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The Microcosm of London II

February 11, 2012
by the gentle author

Vauxhall Gardens

(click on this plate or any of the others below to enlarge to full size and examine the details)

How very pleasant to be a tourist in the metropolis of 1809, thanks to the magnificent plates of “The Microcosm of London,” contained in three large red volumes at the Bishopsgate Institute. Here are the wonders of the capital, so appealingly coloured and so satisfyingly organised within the elegant classical architecture that frames most social activity – while also conveniently ignoring the domestic reality of the greater majority of the populace.

In fact, these images might be as vacuous as picture postcards, if it were not for the contribution of cartoonist Thomas Rowlandson who drew the human figures onto the architectural plates draughted by Augustus Charles Pugin, father of Augustus Welby Pugin who designed the Houses of Parliament.

While the first impression is of harmony and everyone in their place – whether it be church, masquerade, asylum, theatre, prison or lecture hall – examining these pictures close-up reveals the genius of Thomas Rowlandson who cannot either prevent himself introducing grotesque human drama or adding comic specimens of humanity into these idealised urban visions. Just like an early nineteenth century version of “Where’s Wally?”, Rowlandson implicitly invites us to seek the buffoons. Even if in some plates, such as the Drawing Room in St James, he appears to acquiesce to a notion of mannequin-like debutantes, Rowlandson more than makes up for it at the Bank of England where – surprise, surprise – the buffoons take centre stage. Spot the clown in a stripy waistcoat with a girl on each arm in Vauxhall Gardens, or the dolts all robed up in coats of arms at Herald’s College, or the Masquerade where as characters from Commedia dell’Arte the funsters seem most in their element.

Meanwhile at the Post Office, in cubicles not so different from those in call centres of our own day, clerks are at work in identical red uniforms which deny them both the idiosyncrasy and demonstrative individuality that is the vain prerogative of the rich in this vision of London. Equally, at the asylum nobody gets to assert themselves, while in the prisons people are diminished both in size and in colour by their environment. In “The Microcosm of London,” Augustus Pugin portrayed an architect’s fantasy vision of a city of business, of politics, of religion, of education, of entertainment, of punishment and reward, but Thomas Rowlandson populated it with life.

The Post Office

The Royal Circus

The Great Hall, Bank of England

Dining Room, Asylum

Royal Geographic Society

Drawing Room, St James

St Martin in the Fields

Pantheon Masquerade

King’s Bench Prison

Sadler’s Wells Theatre

Coal Exchange

Herald’s College

Surrey Institution

Fleet Prison

Watercolour Exhibition, Old Bond St

Drury Lane Theatre

Coldbath Prison

Hall and Staircase, British Museum

Common Council Chamber, Guildhall

Images courtesy of Bishopsgate Institute

You may also like to take a look at the rest of the plates in The Microcosm of London

5 Responses leave one →
  1. Susan permalink
    February 11, 2012

    How wonderful to tour so many sights of Regency London that I’ve read of in novels. I know the underpinnings were grim, but the froth on top was a colorful sight.

  2. Ruby Kay permalink
    February 12, 2012

    A bygone equivalent to glossy magazines’ portrayal of London society, but thank goodness for the delightfully tongue-in-cheek lively human elements so wittily depicted! Much obliged.

  3. Mark permalink
    February 12, 2012

    Thanks again for bringing Rowlandson into my awareness, love it…

  4. Anne Ivory permalink
    July 22, 2012

    Thanks so much for all the postings. One can only imagine how things used to be but these illustrations really help.

  5. Eileen Bluck permalink
    December 18, 2013

    My ancester John Bluck – artist and engraver engraved and aquatinted many of the prints in The Microcosm of London. I am unable to find any personal details about John and would be grateful if any information that anyone may have could contact me.

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