Arts > Exhibition review: Unseen City: Photos by Martin Parr

Posted on March 9, 2016


Joe Marshall takes a panoramic look at the City of London, through a new photographic showcase

A lot goes on behind the scenes in London’s Square Mile. There’s a whole calendar of traditions and ceremonies, involving people in long established positions most of us have never heard of. As London’s photographer-in-residence since 2013, Martin Parr has been granted special access to the characters and events invested in this world. The result is Unseen City – a collection of over 100 images.

They are vividly colourful images, which don’t appear to be doctored a lot, if at all. Many depict little known, eccentric events. These include the ritual by which The Lord Mayor assumes his role, which happens almost entirely in silence. Beating the Bounds is a practice from a time before maps were commonplace. Today it’s kept alive by school kids, who beat the ground with big sticks, as a means of marking and remembering the parameters of their parish. There’s something called the Worshipful Company of Poulters’ pancake race too. But the exhibition isn’t just strange customs. Parr has also captured high profile events like the Lord Mayor’s show and public appearances by the monarchy.


Many of the titles held by those photographed are for purely ceremonial reasons – the jobs once attached to them are redundant. But they remain fascinating and historically insightful. The Company of Pikemen and Musketeers wear 17th century style uniforms and guard the Lord Mayor with their weapons. The Swordbearer of London has been around since the 14th century and his role is to carry the Lord Mayor’s sword. Other things, like the ancient office of Alderman, which has existed since at least 1111, are of ambiguous origins.

The Guildhall, where the exhibition is being held, is itself a part of the ‘unseen city’. Formal displays of reverence and pomp often take place within its walls. Other buildings celebrated in Martin Parr’s window into a hidden world are The Old Bailey and All Hallows by the Tower – a church which predates the Tower of London by 300 years. Parr has an eye for the unusual and insightful. Whether it be The Company of Watermen and Lightermen chatting over a cup of tea, or an image of an admiring crowd, shot from the Queen’s perspective. It all takes place within a square mile…

Twenty of the photographs on show are set to become part of the historically rich Guildhall permanent collection.

Unseen City runs at Guildhall Art Gallery until 31st July.

Joe Marshall
Joe Marshall is Exposure’s Entertainments Editor. With his written content he endeavours to raid the full remit of arts and culture in London, if he doesn’t drown in it first. He aspires to make a career out of journalism like his heroes Tom Wolfe, Hunter S Thompson and Jon Ronson before him.


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  1. Exhibition review: Strange and Familiar: Britain as Revealed by International Photographers | Exposure - March 31, 2016

    […] Exhibition review: Unseen City: Photos by Martin Parr […]

  2. Exhibition review: Swans Gloves Roses and Pancakes: Photos by Martin Parr | Exposure - January 18, 2017

    […] On a cold Monday evening, there’s a buzz happening in the bowels of Tower Bridge, in more ways than one. The inner workings of the great landmark are whirring away as usual, but there’s also a buzz around the opening of Martin Parr’s latest photography exhibition. Swans Gloves Roses and Pancakes showcases the result of his time spent as photographer in residence for the City of London. It’s the second of such events, in the ‘Unseen City’ series. The first was back in March. […]

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