Our extensive collections of British topographical drawings have been assembled over the last 250 years. They owe their existence largely to the collecting instincts of generations of antiquarians and their passion for documenting, in word and image, the urban and rural landscapes around them.
While the British Museum’s Department of Prints and Drawings concentrated on acquiring drawings of particular artistic merit, the Department of Manuscripts – now part of the British Library – assembled material by artists who were often uncelebrated or even unknown. Although the quality of their draughtsmanship varies from superb to modest, these drawings are a valuable, and sometimes unique, source of information on antiquities and local history. Especially when amplified by written notes, they provide a significant record of architecture and landscapes that are now lost or altered.
The 18th and 19th centuries are particularly well represented. This period ushered in the great age of watercolour painting and topographical art, stimulated by a growing enthusiasm among the gentry and nobility for ‘touring’ as a civilised leisure activity. When political upheavals in Europe deterred well-off travellers from the customary Grand Tour to Italy and Greece, they turned their attentions closer to home.
Improved roads, and later the coming of the railways, gave more people more opportunities to travel. These early tourists created a market for illustrated travel books. Artists, both professional and amateur, were dispatched across the country to provide the drawings. Tourists also enjoyed making their own record of the places they visited - the holiday photographs of their day. Acquiring the services of a drawing tutor became a status symbol for families anxious to master the newly fashionable skills of drawing and watercolour painting.
Interest in topography grew as well from changes fueled by the industrial revolution. The land itself became more valuable as improved technologies made its exploitation more efficient. Private landowners swallowed up common land, accelerating the enclosure of the countryside. All this advanced a view of the countryside as important and prestigious – especially if you happened to own a part of it. It also encouraged a celebration of the ‘natural’ and ‘picturesque’ in landscapes that would soon vanish beneath 19th-century industry and the railway track.
From the British Library’s wealth of topographical drawings, we present a selection of over 3,000 images, inspired by one artist’s commission to depict ‘everything curious’ as he toured the country.
That artist was Samuel Hieronymus Grimm, one of the most notable to feature in the Library’s collections. Though Swiss by birth, Grimm settled in England from 1768. Here, his living was made partly by accompanying patrons as they travelled the British countryside. Grimm produced a long series of watercolour and pen-and-wash drawings devoted to Sussex for Sir William Burrell, the lawyer and antiquarian. Nine hundred of them are preserved in the British Library.
However, even these are outnumbered by the drawings he made for Sir Richard Kaye, amounting to over two and a half thousand. Kaye’s career in the Church elevated him from parson to Dean of Lincoln. As new posts took him across the country, Grimm was charged to follow and record ‘everything curious’ – a task that spread over some 21 years.
Grimm complemented his employment by such patrons with commercial work. Satirical mezzotints for various publishers appeared in the 1770s with telling caricatures of 18th-century life. So it’s not surprising that his landscapes are often animated by figures: depictions of rural life rather than lifeless vistas. Whether they show a cricket match in London or a crocodile of village schoolchildren, Grimm’s subjects feel fresh and lively, combining an affection for the human in nature with an eye for the picturesque. His characters glimpsed amongst the trees and houses, both great and small, provide an often-intimate view of the social scene in 18th-century England.
Since Grimm’s travels did not cover all the country, other topographical drawings from the Library’s collections have been added to complete the picture. Among the most well known artists represented is George Scharf. Born in Germany, Scharf was caught up in the Napoleonic Wars and joined the English Army, which employed him to draw maps and sketches of fortifications. In 1816, he decided to make his home in England. Here, he found employment with other German ex-patriots who had established businesses publishing lithographs. Scharf’s work is especially noted for his delightful scenes of everyday life in London.
Together these topographical drawings provide an absorbing survey of the whole of Britain during the century between 1750 and 1850 as seen though the eyes of its growing band of amateur and professional artists.