Introduction to Malton’s Picturesque Tour (1792-1801)

Introducing his topographical magnum opus, A Picturesque Tour Through the Cities of London and Westminster, illustrated with the most interesting Views, accurately delineated, and executed in Aquatinta, Thomas Malton stressed that he intended his work to be more than just a series of pretty trifles:

My endeavours will trace the Progress of the Arts from the reign of Henry III. to the present era; and I trust, the choice of subjects, and the correctness and truth of the perspective delineations, will compensate for any deficiencies that may have arisen, in the execution of this extensive and laborious work:—a work, which I hope and flatter myself, will not only convey to posterity a faithful representation of the Capital of the British Empire, at the close of the 18th century; but will also give a true idea of its RESOURCES, WEALTH, and MAGNIFICENCE.1

These aims speak both to Malton’s own ambitions as an artist and to the manner in which London was seen in the late eighteenth century.  Malton makes it clear that depictions of the city could play a key role in mapping the progress of the British nation as a whole, with London’s architectural fabric serving as a historical record, a testament of power and a feast for the senses.  In his title, Malton evokes the fashionable concept of the picturesque, developed and popularised by James Gilpin, who located the picturesque aesthetic as mixing roughness and artistry, balanced between mind-blasting sublimity and pleasing beauty (the two categories examined by Edmund Burke in his 1757 Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful).  However, the sense of scale that Malton’s ambitions and illustrations both evoke often tends towards the overwhelming grandeur of the sublime rather than the charming or the vivid.  Malton’s London is a city of looming pillars, walls and arches.  In most of his aquatints, people appear to be fleeting and inconsequential beside the great facades of the city’s major edifices.

North West View of St Paul’s – the final image in Malton’s Picturesque Tour. Image courtesy of the British Library.

Malton was the son of another Thomas Malton (b. 1726), who had begun his career as an upholsterer on the Strand, but who had developed lines as an architectural draughtsman and a writer on geometry and perspective, exhibiting pictures at the Royal Academy and publishing several treatises.  After an unfortunate fire at the Savoy destroyed his stock of books, leading to his being sued by his printer and paper merchant for unpaid bills, Thomas Malton senior found himself on shaky financial footing, which eventually resulted in his moving to Dublin in 1785.  In Ireland, he made an uncertain living as a teacher of perspective until his death in 1801.2  The younger Thomas Malton took after his father in a number of respects, training with the architect James Gandon and entering the Royal Academy Schools as a student of architecture in 1773.  He remained loosely associated with the Academy for much of the rest of his life, exhibiting regularly in its exhibitions and winning a gold medal for his theatrical designs in 1782.3  From 1783 onwards, Malton operated a drawing school in various residences in the West End; his most famous pupil was J.M.W. Turner, who despite the difficulties that he had reconciling Malton’s rigourous perspective techniques with his own stylistic impulses stated later in his life that his ‘real master was Tom Malton of Long Acre’.4

Depicting London played an important part in Malton’s attempts to make a name for himself.  The first work that he exhibited at the Royal Academy was a view of Covent Garden, and between May 1781 and June 1787, he issued twelve large plates displaying major London landmarks.5  It was in 1791, though, that he sought to build upon his previous labours by embarking on a more systematic attempt to account for the city.  The proposals he issued in March of that year read as follows:

Dedicated (by permission) to his Royal Highness, the Prince of Wales.  Proposals for publishing by subscription, A Picturesque Tour through the Cities of London and Westminster, illustrated with the most interesting scenes of all that adorns and dignifies the Metropolis: accurately delineated from the most striking points of view, and executed in aquatinta by T. Malton.

This Work will be completed in Twenty-Four Numbers, making Two Volumes, of the same Superb Quarto Size as Boydell’s Shakespeare; each Number to contain Four Views, the Size Twelve Inches by Eight.  The Letter-Press will be executed with the utmost Elegance, from an entire new type by Caslon, Letter-Founder to His Majesty, and printed on a beautiful Vellum Wove paper.

Price to Subscribers Twelve Shillings each Number, to be paid on delivery; and as no Proof will be sold, Subscribers may depend they will be scrupulously delivered in the Order they are subscribed for.

The First Number will be published by Midsummer next, and a succeeding Number every Three Months till completed.  A List of the Subscribers will be printed, and the Price advanced to Non-Subscribers.

A great Number of the finished Drawings, and Specimens of the Engravings, to be seen at Mr Malton’s, No 81 Great Titchfield Street where the names of the Subscribers are received.6

As this proposal implies, the Picturesque Tour was a luxurious work designed to impress.  Like Rudolph Ackermann’s later Microcosm, it was a very expensive publication, costing a total of £14 and 4 shillings for all twenty-four numbers at a time when such a sum might equal two months’ wages for a skilled tradesman and represent a significant outlay even for a relatively prosperous gentleman.  Consequently, the subscribers were mostly drawn from among the social and cultural elite.  The subscription list was headed by the King’s Library, the Prince of Wales and the Dukes of York, Kent and Gloucester.  It featured the President of the Royal Academy, Benjamin West; aristocrats including the Earl of Beverley, the Duke of Hamilton, the Earl of Moira and the Earl of Orford (Horace Walpole); artists like Thomas Lawrence and Richard Westall; architects including Samuel Pepys Cockerell, John Nash, John Soane, Lewis Vulliamy and James Wyatt; leading book trade figures including Rudolph Ackermann, John Boydell, William Faden and John Nichols; and numerous gentlemen affiliated with the Royal Society and the Society of Antiquaries.7  While the list was respectable, it was not enormously substantial, featuring less than half as many names as that for the first phase of Richard Horwood’s Plan.  Its high cost made Malton’s work an exclusive publication in more ways than one.

