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The Microcosm Of London

April 17, 2024
by the gentle author

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Billingsgate Market

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

In 1897, Charles Gosse, Archivist at the Bishopsgate Institute, was lucky enough to buy a handsome 1809 edition of Thomas Rowlandson & Augustus Pugin’s ‘Microcosm of London’ from Quaritch booksellers in Piccadilly with just one plate missing, yet it took him until 1939 to track down a replacement to fill the gap and complete his copy – and the single plate cost him more in 1939 than the entire three volumes in 1897. Then the volumes were stolen in the nineteen-eighties but, thankfully, returned to the Bishopsgate years later as part of Operation Bumblebee, tracking art thefts back to their owners – and just waiting there for me to come upon them.

Augustus Charles Pugin, the architectural draftsman (and father of Augustus Welby Pugin who designed the Palace of Westminster) had the idea to create a lavish compendium of views of London life but it was the contribution of his collaborator Thomas Rowlandson who brought another dimension, elevating these images above the commonplace. While Pugin created expansive and refined architectural views, Rowlandson peopled them with an idiosyncratic bunch of Londoners who take possession of these spaces and who, in many cases, exist in pitifully unsentimental contrast to the refinement of their architectural surroundings.

How very pleasant it is to be a tourist in the metropolis of 1809, thanks to the magnificent plates of the ‘Microcosm of London.’ 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 only a few plates – such as Carlton House and the House of Commons – does Thomas Rowlandson submit to the requirement of peopling these spaces with slim well-dressed aspirational types that we recognise today from those familiar mock-ups used to sell bad architecture to the gullible. Yet the most fascinating plates are those where he has peopled these rationally conceived public spaces with the more characterful and less willowy individuals who illustrate the true diversity of the human form, and he satisfies our voyeuristic tendencies by celebrating the grotesque and the theatrical. In Billingsgate Market, Rowlandson takes a composition worthy of Claude and peoples it with fishwives fighting, revealing affectionate delight in the all-too familiar contrast exemplified by aspirational architecture and the fallibility which makes us human.

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 which is unable to resist introducing grotesque human drama or adding comic specimens of humanity to these idealised urban visions. Just like an early nineteenth century version of ‘Where’s Wally?’, Rowlandson implicitly invites us to seek the clowns.

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 duffer 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 the individuality that is the vain prerogative of the rich in this vision of London. Equally, at the asylum nobody gets to assert themselves, while the prison inmates are diminished both in size and 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 – thankfully – Thomas Rowlandson populated it with life.

Fire in London – the dreadful fire which took place on 3rd March 1791 at the Albion Mills on the Surrey side of Blackfriars Bridge. We have selected this from many objects of a similar nature which frequently occur in this great metropolis, because the representation afforded an opportunity of a more picturesque effect, the termination of the bridge in front and St Paul’s in the background contribute interesting parts to a representation which is altogether great and awful.

Pillory, Charing Cross. A place chosen very frequently for this kind of punishment, probably on account of its being so public a situation. An offender thus exposed to public view is thereafter considered infamous. There are certain offences which are supposed to irritate the feelings of the lower classes more than others, in which case a punishment by Pillory becomes very serious.

Guildhall. Examination of a bankrupt before his creditors, Court of King’s Bench Walk. The laws of England, cautious of encouraging prodigality and extravagance allow the benefits of the bankruptcy laws to none but the traders. If a trader is unable to pay his debts it is misfortune and not a fault.

Leaden Hall Market is a large and extensive building of considerable antiquity, purchased by the great Whittington in 1408 and by him presented to the City.

Astley’s Amphitheatre. Mr Rowlandson’s figures are here, as indeed they invariably are, exact delineations of the sort of company who frequent public spectacles of this description. With respect to teaching horses to perform country dances, how far thus accomplishing such an animal renders him more happy or a more valuable member of the horse community is a question I leave to be discussed by the sapient philosophers.

Bartholomew Fair, 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 the mob.

