The British Library holds hundreds of thousands of topographical views, the most comprehensive and important collection in Britain.
'Topography' is a term that has been has been disputed for centuries. It tends to hold negative connotations: 'topographic' views are often seen as secondary to 'fine art' or 'landscape' views as a result of their being created primarily to provide a visual record of a particular area rather than as a form of self expression. Famously, Royal Academician Henry Fuseli (1741-1825) dismissed topography as "the tame delineation of a given spot" (1801) and Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788), on being asked by the Earl of Hardwicke to paint a 'real view' replied that 'with respect to real views from Nature in this Country' he had never seen 'any Place that affords a Subject equal to the poorest imitations of Gaspar [Garpard Dughet ( 1615-1675)] or Claude [Claude Lorrain (1604/5-1682)]'; and that if Hardwicke wished 'to have anything tolerable in the name of G', it must 'be of his own Brain'.
However, in practice topographic views can provide a background for and challenge perceptions of the 'landscape' tradition, and have responded to historical shifts in taste, aesthetics and style in telling ways. Topographical art had an important part to play in the rise of the Picturesque landscape in the late eighteenth century for example - the taste for irregular and 'natural' scenery which influenced garden design and landscape painting. Many key artists were trained in topography, including J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851). His famous sketching tours took topographical art to new levels of artistic ambition.
The Library's collections act as useful tools for the social, local, landscape, architectural, or environmental historian and illustrate the enormous demand for topographic views before the invention of photography. The views are not to be taken as straightforward factual records, as they were created for a great variety of reasons to serve a range of functions - documenting landed property, serving military and imperial purposes, commercial travel or tourism. We need to unravel the social circumstances and complex influences which led artists, patrons or customers to choose to portray and 'view' the world around them in particular ways.
Drawing and painting landscapes was considered a useful and pleasant activity for the upper middle classes, gentry or artistocracy from the seventeenth century onwards. The collections include many individual views, sketchbooks, illustrated letters, diaries and travel books by amateur artists.
An antiquarian or antiquary is a person who is concerned with the study of the past. The Society of Antiquaries was established in 1707 for 'the encouragement, advancement and furtherance of the study and knowledge of the antiquities and history of this and other countries'. The collections include prints and drawings of buildings and monuments made by antiquarians, particularly during the eighteenth century.
A print is a pictorial image made in a manner which allows it to be multiplied. The collection includes examples of various methods of printmaking including engraving, etching, drypoint, aquatint, mezzotint, lithography and woodcut.