To walk the streets of London, seventeenth- and eighteenth-century authors cautioned, was a potentially overwhelming experience. In his History of the Royal Society, Thomas Sprat both praised it as ‘a City, where all the noises and business in the World do meet’ and warned of the confusing babel of languages, gestures, and interactions (1667: 87, 424–5). Fifty years later, two anonymous letters published in The Spectator averred that the daily visual and aural onslaught needed to be regulated. The first writer suggested an attempt to orchestrate the city’s perpetually clashing sounds. From the ‘twancking of a Brass Kettle’ to the cries of ‘itinerant Tradesmen’, London appeared ‘a distracted City to Foreigners’ — ’distracted’ because of the disorderly noises that turned a visitor’s attention one way and another. The second writer worried about the equally confusing profusion of signs lining the streets. One hardly knew where to look, the writer implied. These ‘Objects, that are every where thrusting themselves out to the Eye, and endeavouring to become visible’, competed for attention with every glance and turn of the head (Bond 1965: vol. 1, 116).

There was seemingly no way to comprehend and so navigate such visual, aural, and social confusion. As the well-educated readers of Sprat’s volume and The Spectator knew, humans were inherently and perpetually vulnerable to being confused by their surroundings. Scientists and philosophers repeatedly warned their readers of the limits of human comprehension. Robert Hooke, a member of the Royal Society, opened his Micrographia of 1665 with the assertion that instruments were essential to correct fallible human senses (2007: a1r–a2v). Three decades later, John Locke wrote his Essay Concerning Human Understanding to counteract the confused suspicion ‘that […] there is no such thing as truth at all.’ He sought, he claimed, to ascertain the boundaries between dependable knowledge and contradictory arrays of opinions (2004: 56).

The buildings that lined London’s streets and that filled the city’s suburbs could arguably provide some order to — and some reprieve from — these overwhelming sensory and social experiences. Façades, for instance, restrained body, eye, and mind to particular vistas along streets. Yet this restraint dissolved easily, as the viewer moved slightly to right or left, forwards or backwards to produce infinite variations of these vistas. Late seventeenth-century architects, from Sir Christopher Wren to Sir Roger Pratt, worried explicitly about how to control this profusion of changeable observations. Wren averred that a design pleasingly ordered on a drawing or a model might appear disordered when built, ‘because a Model is seen from other Stations and Distances than the Eye sees the Building’ (Soo 1998: 155). Above all else, an architect had to be skilled in perspective to assure that the building once constructed would look well designed ‘in all the principal Views’ (Soo 1998: 155). Pratt foreshadowed the Spectator letter writers when he described methods for evaluating buildings so that they would not exceed the capacity of the eye (Pratt Coll. MS. A, 27v-28r, MS. D, 27r; Gunther 1928: 35, 245). Across arguments concerning building design, descriptions of London street life, and philosophical discussions dealing with human perception, there was widespread debate about how to find an order that would avert impending confusion in a potentially overwhelming environment.

Precisely this emphasis on ordering the confusing whirl of experience lies at the root of three new books examining early modern London: Christine Stevenson’s The City and the King, Elizabeth McKellar’s Landscapes of London, and Dana Arnold’s The Spaces of the Hospital. Each author examines an area of urban tension and the corresponding architectural responses that offered Londoners new opportunities to comprehend and navigate their world. Stevenson confronts the post-Restoration conflict between the Crown and the City of London under Charles II, from his return in 1660 to the monarchy’s assumption of unchallenged authority in 1683. This political struggle was longstanding, but it intensified during the reign of Charles II, who reinstated royal authority after two decades of monarchical absence. Where Stevenson focuses on political tensions in the heart of the capital, McKellar turns to a social history of the suburbs. Such ambiguous areas between the urban and rural were inhabited by the ‘middling sort’, who ranged from wealthy professionals to small tradesmen. Increased building in the suburbs during the late-seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, McKellar argues, emphasized the ‘in-between’ physical and social nature of this zone (xv). Arnold, too, asserts that the late-seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were marked by social unpredictability. Her study on the expansion of hospital building examines the ways in which a specific building type served to negotiate these anxieties. By containing social outcasts — namely prostitutes and the insane — the hospital confined and controlled individuals who could disrupt well-established social expectations.

