This essay explores the relationship between plans for the improvement of London and other forms of writing about the city that imagine its inevitable decline and fall. Those lamenting the appearance of London in the eighteenth century frequently looked back to the Great Fire as a missed opportunity to rebuild the city in a grander, more magnificent manner. For these critics, London's built environment did little to stake the nation's claims to polite refinement and cultural prestige. Such concerns became especially pressing in the wake of Britain's victories in the Seven Years’ War, which made London the center of an extensive global empire. Through an examination of proposals for and accounts of urban improvements as well as works that look to a future moment when visitors survey London's faded glories, this essay considers how imagining London in ruins—a trope thus far explored in the context of the loss of the American colonies and Britain's role in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars—served two competing purposes in mid-eighteenth-century Britain. While, on the one hand, improvers acknowledged the transience of imperial power by arguing that now was the time to build grand monuments to mark the achievements of the present, on the other, a range of writers invoked the trope of future ruin to indicate how the seeds of decline had already been sown. The manifold meanings of ruin to which these works gesture would continue to play out in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
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Research Article| September 01 2021
Alison O'Byrne; “Everlasting Memorials”: Urban Improvement and the Shadow of Ruin in Mid-Eighteenth-Century London. Eighteenth-Century Life 1 September 2021; 45 (3): 34–50. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00982601-9272992
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