This image depicts London’s Custom House on the north-bank of the river Thames, as seen from the perspective of an approaching boat. Since the 16th century ‘legal quays’ had existed on the river a short distance upstream from the Tower of London, where all duty-liable goods were landed and dues collected: on wool, wine and tobacco, for example. Duties were collected on behalf of both the City of London and the Crown and monies recorded and lodged in the nearby Custom House, the earliest example of which was constructed in the late thirteenth century.
The building shown here was built in 1715 to the designs of architect Thomas Ripley and was a replacement for a previous property destroyed by fire. By the early 19th century, however, a rapid expansion in continental trade combined with the opening of purpose built docks to the east at the Isle of Dogs had rendered the building hopelessly inadequate for the business conducted there. A new Custom House was built in 1813, much of which survives today.
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.