From the first pages of her beautifully designed The City and the King, Christine Stevenson focuses on the ways in which early modern Londoners sought to make their city comprehensible. Her introduction stresses two particular questions: first, how buildings conveyed meaning, and second, why patrons felt the need to build at certain times. The first two chapters then set out the broad cultural context for these questions, studying especially how mid-seventeenth-century Londoners would have expected meaning to be conveyed through architecture. Chapter 1 surveys a wide range of themes, from the status of the architect to parallels between buildings and other meaning-laden symbols, including emblems. Chapter 2 examines two areas of pre-Restoration London, Cheapside and the precinct of St. Paul’s, to underline issues key to later chapters. For instance, Stevenson discusses royal progresses along Cheapside to explore how buildings gained political associations through subsequent use — a foreshadowing of Charles II’s royal entries. Following this introductory analysis, Chapters 3 to 9 offer a chronological narrative of tense City-Crown interactions from 1660 to the early 1680s, using a sequence of case studies. Chapter 3 explains the political significance of Charles II’s 1660 and 1661 entries via an interdisciplinary range of sources and themes, including the texts describing his entries, the use of Classicism to represent civic identity across London’s gates, and the locations chosen to display the heads of Charles I’s executioners. In Chapter 4, Stevenson focuses on Charles II’s coronation entry in 1661, specifically the temporary arches created for this event, the concern of those designing the entry with the varying abilities of different viewers to comprehend underlying meanings, and the political unrest reflected in the commemorative texts describing the entry. The author then turns to the Great Fire and the subsequent rebuilding of London. Chapter 5 probes contemporary descriptions of the partially destroyed city as well as the plans to redesign it. Chapter 6 highlights four structures — Temple Bar, Ludgate, the Royal Exchange, and Guildhall Yard — rebuilt amidst concern over Charles II’s profligacy and his conversion to Catholicism. In Chapter 7, Stevenson shifts from architecture to other media, encompassing royal equestrian sculpture and goldsmith work, to elucidate the political tensions of the 1670s and so to provide the context for the buildings discussed in the following chapters. Chapter 8 considers Robert Hooke’s Monument designed to commemorate the Great Fire, which Stevenson interprets in light of political uncertainties during the 1660s and Hooke’s ideas of memory. This chapter also analyzes his Bethlem Hospital alongside philosophical and political attitudes toward insanity. With Chapter 9, Stevenson reveals the impact of tensions between the City and the Crown on religious architecture and furnishings, including the rebuilt City Churches and Wren’s St. Paul’s. In her final chapter, she steps back to examine the symbolism of London as a whole; she probes texts describing the experience of viewing London from tall buildings, before closing on the Crown’s assumption of authority over the City in 1683.

By offering a rich cultural and architectural narrative of these two decades of political struggle, Stevenson adds unprecedented historical texture to often austere narratives of Restoration architecture. Where historians have frequently focused on important designers like Sir Christopher Wren and Robert Hooke, The City and the King emphasizes other actors — for instance, the Lord Mayors John Robinson and William Turner, whose biographies open Chapters 5 and 6. Where scholars have prioritized large projects such as Whitehall Palace, the Royal Hospital at Chelsea, and St Paul’s, Stevenson includes such transitory and liminal structures as the temporary arches for Charles II’s entries. Moreover, she enriches familiar modes of building history and description with a wealth of new primary sources, from the texts describing Charles II’s entries to the writings of Hooke on memory. As a result, her readers are able to appreciate a broad and nuanced range of architectural responses to the tensions of the Restoration years.

Because of the difficulties inherent in linking often disparate buildings and objects, the connections among Stevenson’s materials can appear murky. Her evocation of how buildings convey meaning — one of the two goals stated in the introduction — is particularly clear in Chapter 4 on Charles II’s coronation entry, when she considers how various triumphal arch designs and their corresponding meanings were available to different audiences. Chapter 7, which interprets the statue of Charles I at Charing Cross in light of his portraits and of other equestrian statues, is likewise very cogent. In Chapter 5, however, one wonders how relevant the career of Lord Mayor John Robinson is to descriptions of burned-out London and its reconstruction. One might similarly ask how, in Chapter 6, the two City gates are connected to the Royal Exchange and Guildhall Yard as examples of the tensions between City and Crown. To some extent this drawback is unavoidable; attempts to make tighter and clearer connections could also potentially diminish the rich cultural context that Stevenson attempts to evoke. If the discussion had been tied repeatedly to a single dominant theme, the issues raised by this volume would have correspondingly narrowed. Freed from such guideposts, Stevenson’s readers can roam through the book, exploring a wide range of issues, from intersections of political and material culture surrounding the ‘Freedom of the City’ given to Charles II in the form of a gold box to intertwined intellectual and architectural debates underpinning the articulation of Hooke’s notions of memory in the Monument. The City and the King remains generously open to an interdisciplinary range of readers and consequently provides a foundation towards more holistic cultural and architectural histories of Restoration England.

