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Ernest George’s Old London Etchings

April 7, 2021
by the gentle author


Stefan Dickers, Archivist at Bishopsgate Institute, introduced me to these fine copper plate etchings by Ernest George (1839-1922). In the eighteen-eighties, George set out to immortalise those fragments of London which spoke of times gone by and Londoners long dead, recording buildings and views which have for the most part now disappeared.

I realise that my affection for these images sets me in line with the generations of chroniclers who have made it their business to document the transience of the city, starting with John Stow who wrote the very first Survey of London between 1560 and 1598 to describe the streets of his childhood that were vanishing before his eyes.

Ernest George’s etchings were published by the Fine Art Society in New Bond St in 1884, a magnificent temple of culture designed by Edward William Godwin which survived through the twentieth century only to close in August 2018.


Wych St, Strand

Fouberts Place, Soho

Crown Court, Pall Mall

St Bartholomew, Smithfield

Warwick Lane, City

Tower of London

London Bridge

Staple Inn, Holborn

Drury Lane

St John’s Gate, Clerkenwell



Images courtesy Bishopsgate Institute

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9 Responses leave one →
  1. Douglas Brett permalink
    April 7, 2021

    Anybody explain why the last numeral of the year dates (Ponders House and a gravestone in St Barts) are mirror images?

  2. April 7, 2021

    Note the image of the grave yard. Dripping in atmosphere. The tree overlooks the scene as buildings crowd in, all around; blocking out the light. (I long to see the tree flowering, don’t you?) The empty eyes of the old windows have forgotten to take pleasure in the grave stones below. And a lone strand of laundry looks like it has been left outdoors to weather. The stately decorative head stones have languished, waiting for appreciative eyes. And now here we are.

    Thanks for taking us along, GA.

  3. Saba permalink
    April 7, 2021

    There’s a tactile quality to these scenes. I feel as if I could walk into the streets, get out of a boat and walk up the stairs to the Tower of London. Spring light in some and summer’s warmth in others. I would love to walk around and look more closely at everything.

    They must have had a healthy population of rats since everything fanned out from the river. Snakes, roaches, and spiders, too. Adds to the character!

    The paper color is cream. I wonder if the color is darker due to aging.

  4. Gillian Tindall permalink
    April 7, 2021

    Every one of Ernest George’s chosen sites looks notably dilapidated, which is no doubt partly why he selected them, thinking they were due to disappear. I hope he would be pleased today to find that at least few of them have survived and are looking much better maintained. St Bartholomew, of course, and the gateway to St John’s, and Staple Inn –

  5. David Parsons permalink
    April 7, 2021

    In appreciating George’s romantic visions of old and disappearing London, it is worth noting that his art was a private side-line to his main occupation as one of the most successful architects of his period. His long practice is famous as having been the training ground of many successful architects of the following generations (most notably Edwin Lutyens) and George was president of RIBA from 1908-1910.

    The answer to the question posed by Douglas Brett above is that George has, for these numerals, neglected to draw them in reverse when etching the plate. Because of the nature of the etching process, an etching is a reverse (mirror image) impression of what is etched on the plate. This means that anything the etcher wishes to appear in the ‘right’ direction (such as a topographically correct view or an inscription within the plate) must be etched in reverse so that it prints in the right direction.

  6. Sonia Murray permalink
    April 8, 2021

    Thanks, G.A. These etchings are not only beautiful but sensitive – one feels one could walk into the courts and chat with the people there, and climb the stairs into the lanes of Old London. I do hope these pictures are being reproduced, as surely many people would love to have them framed on office walls and in their homes. George’s work is a balm to the soul – what a delightful contrast to the garish daubs considered art today. Please give us more of George’s work!

  7. Kelly Holman permalink
    April 8, 2021

    Such incredible detail to enjoy for ages. I found the etchings of Limehouse and Shadwell particularly evocative.

    On the etching of Rowden’s Hair Cutting Rooms, just to the left of the sign itself, is a large upside down looking urn-shaped feature. I wondered what it is?

  8. Douglas Brett permalink
    April 9, 2021

    David Parsons suggests that the mirror image numerals are a result of carelessness on the part of the etcher. Having worked in print of one sort or another all my life and known many highly skilled craftsmen I find this highly unlikely. An artist of George’s calibre would not have repeated this error so consistently. I prefer to think that it is a signature or maybe even a code of some sort. I used to hide tiny glyphs in some of my work, partly as a form identification as a protection against illegal copying, partly just for fun.

  9. David Parsons permalink
    April 11, 2021

    In answer to Douglas Brett’s last comment above, from thirty years of collecting and studying etchings, I can assure those interested that reverse-printed signatures and dates (or parts thereof) are not uncommon even amongst the works of the most accomplished etchers (see, e.g., works by Rembrandt, Seymour Haden, Brangwyn, Brockhurst, Dali, Picasso, etc.). Usually, this is because the etcher was not concerned enough about it to etch in reverse (so that the inscription printed in the right direction) but sometimes, as in the George etchings in question here, it is evident that the etcher made an unwitting error with an individual character which he then did not bother to correct (by laboriously burnishing and re-etching the affected area of the plate). There is no more mystery to it than that.

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