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Image for the news item 'Rudolph Ackermann's Microcosm of London 1808-1810' on 2 Jun 2021

The Microcosm of London, published to subscribers between 1808 and 1810, is one of the most beautiful of Emmanuel’s hand-coloured books, but like many such books it derives from a collective effort and does not have a single ‘author’.

It was the first major project of Rudolph Ackermann, a German immigrant and canny entrepreneurial publisher who set up business in the Strand. The Microcosm has 104 plates, largely of interior views, engraved from the elegant originals by Auguste Charles Pugin, a French immigrant. But because Ackermann felt Pugin’s architectural views needed something extra, he brought in Thomas Rowlandson – who with James Gillray was the master caricaturist of the period – to populate the views with characterful, even cartoonlike, figures. Pugin was reportedly not best pleased, but their joint work was then etched by Ackerman’s engravers and, once printed, would be parcelled out for hand-colouring, often in piece-work by whole families working from home – no two plates of the same view are quite the same. The text accompanying the plates was also the work of two authors. One thousand copies were produced for subscribers, and in 1810 the three-volume set cost 15 guineas – equivalent to over £1000 today.

Ackermann likens the reader’s experience of the Microcosm to learning the language before visiting a country, preparing for visits to London, or substituting if the depicted places are never seen. London is represented as a prosperous, well-regulated city, celebrating the interaction of its culture and its commercial success. The text to a striking plate of a disastrous fire in 1791 in a flour mill south of Blackfriars bridge (Plate 1) – no loss of life but huge damage to property – largely analyses, with tables of figures, the recent boom in the insurance business in London.

Many plates focus on national and civic institutions (Parliament, British Museum, Guildhall), finance and commerce (Bank of England, Stock Exchange, Lloyd’s), theatres, law courts and churches. Gestures to diversity include views showing mass at the Roman Catholic chapel in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, and worship in the synagogue in Duke’s Place and in a Quaker meeting house. One very new national institution was the just-founded British Institution (Plate 2), where budding artists might learn by copying Old Masters loaned for the purpose ‘from the collections of the nobility and gentry’. It is an apt image of the Regency enthusiasm for picture-making by both male and female painters.

Less fortunate Londoners come into the Microcosm’s focus through its plates depicting charitable institutions, courts, prisons and such places of popular entertainment as Bartholomew Fair – held near Bart’s Hospital and Smithfield – where the earthy revels – ‘some hugging, some fighting, others dancing’ – take place below Pugin’s ethereal moonlight (Plate 3). Its views of the underside of London life give the Microcosm a special insight and roundedness. Some of Pugin’s interiors show charitable provision for poor women. The ‘Asylum or House of Refuge’ in Lambeth (Plate 4) is intended ‘for the reception of friendless and deserted girls’, where they will be trained for employment in service from 15 and taught to read. The young women are shown in uniform ‘at their repast’, being visited by some well-dressed benefactors. The Pass-Room at Bridewell Prison (Plate 5) shows ‘this room appointed for one class of miserable females’, where paupers were confined before being transferred back to their home parishes.

The view inside the Middlesex Hospital (Plate 6) opens an interesting window on to a women’s hospital ward of this period. Pugin’s view inside a workhouse (Plate 7), where men and women inmates were segregated, shows the women’s common-room, peopled with Rowlandson’s caricature figures. Much bleaker still is the interior of St Luke’s Hospital for Lunatics in Old Street (Plate 8), where Pugin’s focus on the palatially grand architecture contrasts with the small figures of the patients and their frantic gestures.

Another group of plates illustrate the legal process through courts and prisons. The scene at Cold Bath Fields Prison (Plate 9) shows the next two prisoners arriving to take the place of the pair who have just completed their hour of hard labour at ‘the water engine’. A rare street scene (Plate 10) depicts two convicts serving their time in the pillory at Charing Cross, where they are at the mercy of the mood of a large crowd. The view inside Newgate Prison (Plate 11) shows the interior of the prison chapel during a service on the Sunday preceding the next hanging of convicted criminals. In the middle of the picture is an enclosure called the Dock. Here those condemned to hang in the coming week, including several women, are obliged to sit round a coffin while ‘a suitable sermon called the condemned sermon’ is being preached.

Barry Windeatt (Keeper of Rare Books)

Images by Helen Carron (College Librarian)

Plates [L-R]

  • 1: ‘Fire in London, 3 March 1791, at the Albion Flour Mill’
  • 2: ‘The British Institution’
  • 3: ‘Bartholomew Fair’
  • 4: ‘The Asylum, Lambeth’
  • 5: ‘Bridewell’
  • 6: ‘Middlesex Hospital’
  • 7: ‘The Workhouse, St James’s Parish, Westminster’
  • 8: ‘St Luke’s Hospital for Lunatics, Old Street’
  • 9: ‘Cold Bath Fields Prison: The Water Engine’
  • 10: ‘The Pillory at Charing Cross’
  • 11: ‘Newgate: The Prison Chapel’
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