Thomas Sandby panorama of Nottingham

Exercises in perspective: A sweeping view of Nottingham Market Place by Thomas Sandby

Alex Ault examines Thomas Sandby's drawings of his home town, Nottingham; paying special attention to a newly reattributed panorama of the city's market square, from the King's Topographical Collection.

Within George III’s collection of prints, drawings and maps there are many works by and after brothers Paul and Thomas Sandby. Although drawings from this collection were catalogued twice in the 19th century, their authorship was rarely recorded unless they were clearly signed. Such treatment was consistent across the collection where description of location depicted outweighed attribution. This way of ordering prints, drawings and maps meant that works by the Sandby brothers were ‘hidden’ behind the names of towns, cities, landmarks and buildings until ‘discovered’ during a 2013–19 cataloguing project

One such drawing is a monochrome, unfinished view of Nottingham Market Place taken from the west, newly reattributed to Thomas Sandby.[1] Drawn on four pieces of overlapping paper, the work is finished in some areas and barely extant in others, with a vast sweep of blank paper across the lower half of the sheets where the market ‘floor’ would have been. The view depicts the market square with the malt cross on the left and the Exchange building in the middle distance. The drawing is in pencil, pen and black ink with some monochrome wash. It is unsigned and inscribed in a later hand of a Royal Collection or British Museum librarian with the title ‘View of the Market Place of the Town of Nottingham’.

View of the market place of the town of Nottingham

Thomas Sandby's View of the Market Place of the Town of Nottingham; An empty market place; shops on either side and in front; a market square on the left-hand side. Inscribed with title in black ink along the lower edge.

‘View of the Market Place of the Town of Nottingham’, Thomas Sandby. Pen and black ink with monochrome wash. British Library Maps K.Top.33.33.f.

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Although it was unattributed in the 19th century, comparing it to other works by Thomas Sandby makes clear that it shares the same authorship.[2] But understanding where this drawing may sit within the oeuvre of Sandby requires looking beyond just the King’s Topographical Collection. In so doing, this relatively unremarkable drawing can be better understood both in terms of form and function.

The K.Top drawing is part of a group of images representing Nottingham and its market place made by Thomas Sandby. This group includes a coloured, unfinished view of the market place from the east and a highly finished, pen and ink view of the market place from the west both in the Nottingham Castle and Museum collections.

Nottingham Market Square from the East

Market Square, Nottingham from the East

‘Market Square, Nottingham from the East’, Thomas Sandby. Pen and ink with watercolour over pencil. Nottingham Castle Museum and Art Gallery. NCM 1939-63.

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Nottingham Market Square from the West

Market Square, Nottingham from the West

‘Market Square, Nottingham from the West’, Thomas Sandby. Pen and black ink. Nottingham Castle Museum and Art Gallery. NCM 1939-64.

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Both the highly finished pen and ink drawing and the two unfinished perspective drawings have typically been dated to the 1740s, thus placing them in proximity to Sandby’s drawing of the Old Guildhall signed and dated 1741 and Charles Deering’s volume Nottinghamia Vetus et Nova of 1751 for which Thomas Sandby produced a number of illustrations.[3] However, it has been suggested that the two unfinished drawings might date to when Thomas was teaching at the Royal Academy Schools after he was elected in 1768 or perhaps even later, when Thomas Sandby, Theodosius Forrest, William Elves, William Tyler and Samuel Cotes made a tour of Yorkshire and Derbyshire after 1773, during which they visited Nottingham and the market square.[4] 