Elizabeth McKellar’s Landscapes of London shifts attention from the City center to the suburbs, from political conflicts to social identity, and from a concentrated focus on the Restoration decades to a broad chronological sweep encompassing the late seventeenth century and the early nineteenth. In her handsomely crafted volume, McKellar argues that intensified building in the environs of late seventeenth- and eighteenth-century London foreshadowed both the now-familiar planned suburb and, more importantly, ‘middle-class culture and consumption’ (xiv). Following a preface and introduction setting out her argument, McKellar offers a two-part discussion. The first part surveys visual and textual representations of London as indicators of shifting attitudes toward suburban areas, while the second examines particular case studies in the environs. Chapter 1 describes maps of London, Chapter 2 discusses guidebooks, urban histories and other textual descriptions, and Chapter 3 considers prints of the London countryside — including views from Richmond — alongside textual sources revealing the aesthetic categories with which viewers evaluated the scenes before them. We learn, for instance, how maps allocated ever more space to the environs, how late eighteenth-century guidebooks increasingly stressed leisure and domestic activities when describing these areas, and how the suburbs were interpreted as regional, southern landscapes rather than ‘national’ ones in the context of rising British tourism.

Part 2 begins with Chapters 4 and 5, in which McKellar examines case studies from the first part of her book’s chronological sweep — 1660 to 1790. Chapter 4 focuses on the pleasure gardens and spas of Islington, Hampstead, and Marylebone to reveal how changes in leisure activities, including the increased presence of women, sparked anxiety that social and moral expectations would break down in these ambiguous ‘in-between’ suburban areas. Through close study of archival documents and newspaper advertisements, Chapter 5 surveys innovative housing types constructed in Highgate and discusses the influx of newly wealthy City of London residents. Chapter 6 then offers a sweeping overview of suburban changes during the latter decades of McKellar’s chosen period, 1770 to 1840. Here, McKellar concentrates on the urban, suburban, and rural houses of John White, architect and surveyor to the Duke of Portland, viewing them in a range of contexts that encompass the development of new cuboid houses, the professionalization of the architect, and anxiety about despoliation of the land resulting from suburban building. Chapter 7 concludes her discussion with a detailed examination of John Nash’s Regent’s Park to consider how the developments she has described underpin the more formally planned suburb.

Like Stevenson, McKellar offers her readers an unusually nuanced cultural portrait of early modern London by expanding the narrative of architectural history beyond canonical buildings and architects. Familiar names and structures are even less frequent here than in Stevenson’s book. Uvedale Price, for instance, appears only briefly during her discussion of the Picturesque in Chapter 3, and it is not until the final chapter that one encounters a canonical architect in John Nash. Instead, one learns about repurposed buildings, structures built ad hoc, and the little-known guidebooks and novels which described the uses of suburban spaces. These structures and individuals, furthermore, emerge from a wealth of often unexpected primary sources, including newspaper ads, letters, prints, and even a painted fan commemorating a house-warming. The explanatory captions that accompany McKellar’s numerous illustrations add further details to her portrait, pointing out noteworthy features of a building or offering additional historical details. This emphasis on articulating a cultural and architectural history through little-known structures and people is, in fact, an explicit methodological goal for McKellar. As she explains in the first pages of her book, her interest is ‘landscape’, by which she means a region in its entirety — its layered historical phases, as well as its representation in print and text (xii). She is keen, moreover, to emphasize London’s northern outskirts, which have received little attention in comparison to the southwest and east, and to avoid frequently recited teleological tropes in which ‘suburbanization, urban morphology and cultural plurality’ appear as though predestined (2).

