This image by illustrator and cartoonist Thomas Rowlandson depicts the famous Long Room at the London Custom House, situated on the banks of the river Thames. This building was part of Thomas Ripley’s early 18th-century premises built to replace an earlier design of Sir Christopher Wren, and all the major transactional business of the Port of London was conducted there. In this building custom duties were settled and clearances to import and export goods were issued. The business conducted here reflected the international nature of London as a world city. Note for example the middle-eastern and oriental dress of the traders in the foreground, and the costermonger selling refreshments to the eager patrons.
Despite its purpose-built design, Ripley’s Custom House soon proved inadequate for the burgeoning ocean-going trades centred on the Port of London, particularly once new wet docks were opened on the Isle of Dogs in 1806. The building was redesigned by architect David Laing to provide even more accommodation for the riverside trades, including a new long room measuring nearly 200 feet in length.
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.