The panoramic format of the K.Top drawing seems to suggest that Sandby was standing in the market place and moving 180 degrees, drawing and overlapping four sheets of paper as he moved.[5] This format and size (385 x 1170 mm) also indicates that the drawing was produced using a camera obscura.[6] The unfinished drawing of the market square from the east also measures 435 x 1220 mm and appears to have been produced with a camera obscura . Yet while clearly related to the K.Top view from the west, the Nottingham drawing from the east is on larger sheets of paper which does not suggest a continuous recording in 360 degrees of the market square across the two drawings. The change in paper points to a pause in production between the two views and that they function as two separate drawings rather than one continuous study of the market square. Similarly, that coloured wash has been applied to the view from the east as opposed to the monochrome wash in the K.Top view, further suggests that Sandby was either demonstrating or experimenting with a different treatment of a similar view. While parts of both drawings are unfinished, other parts show architecture rendered in minute detail. As such, both drawings appear to be exercises in perspective, scale and observation rather than simply ‘unfinished’ drawings. While both drawings clearly fit into a ‘topographical’ genre, whereby features of a city or landscape are accurately recorded, they also function as working or experimental drawings where different techniques were employed on different areas. This, and their size, perhaps suggests they might have been demonstration drawings for students.

The highly finished pen and ink drawing of the market square from the west is significantly different in its treatment of form and line to the two unfinished and perspectival views. Every inch of paper is filled with tight detail rendered in pen and black ink. Such is the extent of the tightly hatched lines that the drawing at first appears to be an etching. Every single architectural detail is recorded, in contrast to the two unfinished views where architectural detail is sporadic.

This highly finished drawing brings into question the dating and attribution of the group of Nottingham views. As it is stylistically quite different to the unfinished drawings, and indeed, to much of Sandby’s work in general, it is at first difficult to place it within Sandby’s oeuvre. Yet when this work is considered alongside works such as ‘Nottingham’ in the Tate collections, it is clear that Sandby is merely employing a different technique.[7]

Nottingham, by Thomas Sandby

Thomas Sandby Nottingham panorama

‘Nottingham’, Tate Britain, T09212.

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The Tate’s ‘Nottingham’, also probably produced with a camera obscura, provides the link between the highly finished view of Nottingham market place and the two, unfinished, perspectival views. Stylistically, it is close in its treatment to the finished view, but the way in which it was produced, again on overlapping sheets of paper, probably with a camera obscura, is similar to the unfinished perspectival views. This is an example of how Sandby’s drawings benefit from being considered together, in order to understand their place within his oeuvre, and indeed, their function. The Tate’s piece might reasonably date from the early 1740s because of its similarities to Isaac Basire’s print after Thomas Sandby’s drawing ‘The South Prospect of the Town and County of Nottingham’, published 1 May 1742. This might also suggest that the highly finished view of the market place might also be an early date. In turn, it might therefore point to two distinct groups of views of Nottingham by Thomas Sandby: the highly finished ink drawings to the 1740s and the unfinished perspective drawings perhaps to the 1760s–1770s.

There is a second apparently problematic aspect of the highly finished pen and ink drawing. The figures in the foreground, although quite finely executed in parts, do not occupy what could be considered a tangible dimension in relation to the ground and architecture. Architecturally, the view functions within the realm of perspectival possibility, yet the inclusion of living or moving, elements undermines this. While the figures themselves are executed in a somewhat skilled hand, the coach and horses do not fit to scale with the malt cross on the left, suggesting that they were perhaps included after the market place was drawn and perhaps by an entirely different hand.[8] A much later print, also in the K.Top collection bears striking similarity in the placement of horse and carriage and figures.

A Perspective View of Nottingham Market Place, 1813

A Perspective View of Nottingham Market Place

‘A perspective view of Nottingham Market Place’, Thomas Cartwright after Richard Bonnington, published by Bonnington, Nottingham, 1813. Aquatint and etching with hand colouring. British Library Maps K.Top.33.33.f.2.

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Yet while the views of Nottingham leave questions about date and attribution unanswered in part, they also function within expected topographical realms. These drawings, together with Badder and Peat’s map of Nottingham demonstrate how the structure of Nottingham city centre has changed very little in nearly three hundred years. Sandby has captured the broad, open space of the market square, something that can still be experienced today. Church spires, Nottingham Castle and other landmarks are sketched in pencil or ink behind the market buildings and show Sandby recording the exact location of surrounding topography. One now-hidden aspect of the old market square that the drawings show is that the market place and surrounding buildings were drained. In the pavement between some of the buildings are holes which lead to a gutter in the floor of the square. The buildings are set higher than the central area of the square which presumably allowed for water to drain from the buildings and stalls into a central area which then led down smith Row and Cook Stall Row.