Despite this cultural and historical detail, however, one is left with a question from McKellar’s preface and introduction: what is it about these ambivalent environs with their intensity of buildings, activities, and people that demonstrates middle-class culture and consumption? Admittedly, Landscapes of London is filled with stories of the ‘middling sort’ rather than the gentry and nobility. Chapters 4 and 5 do elucidate specific aspects of middle-class culture in discussing the spaces, activities, and ambiguities of leisure and the domestic sphere. Yet the connection is tenuous elsewhere: how are the various trends — for instance, the professionalization of the architect noted in Chapter 6 — related to the articulation of middle-class culture and consumption? Likewise, how does the detailed analysis of prints and textual descriptions in Part 1 contribute to McKellar’s argument?

Paradoxically, the lack of a consistently unifying argument may be seen as one of the book’s strengths, to the extent that it broadens our understanding of early modern London’s cultural and architectural history. The phrase ‘middle-class culture’ suggests a cohesive social identity defined by a finite list of characteristics, neatly paired with an equally finite set of architectural features. By steering clear of such a tidy argument, McKellar allows her readers to observe the wide range of factors which contributed to buildings and activities in London’s environs — from the professionalization of the architect to anxieties about leisure and luxury. Moreover, Landscapes of London transcends frequently reiterated divisions between ‘high’ architecture and the vernacular, between the work of ‘architects’ and that of builders or developers. Debates about the sublime and picturesque in Part 1, for instance, frame McKellar’s subsequent discussion of little-known buildings transformed ad hoc into new leisure spaces. This book is most successful in its quest to bring the ‘cultural plurality’ of early modern London to the fore. It explores a complex phenomenon: an area, a group of people, and sets of buildings that often fall between traditionally opposed historiographical extremes — city and country, ‘high’ and vernacular architecture, gentlemen and the ‘middling sort’.

Through her briskly argued The Spaces of the Hospital, Dana Arnold bridges similar oppositions across approximately the same period, from 1680 to 1820. Arnold zooms in on a particular building type that, like the London environs, registers social ambiguities. The hospital, she argues, served to contain social outcasts, whose potential threat to established mores required them to be separated from accepted society. Following Foucault explicitly, she asks how the power and authority of the hospital – both a building and a set of processes – instilled accepted patriarchal values, thereby shaping inmates into predictable members of society. Departing from Stevenson and McKellar, Arnold uses this question to open up an issue of architectural theory: how can we add ‘an historical dimension’ to ‘the problematics of space and spatiality’ in architectural writing (xv)? That is, how can Foucauldian notions of structuring space through disciplinary authority add social and historical context to often abstract architectural discussions? To address both her Foucauldian argument and her question about architectural theory, Arnold structures her book thematically rather than chronologically.

After an introductory chapter that surveys changes in the hospital from 1680 to 1820, the remaining chapters isolate particular themes linking hospital, inmates, and urban setting. Chapter 2 employs Foucault’s notion of heterotopia in arguing that the hospital served to destabilize — to invert, neutralize, or mirror — familiar expectations of one’s surroundings. Arnold studies how the Royal Hospital Chelsea and Royal Naval Hospital at Greenwich both imitated London’s existing physical fabric, while offering utopian visions of urban planning. In Chapter 3, she describes the spatial experience of the hospital by pairing a case study of Bethlem with the notion of home, evoked partly through the traditional relationship between occupants and visitors in practices of hospitality. Chapter 4 turns to the metaphorical notion of dirt as an unwanted and destabilizing substance, in order to probe how social outcasts, specifically prostitutes, were contained and ‘reformed’ inside the hospital. With Chapter 5, Arnold shifts her focus to social context, and in particular patronage. The sociologist Marcel Mauss’s arguments about gift-giving are juxtaposed with case studies of the men who supported Guy’s Hospital and the Foundling Hospital to highlight the reciprocity involved in eighteenth-century philanthropy: charity obliges respect and the recognition of power. A final chapter on the Foundling Hospital and St. George’s Hospital reveals ways in which such institutions both shaped and were shaped by their surroundings.

