The City of London is one of the world's oldest and wealthiest financial hubs. Located in the heart of the capital, the historically self-governing area, centred on the Square Mile, is the home of the UK’s financial sector, which generates a staggering 41% of the world's foreign exchange turnover every day, some £1.9 trillion ($2.7 trillion).
But while this modern face of the City is widely known, few people are aware of the medieval institutions that continue to shape its business and politics.
British photographer Martin Parr spent two years behind the scenes in the City of London, documenting its old guilds and elaborate customs. He was given wide but not completely free access for the series Unseen City, which opens to the public at London’s Guildhall Art Gallery on 4 March.
"They don't want to have their secret rituals made public," Parr says of the City’s insiders. "It's like the Freemasons: they're not going to let you see everything."
It's like the Freemasons: they're not going to let you see everything – Martin Parr
The City’s special form of governance dates back a thousand years; it has its own police force, a Lord Mayor who is distinct from the Mayor of London and an administration backed by a web of powerful guilds. These guilds, or livery companies, range from traditional trades such as fletchers (arrow-makers), coopers (cask-makers), loriners (stirrup-makers) and mercers (merchants of luxury fabrics) to the rather more recent Worshipful Company of Information Technologists.
With his unfailing eye for the odd and offbeat, Parr depicts the guild members in all their quirky splendour. Men in ceremonial garb catch swans from the Thames for the annual "swan upping" in which the birds are counted and then released – a tradition dating back to the 12th Century, when the animals were considered a delicacy. Guards in feathered hats march through the financial district. A pair of empty spurred boots stands on the sidelines of the Silent Ceremony – during which the new Lord Mayor is sworn into office – as if marking the presence of an invisible bystander.
At first glance, Unseen City seems to show a quaint, charming community far removed from the fast-paced world of modern finance: a scene of leisurely banquets and elaborate costumes.
But the two worlds very much overlap. The City of London Corporation, which is the City's local government, is also a powerful lobbying group for the banking sector. It has its own lobbyist in Parliament, an official called a ‘remembrancer’. And while a mere 7,400 people live in the City, some 400,000 work in it and give it political heft: businesses are allocated a number of votes depending on how many employees they have.
While a mere 7,400 people live in the City, some 400,000 work in it and give it political heft
Meanwhile, although the livery companies are still named after their original trades, many have opened up their membership to other professions, including financial services.
"They're clubs really," Parr says. "It's the classic domain of the white middle class."
Given the diversity of London’s financial sector, this homogeneity is perhaps the most surprising aspect of Parr’s series. A shot of an average trading floor would probably show a much more international group of people than Parr's images of pageants and banquets.
Parr photographed only a fraction of the City’s more than 100 livery companies – and in the process became aware that this hidden world was much larger than he had assumed. "You could spend the next 10 years just doing livery companies," he says. Certain rituals remained off-limits to him, such as the swearing-in of a guild’s new master.
Since the livery companies play a crucial role in the election process for the City's offices, such secrecy has its critics. In 2011, the Occupy London movement camped outside St Paul's Cathedral in the Square Mile in 2011, calling for the City's government to be made more transparent and accountable.
For centuries the City granted loans to kings and queens
The complex links between the City, finance and power have a long history. For centuries the City granted loans to kings and queens. Its 17th-Century coffee houses served as markets for insurance, stocks and bonds. One of them – Jonathan's Coffee House in Exchange Alley – evolved into the London Stock Exchange.
Even today, the special relationship between the City and the crown is commemorated when the Queen makes an official visit to the City. A ceremonial cord is stretched out as a symbolic boundary and then withdrawn to let her carriage enter, writes journalist Nicholas Shaxson in his book Treasure Islands. One of Parr's most striking pictures shows the Queen from behind as she steps out from the Drapers' Livery Hall, toward a crowd of ordinary people snapping away with their mobile phones.
Parr says one of the positive aspects of the City he noticed was the charitable work of the guilds. Often very affluent because of their property portfolios, they donate substantial amounts to schools, hospitals and charities. The Worshipful Company of Mercers gave almost £7 million ($10 million) to charity in one year up to March 2013, the latest public accounts available on its website. In fact, one of Parr's favourite scenes in the City was the Mercers' traditional visit to their almshouses.
"These quiet little moments are the most exciting. You're seeing a real tradition that goes on quietly, assuredly," he says.
Birds of a feather
And while Parr has long documented Britain's different classes, from modest rural communities to the flamboyantly rich, he also sees similarities between its different social groups.
"We all like a gathering, we all like partying with our own set. There's ramblers, birdwatchers... we love to form tribes," he says. "It's not considered eccentric here – it's normal British behaviour."
Right now, his interests range from documenting the establishment (Oxford University is next) to keeping an eye on other parts of British society – rhubarb farmers, for example. He recalls a recent rhubarb-farming dinner that was not all that different to the lavish banquets he witnessed in the City:
"They all know each other. It’s another grouping of British people – you like your own people,” he says. “Perhaps it's the same all over the world."
Asked how he would define his own tribe, he reflects for a moment. "I hang out with other Magnum photographers," he says.
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