most part offers the armchair traveler and the inquiring mind alike five-star service. (183 illustrations, 86 in color) (Book-of-the-Month Club dividend selection)

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 1994
ISBN: 0-8109-3570-8
Page count: 256pp
Publisher: Abrams
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15th, 1994