This image depicts the Bartholomew Fair in the early years of the 19th century when all manner of enterprising sideshows were to be seen there: mechanical puppets, waxworks, exotic wild animals, wrestlers, strong men and musical extravaganzas, for example, as well as a huge choice of food and drinks. The origins of Bartholomew Fair can be traced back to the reign of Henry I when a charter was first granted to the Prior of Smithfield to hold a market there. Based in the area around the cattle market near St Bartholomew hospital, the fair grew rapidly in popularity, first as a cloth fair and then as the site for assorted popular entertainments. Originally running for two weeks, the fair was shortened to just four days in the early 18th century, commencing each year in early September.
Bartholomew Fair was under almost constant attack from City authorities during the 18th and 19th centuries for the immorality and drunkenness that was often witnessed there. The salacious theatre productions on show were of particular concern to moral reformers, as was the ability of the fair to keep the working population from their daily employment. Theatrical shows were eventually banned from the site in the 1840s following several public disturbances, and the fair itself was prohibited entirely by the City of London authorities in 1855.
Background to the Microcosm of London collection of prints
The Microcosm of London was published in three volumes between 1808 and 1810 as a result of an ongoing collaboration between publisher Rudolph Ackermann, cartoonist and illustrator Thomas Rowlandson and architectural draughtsman Auguste Charles Pugin. The image shown here was first issued as a loose leaf number that was collated later into separate volumes, all of which proved highly successful as a commercial publishing enterprise.
The Microcosm of London tapped into the demand for highly-coloured prints of real-life subjects that proved something of a publishing sensation during the Regency period. As such, the prints stand as a fascinating historical record of London life in the early years of the 19th century. While Pugin’s fine architectural drawings capture the size and shape of the capital’s principal buildings (both externally and from within) Thomas Rowlandson’s keenly observed figures depict the sheer colour and vitality of late Georgian society, rich and poor alike.