Itinerant View Takers: Topographic Artists in Early Modern England

Sunderland Bridge, Tyne and Wear: Blore’s sepia-wash drawing gives an antiquarian feel to the then relatively new iron bridge over the River Wear. / British Library, Creative Commons

Examining how topographical views were often the result of artists touring in Britain and beyond.

By Ann Payne
Former Curator of Manuscripts
British Library

The lawyer Sir William Burrell, planning a history of Sussex which he never completed, commissioned over the period 1780 to 1791 a series of illustrative drawings from James Lambert, a local watercolourist, and from Samuel Hieronymus Grimm, an immigrant from Switzerland. The ecclesiastic Sir Richard Kaye made use of Grimm to produce countless drawings of English scenes and antiquities, largely for the fun of collecting the work as records of their excursions together in over half the counties of England. Both collections of drawings, totaling 21 volumes, were bequeathed to the British Museum and are now together in the department of Manuscripts (British Library). 

The vast collection of Grimm drawings is of enormous historical interest. His brief from Kaye was topographical in its broadest sense – ‘everything curious’ that they came across in their travels: houses and churches, gateways and wells, castles and ruins, people at work and at play. Most of the drawings are in ink and wash (for example, A Cricket Match in Devonshire Street), but there are a few large coloured views, as for example that of Fountains Abbey, a favourite subject among disciples of the ‘picturesque’.

A Cricket Match in Devonshire Street: Grimm’s drawings capture the idiosyncrasies of everyday life. / British Library, Public Domain
The romantic ruins of Fountains Abbey became a favourite subject for artists in the late eighteenth century. / British Library, Public Domain

Commissions for Burrell, Kaye, the naturalist Gilbert White and others involved Grimm in almost constant travel across all parts of the country to an extent that would probably have been unendurable in a previous age. A gradual improvement in roadmaking and in road transport greatly reduced much of the dreadful discomfort that had long been associated with journeys. In the 18th century people took to travelling as a tolerably comfortable leisure activity. Where once they had travelled only when necessary, now they began to ‘tour’. 

Growing numbers of the nobility and gentry also began to buy drawing tuition. Whole families were given instruction in the principles and techniques of making pictures in pencil or watercolour, and went out to practice the craft. An accompanying expansion took place in the trade in topographical prints, sold as portfolio collections or as the illustrations to travel books and guides. Travellers liked to be shown what they were to look at and liked to have souvenirs of what they had seen. To satisfy a hungry market, not only were professional painters dispatched about the countryside in their droves, but amateur work too was taken up by publishers to be turned into saleable prints. At times, as the 18th century turned into the 19th, it must have seemed as if every artist in England – the trained and the half-trained – was out and about, sketchbook in hand, criss-crossing the land in search of the ‘picturesque’ view for personal albums or for publishers’ profits.

An agreeable example of an artist’s illustrated tour journal has been recently identified as a fair copy – the original is in private hands – of Thomas Sandby’s excursion round Yorkshire and Derbyshire in August 1774 with a party that included his artist friend Theodosius Forrest. The manuscript is included in a volume of three journals having the collective title ‘Forest’s Tours’, and seems likely to have been a copy made for Forrest himself. The watercolour pictures illustrating the tour are so close to the originals that either they must be by Sandby or very precise copies by Forrest, whose own style was rather similar to Sandby’s. Sandby’s account is in the form of letters to his wife: 

‘As I wish to give you a pretty good idea of everything we meet with on Our tour worth noticing I shall make Sketches of such Buildings as please me most of your inspection that you may the less regret not being one of the party’. 

As well as the ‘pleasing sights’, he dwells also on the discomforts of stage coach travel – the bad food, uncivil landlords, even on one occasion the linen unchanged from previous travellers. A high point was the visit to Wentworth House, near Sheffield. It was usual for the nobility to open its parks and mansions to presentable visitors, but Lady Rockingham’s hospitality was exceptional: ‘chit chat’ audiences with her ladyship, good dinners and beds for the night in her palatial house; ‘Tho’ it seem incredible yet I will venture to say, I was led at least Two thousand feet to the room appointed for my repose’.

Forrest and Sandby visited the famous ‘Devil’s Hole’ during their tour of Yorkshire and Derbyshire in 1774. / British Library, Public Domain

Thomas Rowlandson is thought of as a caricaturist rather than a topographer – too busy with the liveliness of a scene to focus on topographical and architectural niceties. However his prolific output included a great many prospects and landscapes. The British Library has handsome examples of his work in views of St Albans, Taplow in Buckinghamshire and the Medway near Chatham, combining to show that for Rowlandson, topography was invariably populated. A free-living, convivial, energetic man, he was not only a regular tourist himself in Britain and on the continent, but had great fun in mocking the ‘picturesque tour’ in his Dr Syntax series of drawings.

