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London: Portrait of a City

Go on a photographic journey through London's history and fall in love with the city all over again

While the country squeezes the last bit of use out of its union jack car air-fresheners and clown wigs, be grateful to German publishers Taschen for producing one bit of patriotic memorabilia that will outlive Olympic-mania. As part of its Portrait of a City Art Edition series, London: Portrait of a City is one of the hottest photography books out this year; and since Paul Smith has designed a limited run of 500 fabric covers, it just got a whole lot more exciting. Each edition is signed and cased in a limited edition, clamshell box.

In its narrative of pictures, taken by the very best photographers of all time, the book is an education on the composite structure of this mad, bad, beaten and dirty old town. Broken into chronological chapters, the temptation is to cut straight to the 1960s with its portraits by Bill Brandt of Francis Bacon on Primrose Hill or the first images of that Brutalist masterpiece, the Hayward gallery. After that ensues the high-glamour juxtaposed with the punk movements of the seventies and eighties, followed by Wolfgang Tillman’s images of Ebenezer and his pals having a gay old time in Soho.

But the interesting thing here is the equally mad impression created of Victorian life, too: drunks propping up mahogany bars with brass fittings, street artists with performing cats, Edgar Scamell’s portraits of the starving homeless and blissed out opium takers hanging out down the docks. All conveniently ignored by the clientele of the Great Exhibition and its Crystal Palace of course, which, as a temporary fixture that cost tax payers a sizeable sum of money, was the nineteenth century equivalent of this here Olympic site.

Not much has changed, is the interesting message told between the 18th century map on the book’s inside front cover and Sohei Nishino’s devastating photo map at the end. St. Paul’s stands in the background of a thousand portraits, all under a hue of the city’s signature brown fog. The Profumo Affair embroiling Christine Keeler (famously captured by Lewis Morley) is replaced by Leveson and kids getting on it for the Queen’s coronation grow old to prop up the cake-stand at the Golden Jubilee Street Party. Yet somewhere in all of that is a message that is well worth the book’s considerable weight in paper: here is a place that has shaped the course of history and continues to be the one of the most exciting cities around.

Seldom sunny, often wry, this air-brush-free portrait of our troubled old friend London is one that we implore you - occupants of her nether regions and beyond - to snap-up and keep hold of forever.

'London: Portrait of a City' (Taschen) is out now