Although I live in Brighton, a city, it definitely feels more like a village. It’s the kind of place you meet familiar people whenever you head out and social vectors are so tightly intertwined that somehow everyone knows everyone else.
London, on the other hand, feels like a proper, grown up city, swarming with millions of strangers in an ocean of faceless concrete. And yet. And yet…There are still pockets of village-like places that hold an individual identity there, a quiet echo of the old times before those villages melted into one another entirely. Before they got mixed up in the urban stew that we might recognise today. So it was with great pleasure that I was commissioned to map Soho, one of those old areas of London with a distinct character and colourful history.
The commission was for a private client and the map features particular places of personal importance to them including book shops, restaurants, theatres, bars and coffee shops. The map also branches out somewhat as far as the River Thames, Chinatown and Covent Garden, all with distinct histories and characters. Coming in at a whopping A2 in size, I based it on a traditional style with decorative compass and ornate cartouche in watercolour and ink.
Soho was originally farmland developed by Henry VIII in 1536 when it became a royal park. In fact, the name ‘Soho’, which first appeared in the 17th century, may have come from the sound of a former hunting cry. By this time, it had become a parish in it’s own right and the upper classes had begun to move in, developing a number of beautiful buildings like Leicester House, Carlisle House and St Anne’s Church on Shaftesbury Avenue. It also attracted many immigrants and after 1688 a large community of French Huguenots settled there, so much so that the area became known as London’s French Quarter.
A map of London by the famous mapmaker James Ogilby. It’s not strictly of Soho but shows what the City looked like in the 17th century.
Between the mid 18th century to the beginning of the 19th century, the aristocrats had moved out. It’s said that this abandonment by the aristocracy and the distinct French influences led to Soho’s particular character. The cramped, cholera-ridden streets slowly began to fill with music halls, small theatres and prostitutes and it gained a reputation for seediness which continued well into the 20th century. Soho became London’s established red light district with strip joints and sex shops on every corner, populated with drug dealers and criminal gangs.
A map of part of Soho showing the multiple cases of Cholera in 1854. Image: Wellcome Trust.
By the 1980s, the sex industry had declined and the area became more gentrified. Instead of a dim spotlight on those grimy underground stages, it shone instead on Soho’s Shaftesbury Avenue which became a brightly lit theatreland.
The restaurants and cafes established in the 19th century by Greek and Italian immigrants became increasingly fancy. Even today, there are still echoes of those first foreign settlers – Milos serves classic high end Greek and Mediterranean food and Zedels gives us a glimpse of Parisian glamour.
The music scene is still represented with multiple record shops and studios. It can be traced back to 1948 as the first place where modern jazz was performed in the UK and Ronnie Scotts today still plays the best of international jazz music. Soho, too, was the centre of the Beatnik culture and cafes like Soho Grind keep tightly hold of that 50’s vibe.
It was fascinating to see how those ghosts of the past kept reappearing in different guises. Perhaps that’s simply the way places work – one layer builds on another, slowly, changing far less than we all imagine.
I could happily get into pontificating about psychogeography but let’s just leave it at how much I enjoyed this commission. It goes to show how much can be absorbed from simply looking at maps, taking time to learn about a place, its shape and its buildings and the patterns and names of its roads. Next time I find myself in Soho, I will look at it with very different eyes. I learnt so much and it was a pleasure to take time over mapping this little London village full of story and personality.