This image from the early 19th century depicts the Covent Garden Theatre, one of London’s foremost auditoriums, renowned for its pantomimes, plays and operas. The building was first opened in 1732 under the management of John Rich, who exploited the Letters Patent granted to the theatre to monopolise plays of purely spoken word. However, as the century advanced a more diverse range of theatrical and operatic bills were offered there, including performances of Handel oratorios and other operatic pieces, attracting a distinctly (though never exclusively) middle-class audience compared to the rough and tumble of other London venues. 

The theatre shown here was totally destroyed by fire in September 1808, though rebuilding work began quickly. To cover the costs of reconstruction entry prices to the new theatre were raised and the number of available cheaper seats in ‘the pit’ reduced, much to the dissatisfaction of the general public. The first play to be performed there, Macbeth, was constantly interrupted by hissing and booing from the angry audience and protestors occupied the building until the early hours of the morning. Disturbances at the theatre continued for another three months thereafter, dubbed ‘the Old Price Riots’ by the metropolitan press. Peaceful audiences only returned to Covent Garden theatre after the manager, John Kemble, issued a public apology and reversed the hike in entrance fees.

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, architectural draughtsman Auguste Charles Pugin, engravers John Bluck, Joseph Constantine Stadler, Thomas Sunderland, John Hill and Richard Bankes Harraden, anonymous hand-colourists and authors William Henry Pyne and William Combe.

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.