Theatres have stood on the present site of the Theatre Lane, Drury Lane, since the late 16th century, the current building being the fourth in the theatre’s long history. The first was constructed in 1663 following the restoration of Charles II and the relaxation of performance laws following the austerity of the interregnum years, which in turn led to an upsurge in the popularity of theatrical performances. After fire devastated the property in 1672 the theatre was replaced by a second building (believed by some to have been designed by Christopher Wren) which provided more ample accommodation for the thousands of play-goers who went there.
The 18th century was arguably the highpoint of the theatre’s popularity when actor-manager David Garrick ran it to great acclaim, succeeded in the role by the celebrated playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan. This image depicts Drury Lane Theatre in the early 19th century and shows the third auditorium to occupy the site, completed in 1794. The theatre was huge in relation to London’s other theatres, accommodating some 3,600 patrons in ornate surroundings. The theatre burnt down once more, shortly after this picture was completed, to be replaced by a further building that still stands 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.