Bow St Office,  giving an accurate representation of this celebrated office at the time of an examination. The police of this country has hitherto been very imperfect, until Henry Fielding, by his abilities, contributed the security of the public, by the detection and prevention of crimes.

Covent Garden Market. The plate represents the bustle of an election for Westminster. The fruit and vegetable market certainly diminishes the beauty and effect of this place as a square, but perhaps the world does not furnish another instance of another metropolis supplied with these articles in equal goodness and profusion.

Christie’s Auction Room. The various effect which the lot – A Venus – has on the company is delineated with great ability and humour. The auctioneer, animated by his subject, seems to be rapidly pouring forth such a string of eloquence as cannot fail to operate on the feelings of his auditors.

The House of Commons is plainly and neatly fitted up, and accommodated with galleries, supported by slender iron capitals adorned with Corinthian capitals, from the ceiling hangs a handsome branch.

Drawing from life at the Royal Academy, Somerset House

The College of Physicians. There is nothing remarkable in the interior of the building except the library and the great hall – which is handsomely represented in this print is a handsome well-proportioned room. The eager disputatious attitude of the figure which is represented as leaning forward in the act of interrogating the candidate, is finely contrasted with two figures on the right hand, one of whom seems to have gathered up his features in supercilious indifference.

Exhibition Room, Somerset House. It would not be easy to find ay other artist, except Mr Rowlandson who was capable of displaying so much separate manner in the delineations placed upon the walls and such an infinite variety of small figures, contrasted with each other in a way so peculiarly happy. To point out any number of figures as peculiarly entitled to attention, would be an insult to the spectator, as very many would necessarily be left out of the catalogue, and everyone of taste will discern them at a glance.

Pass-Room, Bridewell. An interesting and accurate view of this abode of wretchedness. It was provided that paupers, claiming settlement in distant parts of the kingdom should be confined for seven days, prior to being sent of their respective parishes. This is the room apportioned by the magistrate for one class of miserable females.

Royal Cock Pit. It is impossible to examine this picture with any degree of attention, and not enjoy the highest degree of satisfaction at this successful exertion of the artists’ abilities. The regular confusion which this picture exhibits, tells a tale that no combination of words could possibly have done so well.

The Hall, Carlton House. Conceived with classic elegance that does honour to the genius of the late Mr Holland who as the architect, the tout-ensemble is striking and impressive.

The Custom House, in the uppermost of which is a magnificent room running the whole length of the building. On this spot is a busy concourse of nations who pay their tribute towards the support of Great Britain. In front of this building, ships of three hundred and fifty tons burthen can lie and discharge their cargoes.

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

Vauxhall Gardens

Images courtesy Bishopsgate Institute

6 Responses leave one →
  1. Jonathan permalink
    April 17, 2024

    Nice to see these. I think the large painting in the ‘Common Council Chamber, Guildhall’ illustration is in the Guildhall Art Gallery now.

  2. arabella permalink
    April 17, 2024

    How wonderful – I’m going going to savour this one – it needs time to look at each picture. Thanks you

  3. Mark permalink
    April 17, 2024

    These are superb.
    Vauxhall Gardens looked really good. I believe it was possible for a gent to meet a girl of a certain reputation for extra curricular activity in the bushes surrounding the gardens.
    Rowlandson was an excellent caricaturist wasn’t he.

  4. April 17, 2024

    Rowlandson and Pugin — what a treat together! I’m afraid Mr Rowlandson rather upstages Mr Pugin, though. I’ve spent far too much time this morning looking at all the figures and not nearly so much appreciating the architecture.

    Brilliant commentary on Rowlandson’s part that he’s made all the figures at St James’s look like painted dolls; they really have less individuality than the workers at the Post Office.

  5. Christopher Wayne Bonebrake permalink
    April 17, 2024

    A wonderful collection of art. Some I know and have been to. Thank you for the memories.

  6. April 18, 2024

    It’s wonderful to study the architecture and the people who inhabit it — but it’s hard to say which is the more interesting part!

    Love & Peace

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