Arnold’s holistic portrait of the hospital — its exterior design, interior spaces, patrons, and relationship to its site — leads to unexpected and creative results. Pairing the metaphorical notion of dirt and the socially liminal position of the prostitute in Chapter 4, for instance, Arnold envisions in detail the separation of visitors and inmates inside the chapel of Magdalen Hospital. Not only did a screen prevent them from seeing each other, but the prostitutes were further hidden behind large straw bonnets that covered their faces. Historians of architecture often describe early modern buildings as though they were emptied of occupants. Arnold, in contrast, has filled her hospitals with a diverse group of users responding to an entire disciplinary regime, including both built structure and clothing.

Although often daring and original, Arnold’s juxtapositions are sometimes confusing and under-explained. In Chapter 2, the author pairs hospital and home on the reasonable basis that the former were frequently located in townhouses, but also on the puzzling one that house and hospital were both of interest to visitors. While houses and hospitals were admittedly alike in this respect, curious travelers would have seen them alongside a variety of sites. By this line of reasoning, the hospital could equally be linked to cathedrals, like the one at Durham noted in the seventeenth-century journal of William Brereton (1844: 82–84). To some readers, moreover, Arnold’s question about ‘the problematics of space and spatiality’ may seem unanswered. Her text tends to wander away from the analysis of spatial experience, and she neither explains these ‘problematics’ nor their relevance to a century without a theorized concept of space. Chapters 3, 4, and 6 — on notions of home, the idea of dirt, and the hospital’s relationship to its site — clearly deal with spatial formation and experience. Chapter 2, on heterotopias, however, oscillates between spatial analysis, façade description, and building history, while Chapter 5, on patronage, concerns the figure of the patron more than the hospital itself. Furthermore, the terms ‘space’ and ‘spatiality’ are anachronistic for the period, having been used in reference to buildings only since the late nineteenth century (Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. ‘space,’ ‘spatiality’). Sources across the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries — from architectural treatises to travel journals — instead often identified specific rooms. Their authors were concerned with particular places rather than ‘space’, which, Arnold implies, stretched from the hospital interior to London streets.

Despite such criticisms, The Spaces of the Hospital is an important work in early modern architectural history, both for its topic and its approach. The hospital is arguably an understudied building type, and Arnold, like Stevenson, addresses both well-known and less familiar works. Wren’s Royal Hospital Chelsea and Royal Naval Hospital at Greenwich, for instance, receive equal attention with Guy’s Hospital and the Magdalen Hospital for Penitent Prostitutes. By devoting each chapter to a different aspect of the hospital, Arnold highlights an unusually wide range of responses to it, encompassing patrons, inmates, visitors, and property owners. Through a variety of interpretive keys and sources — from the metaphorical notion of dirt to Mauss’s theories about gift-giving, from archival documents to William Hogarth’s paintings — she showcases creative modes of analysis that stretch beyond the usual questions and disciplinary boundaries of architectural history.

The shared methodological approaches of the three studies reviewed here — working outside canonical narratives of architectural history and with equal attention to cultural context — reflect broader trends in studies of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century London. While case studies of individual buildings remain a dominant format of architectural analysis, historians have started to turn to less familiar structures and to view them in a more interdisciplinary light. Tom Foxall, for instance, has examined Wren’s Christ’s Hospital Writing School in terms of both contemporaneous notions of charity and more traditional building history (2008; see also Walker 2011). Likewise, Matthew Walker has discussed Robert Hooke’s College of Physicians alongside similar scientific and medical institutions, and Richard Johns has seen in James Thornhill’s frescoes for the dome of St. Paul’s Anglican unease about potential misuses of religious images (Johns 2009; Walker 2013; see also Flinn 2012). Early modern London itself, moreover, has become a topic of inquiry beyond architectural history. Important work on this topic has appeared in the Economic History Review, the Journal of Social History, the Historical Journal, and Studies in English Literature 1500–1900 as well as in interdisciplinary journals like the Journal of British Studies and Eighteenth-Century Studies (Wallis 2008; Flinn 2012; Heller 2010; Nenadic 2012; Stage 2009; Johns 2009; Greig 2012).

