The Microcosm of London, published in three volumes between 1808 and 1810, is one of the most beautiful books of the nineteenth century. It was produced through a series of collaborative efforts organised and coordinated by the German-born printseller Rudolph Ackermann from his Repository of Arts at 101 The Strand. Ackermann was an innovative publisher and a jobbing inventor with ‘a rapid and intuitive appreciation of the needs of his time’; his shop was one of the first in London to be lit by gas.1 When conceiving the Microcosm, he correctly intuited that there was space in the market for a grand synoptic volume on London which brought together the talents of major artists with the craftsmanship of engravers and the curious knowledge which could be gleaned by skilled compilers.
The 104 plates on which the Microcosm’s reputation primarily rests were based on architectural drawings by the French émigré Auguste Charles Pugin, who had moved to London early in the 1790s, trained at the Royal Academy Schools and worked as a draughtsman for the architect John Nash.2 Ackermann noted in his introduction that in similar productions ‘the figures have generally been neglected, or are of a very inferior cast’; to overcome this problem, he employed the artist and caricaturist Thomas Rowlandson to add in the bright, rumbustious men and women who populate Pugin’s elegantly-executed buildings and vistas (possibly overlooking Pugin’s objections in doing so).3
The resulting composite images were etched by a number of different engravers in Ackermann’s employ. Fifty-four were engraved by John Bluck, twenty-nine by Joseph Constantine Stadler, ten by Thomas Sunderland, ten by John Hill, and one by Richard Bankes Harraden; their names can generally be found in the bottom right-hand corners of the plate images (on this site, these are most easily seen in the galleries for Volumes One, Two and Three).4 Aquatinting, the etching process employed for the Microcosm, was accomplished by exposing a copperplate to acid through a layer of melted granulated resin; exposing different areas of the plate to acid baths of different strengths allowed for a considerable variety of tones and effects, including the watercolour-like washes which give the process its name. Once the plates were printed, the colouring of each individual example was finished by hand. This process could produce strikingly different results, as the two versions of the Bartholomew Fair plate below demonstrate.5 Thus, while the images for the Microcosm were produced to a common plan, each instance includes subtle and unique variations.
While the Microcosm was conceived primarily as a desirable medium for art, its three volumes contain extensive written texts alongside the collaborative plates. Ostensibly, these serve as descriptions of the plates, but many expand out into detailed historical accounts, contemporary views, opinions and trivia. The writer, illustrator and watercolour specialist William Henry Pyne provided the text for the first two volumes; he was replaced for the third volume by William Combe, who later found fame as the author of the satirical tours of Dr Syntax. Registering these numerous and sometimes conflicting stakeholders, Jon Mee asserts that ‘it is questionable how far The Microcosm of London can be regarded as authored by any individual’.6 As an account of London, it is both peculiarly particular and productively multivocal.
The Microcosm was designed to be an unashamed luxury. S.T. Prideaux records that the twenty-six monthly parts in which it was originally issued were sold to its subscribers for ten shillings and sixpence each and that in 1810 the full three volumes retailed for fifteen guineas (£15 and fifteen shillings).7 When called in 1813 as a witness in a case concerning stolen copies, Ackermann provided testimony that the Microcosm was selling for ‘thirteen guineas’.8 These were very high sums – while currency conversions over periods of centuries are difficult due to fluctuations in the relative prices of different goods, the equivalent cost of the full Microcosm today would be well over a thousand pounds. It is also important to bear in mind that it was produced in a society where wealth and leisure were the preserves of a relatively small group of individuals.