One of Rowlandson’s cronies and travelling companions was Henry Wigstead, an amateur whose artistic aspirations so outstripped a modest talent, that the joint hoax the friends played on the Royal Academy in passing off some good watercolours by Rowlandson as the work of Wigstead could hardly stay long unexposed. In a volume of drawings in the British Library by Wigstead, Rowlandson and others is a set prepared to illustrate a tour of Kent made about 1797. The monochrome pictures stand ready for the printmaker but the tour was never in fact published. Rowlandson had helped to illustrate Wigstead’s Remarks on a Tour to North and South Wales after the two had explored the principality together, but the helpful expert in the present case, ready to supplement and improve Wigstead’s own efforts, was almost certainly Rowlandson’s brother-in-law Samuel Howitt.

Druidical Remain on Carn Brea Hill: Rev. John Skinner was another itinerant amateur artist, with a special interest in Celtic culture. / British Library, Creative Commons

In 1799 the artist and traveller Robert Ker Porter, then a young man of 22, helped to found a ‘select society of Young Painters’ with the avowed intention of practising ‘Historic Landscape’. Meetings of the society, which numbered Thomas Girtin among its members, took place in Ker Porter’s rooms in Great Newport Street, near Leicester Square, once the studio of Sir Joshua Reynolds. The nucleus of the group may have been formed earlier. Two years previously the secretary, Louis Francia, and the treasurer, John Denham, appear to have been Ker Porter’s companions on a tour of Hampshire and the Isle of Wight. They figure as ‘Itinerant View Takers’ in the drawing which acts as frontispiece to Ker Porter’s sketchbook of the tour. Although Ker Porter’s contemporary artistic reputation rested primarily on his later work as a historical painter (at one time by appointment to the Tsar of Russia), and he is now better known as an international traveller, his early sketchbook shows a talent for splendidly atmospheric watercolours of English scenes.

A multitude of worshippers take part in a service in Bath Abbey recorded by Samuel Grimm. / British Library, Public Domain

The naturalist Joseph Banks was wedded to the idea that a picture is worth pages of words in recording information and descriptions of scenes and landmarks. After his fruitful participation in Captain Cook’s first voyage, Banks fell out with the Navy Board and withdrew from the second, preferring instead a foray into closer waters – to the Hebrides, Orkneys and Iceland. He took with him the trip of draughtsmen already appointed for the Cook voyage: John Cleveley, Jnr., James Miller and John Miller. Four volumes of the sketches and watercolours made during this trip of 1772 were bequeathed to the British Museum, along with a collection of drawings done on the earlier Cook expedition. Banks’s faith in pictorial records was rewarded with a set of fascinating drawings, like those which show a hunting party on the ‘bending pillars’ near Fingal’s Cave on Staffa and members of his team examining curious tombstones at Killaru on Islay.

The Ruins of Killaru, Islay: The artist John Cleveley junior was appointed by Joseph Banks to create a visual record of his expedition to Iceland via the Hebrides. / British Library, Public Domain

Two of the Library’s largest individual collections, by Edward Blore and by the Bucklers, are the work of professional architects of the 19th century who must have devoted as much of their time to the drawing of existing buildings, as to the designing of potential future buildings. The Buckler family’s huge collection of drawings by its three generations: John (1770–1851), John Chessell (1793–1894) and Charles Alban (1824–1904) is in the department of Manuscripts. Extensive enough to rank as perhaps the topographical collection’s most commonly consulted for reference and research, the emphasis is decidedly architectural. In contrast to Rowlandson or Samuel Grimm, the Bucklers introduced the animate into their only with reluctance. The work is mostly in pencil. Of the relatively small number of watercolours, those by J. C. Buckler are especially pleasing. His father’s tinted interior of Stourhead in Wiltshire shows the home of an important patron, Sir Richard Colt Hoare. Charles had less natural talent than his predecessors, but his view of Lanthony Prior in Monmouthshire presents him at his best.

The Dining Room at Stourhead, Wiltshire: Buckler was a prolific draughtsman and ardent antiquarian, although this drawing shows the more ‘modern’ Palladian house at Stourhead. / British Library, Creative Commons
Charles Alban Buckler’s watercolour of Llanthony Priory in Monmouthshire gives a strong impression of the former Augustinian abbey. / British Library, Creative Commons

Edward Blore was also an architect with strong antiquarian interests. He produced a host of illustrations for county and local histories and these feature among the 4,500 drawings which the Library holds. The drawings, typically in pencil or more impressively in sepia monochrome, are done with an eye for detail and a delightful talent for depicting the effects of light and shade on buildings. They range countrywide and include abbeys, churches and public buildings, castles and mansions, landscapes, townscapes and feats of civil engineering like the bridge over the Wear at Sunderland.

Originally published by the British Library under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.