The first theatre at Sadler’s Wells was built in the late 17th century, since when six successive theatres for the performing arts have occupied the site. Located in the then relatively rural surrounds of Clerkenwell on the outer fringes of the City, the first theatre owed its origins to the popularity of nearby health-giving springs and pleasure gardens, which quickly became notorious for the relatively poor patrons that visited. In the early years of the 18th century, Sadler’s Wells maintained a reputation for the bawdy nature of its performances and the debauchery among the people who came to be entertained there, though in its later years the playhouse was associated with a more respectable ‘small middle class’.
The image shown here depicts the theatre in the early 19th century, at a time when the theatrical business was booming. In the 1780s German tourist Sophie Van La Roche described a visit to Sadler’s Wells in colourful detail. Over an astonishing three-hour performance she witnessed nine different acts, including ballet, comedy, a pantomime, rope-walking and even a strong man, while the audience around her partook of drinks, pasties and sandwiches while noisily enjoying the performance.
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.