A new plan of the town of Nottingham, 1744

A new plan of the town of Nottingham

‘A new plan of the town of Nottingham from an Accurate survey’, 1744 illustrates the layout of Nottingham in the early 18th century. British Library Maps K.Top.33.32.

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Whether intended as exercises in perspective rather than finished drawings, the east and west views of Nottingham market square still provide a record of Nottingham, surely a reason why one of them, albeit unattributed, ended up in the K.Top collection. And when considered with the other views of Nottingham, by Sandby and indeed other artists and cartographers, a far fuller understanding of the market and its environs in the second half of the 18th century becomes clear, as does a potentially revised dating of part of Sandby’s oeuvre.  In the views of Nottingham by Sandby, we see on the one hand unfinished sketches perhaps for experimentation and demonstration and on the other finished drawings for display, presentation and publication function together to show Sandby’s incredibly varied approach to a single subject. Finally, in grouping the Nottingham drawings together, the contrast between finished and unfinished, populated and unpopulated, published and unpublished demonstrate how Sandby used perspective and architectural detail to different ends.


[1] The drawing was previously recorded as ‘A drawn View of the Market Place at Nottingham, unfinished.’ in the Catalogue of Maps, Prints, Drawings, etc., forming the geographical and topographical collection attached to the Library of his late Majesty King George the third, etc, (London, 1829) and ‘An unfinished view, in Indian ink, of the market-place at Nottingham: 3 f. 11 in. x 1 f. 3 in.’ in 1844 in the Catalogue of the manuscript maps, charts, and plans, and of the topographical drawings in the British Museum, (London, 1844–1861).

[2] See for example the series of views of Cumberland Lodge in the Royal Collection (RCIN 914628, RCIN 914625, RCIN 914626 and RCIN 914629).

[3] Deering, Charles, Nottinghamia vetus et nove or an historical account of the ancient and present state of the town of Nottingham (Nottingham: printed by and for George Ayscough & Thomas Willington, 1751). Drawings by Thomas Sandby of Nottingham market Place in Nottingham Museum and Gallery are dated c1740s in John Bonehill and Stephen Daniels (eds), Paul Sandby: Picturing Britain (London: Royal Academy of Arts, 2009). The drawing of the Old Guildhall is in the Nottingham City Museum.

[4] I would like to thank John Bonehill for suggesting these alternative dates.

[5] For a discussion of Sandby’s approach to panorama see Michael Charlesworth ‘Thomas Sandby Climbs the Hoober Stand: The politics of panoramic drawing in eighteenth-century Britain’, Art History, Vol. 19, Issue 2, 247-266, June 1996.

[6] I would like to thank John Bonehill for confirming the attribution to Thomas Sandby and suggesting a camera obscura was used.

[7] T09212, Tate Britian. This drawing must surely relate to Isaac Basire’s print after Thomas Sandby’s 'The South Prospect of the Town and County of Nottingham', published 1 May 1742.

[8] I would like to thank Pamela Wood, curator, Nottingham Castle Museum, for pointing out the difference in scale between the horse and carriage, figures and architecture and for taking the time to show me the Sandby drawings from the Museum. I would also like to thank her for drawing my attention to the Badder and Peat map.

Alexandra Ault picture
  • Alexandra Ault
  • Alexandra Ault received her BA and MA from the Courtauld Institute of Art and is currently completing her PhD at University College London (UCL). She has worked at the National Portrait Gallery as an assistant curator and as a British and European watercolours and drawings specialist at two major auction houses. At the British Library she is Lead Curator of western manuscripts from 1601-1850 which includes important items from English literature and world history.

    She is also Lead Curator for the British Library in China project that involves lending some of the Library’s most important treasures from English literature to a number of exhibitions across China.

    Her particular areas of research interest are nineteenth-century publishing, the relationship between manuscript and print, and the ‘life’ of the literary manuscript during and after writing.

    You can follow Alexandra on Twitter @AlexandraAult

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