This portrait of John Nichols (1745–1826) is probably after a painting by Thomas Towne of 1782. It was engraved for publication in Nichols’ Bibliotheca Topographica Britannica: an ambitious 52-part survey of British antiquities published between 1780 and 1790.
The Bibliotheca was the product of a 20-year tour, undertaken by Nichols and his close friend, business partner and mentor William Bowyer (1699–1777). Nichols inherited Bowyer’s printing firm and wrote his biography, which is visible on the shelf at right below the portrait. A number of other publications that entrenched Nichols’ reputation as an editor, antiquary and printer can also be seen. Among them is his first important editorial work, the Remains of Swift (1775), his widely praised biography of William Hogarth (1781), and his editions of Francis Atterbury’s letters (1783) and William King’s poems (1776).
Between the lives of Hogarth and Bowyer is Nichols’ antiquarian study of Hinckley, Leicestershire. Though he was born in Islington (a plan of which can be seen directly below the portrait), he had family in Hinckley and married his second wife Martha there. Finally, the note inscribed ‘To Mr Urban, St John’s Gate’ resting on top of Hogarth’s biography refers to Nichols’ role as editor of the hugely successful monthly digest, The Gentleman’s Magazine. ‘Mr Urban’ was the penname of all Magazine editors and ‘St John’s Gate’ was its headquarters.