The Microcosm addressed a select audience of the privileged and the vision of London which it paints is one of a city that is prosperous, regulated and well-connected. Its plates focus principally on state institutions, finance, commerce, religion and the arts, touching on the less fortunate mainly through representing charitable institutions, courts and prisons. However, there are fruitful and interesting tensions between and within the plates and texts which the Microcosm contains. Mee suggests that the project displays ‘a definite intention to celebrate a glorious collaboration of culture and commerce in the modern metropolis’, but also contends that ‘the strains of telling a positive story about nineteenth-century London show in Pyne’s commentary and in the tensions between Pugin’s architectural spaces and Rowlandson’s figures.’9 These tensions can be read in the Bartholomew Fair plate through the contrast between Pugin’s sharp lines and sublime sky and Rowlandson’s roistering crowd, both vivacious and ridiculous. Pyne’s opening description of the plate registers a similar ambivalence:
THE annexed print is a spirited representation of this British Saturnalia. To be pleased in their own way, is the object of all. Some hugging, some fighting, others dancing: while many are enjoying the felicity of being borne along with the full stream of one mob, others are encountering the dangers and vicissitudes of forcing their passage through another; while one votary of pleasure is feasting his delighted eyes with the martial port of Rolla, and the splendid habilments of the Virgins of the Sun, another disciple of Epicurus is gratifying his palate with all the luxury of fried sausages, to which he is attracted by the alluring invitation of “Walk into my parlour!” The ambitious, who, seated in triumphal cars, are by the revolution of a wheel, like that of Fortune’s, raised to the highest pinnacle of human wishes, look down with scorn on the little grovellers below, reckless that they gain their dangerous elevation at the hazard of their necks, and that, by another turn of the wheel, they must sink to the base level from which they arose.10
This description obviously features some mock-heroic elements, Pyne asserting his classical education somewhat condescendingly to frame the principally lower-class crowd which the fair attracted. However, while Pyne stands a little on his superiority, there are also elements of celebration in his linking the life of London with long-established verities. The Microcosm makes it clear that London possesses grand beauties, soaring churches and sublime prospects, but it also praises the liveliness and cosmopolitanism which underpin its burgeoning commerce. It touches on more popular entertainments as well as exclusive clubs, gesturing towards the value of metropolitan diversity through its portrayals of the gathered races at the Royal Exchange and the inclusion of Quaker, Catholic and Jewish congregations among its portrayals of those gathered to worship. It is an occasionally snobbish work and by no means a model of political correctness by twenty-first century standards, but the interplay of its various creators serves to produce a vision of London that ranges surprisingly widely and which infuses striking moments of mockery, triviality and humanity into what could have been solely a monumental and monumentalising achievement.
Ackermann’s introduction to the third volume lays out the project’s principal claims:
A new mode of displaying objects already known, has, in some degree, the merit of discovery; especially when they are not generally accessible. At all events, a previous acquaintance with them, by means of the pencil and the pen, will at once direct the attention of the visiter [sic], to their beauties, their defects, and their utilities, and enable him to form an immediate, as well as accurate judgement of them all. He will possess the advantages of the traveller, who is prepared with the language of the country which he is about to visit.11
Ackermann here stresses that the Microcosm is a carefully curated version of contemporary London, a means of interpretation which will allow those viewing and reading it to become familiar with places which they might one day visit in the flesh. It is a beautiful object, but also a practical guide, a means of seeing and learning at a distance. Its use today is rather different in many respects. It no longer functions as a guide to a city which exists, but serves instead as a record of London’s past lives, some parts of which linger but other aspects of which would be wholly lost without the vividnesses of its plates and descriptions. For me, the Microcosm images are among the best and most vibrant representations of the early nineteenth century metropolis, splashing colour and life across its architecture. The city it contains is by no means the entire city, but it takes seriously its task of representing in a smaller system the complexities and experiences of the whole.
- S.T. Prideaux, Aquatint Engraving: A Chapter in the History of Book Illustration (London: Duckworth & Co., 1909), pp. 110, 115. Available through archive.org.
- Alexandra Wedgwood, ‘Pugin, Auguste Charles (1768/9–1832)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008) <http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/22868>.
- [Rudolph Ackermann], The Microcosm of London, 3 vols (London: Ackermann, 1808-10), I, x.
- Full attributions from the catalogue of the Metropolitan Museum of Art: <http://www.metmuseum.org/collection/the-collection-online>.
- Compare also the copies in the British Museum and the Museum of London.
- Jon Mee, ‘“Mutual Intercourse” and “Licentious Discussion” in The Microcosm of London’, The London Journal, 37.3 (November 2012), 196-214 (p. 198).
- Prideaux, p. 121.
- Trial record of Peter Brown, 2 June 1813, Old Bailey Online <http://www.oldbaileyonline.org/browse.jsp?id=t18130602-146-victim1241&div=t18130602-146>.
- Mee, pp. 201, 212.
- Microcosm, I, 52.
- Microcosm, III, ix.