Seattle Now & Then: London’s oldest photo, 1839

THEN: An 1839 daguerreotype featuring the bronze equestrian statue of Charles I, the only English king charged with and executed for treason. Furthest in the line of buildings stands the Banqueting House, completed by Inigo Jones in 1621.
NOW1: Derry-Anne Hammond, expert London Blue Badge guide, stands below the king’s statue, holding a copy of one of London’s first photos. Many Whitehall buildings were replaced or restored after World War II, but the Banqueting House remains. The Elizabeth Tower, aka Big Ben, completed in 1859, can be seen in the distance. (Jean Sherrard)

Published in The Seattle Times online on August 20, 2023
and in PacificNW Magazine of the printed Times on August 17, 2023

Civil war and a king’s execution come alive in early London photo
By Jean Sherrard

Intrigued by an extraordinary portrait of 19th century London, I joined this summer’s post-pandemic hordes and ventured to the historic spot to attempt a repeat.

Within a year of Louis Daguerre’s groundbreaking first photo of a cityscape (in Paris, 1838), the French government acquired the rights to his daguerreotype process and magnanimously offered it “free to the world” on Aug. 17, 1839. Just days later, this week’s “Then” photo was captured. It’s the earliest extant image of London, within the first two years of Queen Victoria’s reign.

A French photographer identified only as M. De St-Croix offered Londoners a public demonstration of the new technology. Positioning his bulky box camera at Charing Cross, a conjunction of six thoroughfares just south of today’s Trafalgar Square, he exposed a silver-coated copper plate for several minutes.

A view looking north to Trafalgar Square from Charing Cross, the geographical heart of London. Lord Nelson atop his column looks down on the mounted King Charles I.

The resulting daguerreotype captured an equestrian statue of Charles I (1600-1649) framed by buildings lining Whitehall, several of which fell victim to the London Blitz of 1940-41.

Nearly 184 years later, Derry-Anne Hammond, a London Blue Badge Tourist Guide, met me beneath the king’s statue — the oldest bronze in London — to provide historical context.

Cast in 1633 by French sculptor Hubert Le Sueur, the bronze was designed to massage Charles’ ego, elevating his short stature atop an imposing war horse. But his reign soon was overshadowed by civil war between supportive royalists and Oliver Cromwell’s “roundheads,” also known as puritans.

“Charles I very much believed in the divine right of kings, and when Parliament disagreed, he shut them down,” Hammond said. “Then things went a bit awry.”

After years of confrontation, a frustrated Parliament accused the obstinate king of treason and sentenced him to death. He is the only English king ever so charged. On Jan. 30, 1649, at Whitehall’s Banqueting House, the king mounted a scaffold below a second-floor balcony.

A commemorative plaque of King Charles I is affixed to an exterior wall of the Banqueting House, site of his 1649 execution.

“Thousands of spectators waited on the street below,” Hammond said, “hoping his blood would spatter onto their handkerchiefs to keep as a macabre memento.” However, the anonymous executioner removed Charles’ head with a single, spatter-free blow.

For the next nine years, Oliver Cromwell ruled Britain as “lord protector,” replacing the monarchy with the Commonwealth of England until his death in 1658. By 1660, the royal line was restored with the accession of Charles II, who installed his father’s equestrian statue at its Charing Cross location. The statue faces in the direction of the still-standing Banqueting House, site of Charles I’s execution.

Banqueting House, created by Inigo Jones for James I, father of Charles I. It opened in 1622,.

In the shadow of De St-Croix, attempting to repeat his time-ravaged daguerreotype, I could just make out these echoes of history, muddled by light and shadow, lingering right beneath the surface.

Looking across a nearly empty Trafalgar Square towards the equestrian statue of Charles I.


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