Within this interdisciplinary framework, scholars have echoed Stevenson’s, McKellar’s, and Arnold’s emphasis on sources and case studies that reveal how early modern Londoners navigated the city’s density of experiences. Letters, diaries, inventories, newspapers, drawings, prints, buildings, plays, and sale goods underscore the unease generated by overwhelming urban experience and the corresponding responses to that unease. Hannah Greig has considered how the titled nobility transformed the seemingly inclusive spaces of London’s pleasure gardens into exclusive environments that reinforced well-established social distinctions (2012). Kate Smith has explored how late eighteenth-century shoppers sorted through the panoply of objects on display in shops through the sense of touch, and Patrick Wallis has discussed how apothecaries designed the displays of their shops to mitigate anxiety about the effectiveness of medicines and the deceit involved in shopping (Smith 2012; Wallis 2008). Across disciplines, historians are seeking to reinsert users and viewers into once-empty London spaces by turning to primary sources that recreate eyewitness reactions and established expectations and by choosing case studies that evoke historical tensions, for instance the conflict between sociability and social status.

Through their book-length studies, Stevenson, McKellar, and Arnold are able to trace broader cultural and chronological narratives than those available to more tightly focused articles. Elisabeth Kieven’s overview, for example, of Alessandro Galilei’s time in England is rare in addressing more than one type of building; she surveys Galilei’s projects for country houses, royal palaces, and churches (Kieven 2008). Vandra Costello’s analysis of Dublin’s leisure spaces and Patrick Wallis’s study of London’s apothecary shops are similarly unusual in widening their view beyond a single century (Costello 2007; Wallis 2008; see also Guerci 2009 and Harding 2008). In fact, Stevenson, McKellar, and Arnold explicitly blend themes raised by recent articles. Stevenson deepens our understanding of seventeenth-century City-Crown tensions by merging the role of the architect from Matthew Walker’s account of Wren’s and Hooke’s collaboration on the Monument with religious anxieties like those noted by Richard Johns at St. Paul’s (Johns 2009; Walker 2011). McKellar’s discussion of visual and textual depictions of London, her analysis of early modern leisure, and her elucidation of the relationship of domestic to leisure spaces finds repeated resonances in articles by John Bonehill, Vandra Costello, Hannah Greig, and Benjamin Heller (Bonehill 2012; Costello 2007; Greig 2012; Heller 2010). Likewise, Dana Arnold’s evocation of the anxieties and reforming impulses surrounding the hospital have echoes in the debates about charity in connection with Wren’s Christ’s Hospital Writing School and in suspicions about the ‘retail’ practice of early modern medicine (Foxall 2008; Wallis 2008).

Through books and articles alike, historians across disciplines are thus stressing the complexities of experience inherent in the hectic density of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century London. Although such experiences were a source of anxiety for early modern Londoners, scholars are finding them a rich resource for examining a wide range of themes pertinent to the early modern capital. Classicism and its resonances, the relationship between vernacular and ‘high’ architecture, connections between urban, suburban, and rural areas, the ambiguities of early modern leisure, challenges to an ever-fluid social hierarchy, definitions of public and private spheres, and the tensions surrounding gender all were manifest in and around London. The books reviewed here, in other words, both respond to and reflect historians’ concerns of the moment. All three books were published in the same year, 2013, and two by the same publisher, Yale University Press. All three focus on the untidy, changeable city of the long eighteenth century and foreground ways in which familiar architectural narratives have broken down. Classicism is simply one among many themes for Christine Stevenson. Elizabeth McKellar calls explicitly for a multifaceted narrative with her emphasis on the built environment as an inherently variable ‘terrain’ (xii). Dana Arnold devotes only a third of her book — two of six chapters — to a classic ‘architectural’ topic, namely the urban context of the hospital.

The simultaneous appearance of these three volumes, with their holistic, interdisciplinary portraits of London, may mark a broader shift in early modern English architectural history. In a field increasingly tipping toward interdisciplinary inquiry, London — and the early modern city more generally — is an apt subject. Visitors and inhabitants of varying social rank and cultural background moved through and described its spaces. Numerous institutions, from scientific societies to hospitals, lined its streets. Myriad activities were pursued through its spaces, from shopping to strolling in pleasure gardens. When Thomas Sprat termed London ‘a City, where all the noises and business in the World do meet’, he noted precisely the interdisciplinary questions — the hectic sensory, social, political, and economic profusion of experiences — that resonate with current scholars almost three and a half centuries later (1667: 87).