This hand-coloured etching and aquatint, from the Microcosm of London, shows a meeting of the Athenian Lyceum debating society in the Great Room at No. 22 Piccadilly, London. The text accompanying the plate describes the nature of debate in England during the early 19th century:
In a country like England, where eloquence has so frequently enabled its possessors to arrive at the highest offices and dignities in the state, one should have been led to expect some institutions in which this talent was cultivated, similar to those of the Grecian republics, when they yielded to no power but that of eloquence: nothing of the kind, however, presents itself, if we except the small portion of encouragement which is given to its rising efforts at our great schools and universities, and by societies of the nature here represented, to which the English are said to be partial.
We shall only add for the present, that it was with extreme regret we have observed in some of these societies, a disposition to convert that spirit of freedom so interesting to the feelings of an Englishman, and that liberty of canvassing political subjects which the laws allow to be done with decency, into a theatre of licentious discussion, and a means of disseminating principle injurious, not only to the true interests of society, but to the safety of the individuals who venture to utter them, and which must ultimately lead to the introduction of restraints upon an amusement, that, with a little more prudence, may be highly beneficial, as it certainly is congenial to the English character
The debating society was short lived, with no. 22 Piccadilly shutting its doors in 1809 after only two years of activity. It is probable that the tense political climate in London, created by the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, made the Athenian Lyceum’s philosophical ideals impractical and unattainable.
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.
- Article by:
- Matthew Sangster
- Town and city, Transforming topography
Advances in print technologies, a growing consumer base and the interventions of clever entrepreneurs led to a burgeoning of prints of London in the 18th and 19th century. Matthew Sangster considers the ways in which these prints represented and organised the city, placing them onto a digital map of London to reveal the geographical and cultural patterns they trace.