London has never been planned. Beside other eighteenth-century capitals, London is remarkable for the freedom with which it developed. It is the city raised by private, not by public, wealth; the least authoritarian city in Europe. Whatever attempts have been made to overrule the individual in the public interest, they have failed. Elizabeth and her Stuart successors tried bluntly to stop any expansion whatever. They failed. Charles II and his pet intellectuals tried to impose a plan after the Great Fire. They failed. Nearly every monarch in turn projected a great Royal Palace to dominate at least part of his capital. All failed until George IV conspired with Nash to cheat Parliament into rebuilding Buckingham House, scoring no triumph in the process. The reasons for all this are embedded deep in England’s social and political history. London is one of the few capitals where church property and church interests have not been an overriding factor; where Royal prestige and prerogative in building matters have been set at naught; where defense has never, since the Middle Ages, dictated a permanent circumvallation to control the limits of development. London is above all a metropolis of merchandise. The basis of its building history is the trade cycle rather than the changing ambitions and policies of rulers and administrators. The land speculator and the adventuring builder have contributed more to the character of the Georgian city than the minister with a flair for artistic propaganda, or the monarch with a mission for dynastic assertion.
In the introduction Summerson engages in some classic English understatement: “This book originated in a series of of lectures prepared for the Courtauld Institute in 1939, but not delivered owing to the turn of events.” He then mentions that he was unable to finish the book during the war: “The whole period has, of course, been somewhat unpropitious for a book of this sort. The subject matter has been bombed from time to time and any papers, plans and drawings of whose existence I was aware have been totally inaccessible.”