Publishing in relatively expensive formats by subscription was relatively common for those who sought to profit from depicting London in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, but in other respects, the Picturesque Tour was rather unusual.  In his wide-ranging survey of illustrations of London, Bernard Adams writes that ‘The Picturesque Tour is remarkable, if not unique, in that the 100 large plates of which it is composed were all engraved and aquatinted by the artist in person’.8  Like Horwood’s Plan – and unlike works like Modern London or the Microcosm – Malton’s book was pitched as a solo endeavour, a vision of the city produced by a man keen to establish his cultural credentials and capable of fine artistry, accurate perception, technological innovation and skillful composition.  While a discourse of artistic genius had not fully developed at the time when Malton was working, it is clear that the Picturesque Tour was conceived partly as a showcase for his talents, designed to garner him plaudits of kinds that previously eluded him.  One of the main signifiers of artistic success during the period was being elected to the Royal Academy, and this was something that Malton assiduously sought to secure.  However, the existing Academicians were not disposed to recognise Malton’s claims.  As Ann Saunders recounts, ‘On 10 October 1794 the artist Joseph Farington recorded in his diary that Malton had solicited his vote at the forthcoming Royal Academy elections and had said that there was £350 owing to him from Drury Lane; Farington avoided any commitment.  In November of the following year Malton sought election in direct competition with John Soane.  Farington recorded: “Smirke came to us and we conversed on the means to be employed to prevent Malton succeeding”; it was decided that the luckless man should be ruled out as “only a Draughtsman of Buildings, but no Architect”.’9  Navigating the art world required connections and social graces as well as talent, and it is clear that the Academicians thought that Malton was seeking to rise above his station, rejecting the claims that the portfolio of skills on display in the Picturesque Tour implicitly advanced.

It was perhaps partly due to such rebuffs that Malton’s work on the Tour proceeded rather less speedily than he had originally intended, taking nine years, rather than the six he had projected in his prospectus.  However, after a slow start (only seven numbers, containing 28 plates, were published between 1792 and 1795), Malton picked up speed with the project, issuing the final plate (the view of the North West Front of St. Paul’s shown above) on the 1st of March 1801.  Those who reviewed the Picturesque Tour after its completion were understandably impressed by the scale of Malton’s achievement.  The Monthly Review opened its commentary by opining that

A Collection of views of the principal edifices in a magnificent city always affords a gratifying sight, if they be executed even with moderate abilities: but the value is in course greatly enhanced, when they issue from the hands of a professor who ranks eminently high in his art, and who is capable of subjoining scientific observations on the several objects which present themselves.  It is doing only justice to Mr. Malton to say that we have been amply satisfied, in these respects, in the examination of the present work which consists of one hundred well chosen views, executed in acquatinta, together with very interesting descriptions, ingenious criticisms, and judicious observations.  The plates may be regarded not only as valuable picturesque representations, but, from this artist’s superior knowledge of perspective, we may also depend on their being correct delineations, which will consequently be extremely useful for reference to the different works of architecture exhibited in them.10

It concluded by calling the Picturesque Tour ‘a truly elegant and useful production’.11

Like Horwood, Malton turned his attention to another city after completing his monumental work on the capital; in Malton’s case, this was Oxford.  However, Malton also resembled Horwood in not living long beyond the completion of his major work; he died from a putrid fever in his home in Long Acre on the 7th of March 1804.  Recording his death, the Gentleman’s Magazine described him as an ‘ingenious and much-respected artist’. 12

While his abilities might not have secured the highest levels of formal recognition from his contemporaries, it is clear from the Picturesque Tour that Malton was accurately seen as a man of significant talents.  His views of London perhaps lack the vivaciousness of the later coloured aquatints in the Microcosm, but the clean lines and dramatic interplay of light and shadow in his images create an intense impression of the scale of the major buildings in which he was most interested.  London looms in Malton in ways that most other contemporary illustrations fail to capture.  The metropolis is not a threatening city in his works, but it is one that reaches up in great spires and vaulting arches, a place of proud ingenuity and soaring, untroubled magnificence.

Footnotes

  1. Thomas Malton, A Picturesque Tour Through the Cities of London and Westminster, illustrated with the most interesting Views, accurately delineated, and executed in Aquatinta (London: Thomas Malton, 1792-1801), p. iv.
  2. Information from Ann Saunders, ‘Malton, Thomas, the elder (1726–1801) and Thomas Malton the younger (1751/2–1804)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004) <http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/17904>.
  3. Bernard Adams, London Illustrated, 1604-1851 (London: Library Association, 1983), p. 171.
  4. Walter Thornbury, The Life of J.M.W. Turner, R.A., 2 vols (London: Hurst and Blackett, 1862), I, 47.
  5. Adams, pp. 171-2.
  6. Reprinted in Adams, p. 172.
  7. Malton, pp. i-ii.
  8. Adams, p. 171.
  9. Saunders, ODNB.
  10. ‘Malton’s Picturesque Tour Through London‘, Monthly Review, Vol. XLI (July 1803), 295-305 (p. 295)
  11. Monthly Review, p. 305.
  12. ‘Obituary, with Anecdotes of Remarkable Persons’, Gentleman’s Magazine, Vol. 95 (March 1804), p. 283.