The west view of Calder Abbey

Spot the difference: Improvements to the Landscape in the Bucks’ Views of Antiquities

  • Article written by: Grant Lewis
  • Published: 22 Aug 2019
Grant Lewis interrogates the topographical veracity of the Buck brothers' Cumberland views.

Together with their town prospects, Samuel and Nathaniel Buck’s views of antiquities (1726–42) has justifiably been described as ‘arguably the most important topographical print series in Britain in the early 18th century in terms of [its] scale and scope’.[1] The size and ambition of the project is indeed remarkable: over a 16-year period the Bucks published no fewer than 483 views of historical monuments across England and Wales, each one based on their own first-hand research in an age when many printmakers were content to rely on stock images rather than incur the expense of lengthy travel.[2] The Bucks themselves often advertised their views as ‘taken upon the spot’, and it was precisely this emphasis on research which won them the enthusiastic support of the Society of Antiquaries, particularly William Stukeley, whose formative influence on the project is well known.[3] Moreover, it was this same trustworthiness which sustained the popularity of the series in an increasingly crowded market of topographical prints, most apparent in the enthusiasm surrounding their reissue as Buck’s Antiquities in 1774, but detectable much later still from the reuse of the plates well into the following century.[4]

In fact, this enthusiasm never died away. As the world described by the Bucks becomes ever more distant their reputation for objectivity has become an even more attractive quality, particularly for historians and archaeologists searching for trustworthy eyewitnesses. Scholarship too has assigned the Bucks a documentary function, and in the only book currently devoted to the brothers, the late Ralph Hyde was simply able to say that ‘when one investigates closely, the Bucks usually turn out to be right’.[5] After the confidence of such an assertion it is not a little surprising to report significant inaccuracies in the brothers’ output, especially as hints of their deviancy can be spotted simply by comparing their views of the same site, without any prior knowledge of their subject. Let us begin with their seemingly coherent account of Lanercost Priory in Cumberland (BL Maps K.Top.10.57.a. and BL Maps K.Top.10.57.b.), which breaks down as soon as facts are sought. Should their two views be called upon to confirm, say, the position of the priory’s Norman gatehouse, they only contradict rather than clarify: according to the first plate (BL Maps K.Top.10.57.a.) the gatehouse sits just in front of the church, while to the second (BL Maps K.Top.10.57.b.), it is placed some distance away, at the extreme left of the scene and at an angle to the church façade behind. 

Similar doubt emerges over the very existence of a row of vicarage buildings in between the church and gatehouse, present in the second view but not the first, which instead offers us an unobstructed prospect of the fields and trees beyond. Both cannot be right, and a comparison with the site itself reveals that neither can claim superior accuracy, for while the second plate correctly places the gatehouse and priory buildings, it downplays the 250-metre distance between priory and the River Irthing in the foreground.[6]

The north-west view of Lanercost Priory

The north-west view of Lanercost Priory

This view of Lanercost Priory depicts the gatehouse as being just in front of the church, thereby excluding the vicarage buildings that are clearly shown in the other Bucks’ view of the Priory below.

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The south-east view of Lanercost Priory

The south-east view of Lanercost Priory

This view of Lanercost Priory depicts a cluster of vicarage buildings between the gatehouse at the extreme left of the scene and the church in the centre.

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Alerted by this case, critical scrutiny of other prints reveals such inaccuracies to be a common feature of the Bucks’ antiquities. As the series does not seem to have been examined  in this way a small study like this can only work with a handful of examples, and following Lanercost the views of Cumberland and Westmorland (1739) seems as good a place as any to begin. For a start, the set was one of the most successful of the entire series, attracting 383 subscribers, fewer only than the prints of Surrey, Middlesex and Hertfordshire (1737) and Norfolk, Sussex and Essex (1738). More importantly for our purposes, however, unlike these two preceding sets few among the Bucks’ largely metropolitan audience would have been capable of contesting the accuracy of these views of some of England’s remotest and least studied monuments, many of which were engraved here for the first time. Here, more than elsewhere, the Bucks’ authority was unchallenged, and their subscribers were entirely at the mercy of every one of their difficult editorial decisions. The observations that follow are based on a fraction of the antiquities, let alone the Bucks’ total output, but even within this small sample clear trends emerge, notably the recurrence of the same kinds of deviation, which fall into two provisional categories we have encountered already at Lanercost.

The first might loosely be termed the rearrangement of the landscape. Instead of Lanercost, we might easily have begun with the Bucks’ view of Scaleby Castle (BL Maps K.Top.10.71.1.), where the distance between the castle and moat has been greatly reduced, or with Wetherall Priory (BL Maps K.Top.10.72.a.), which shows how reordering the topography allows the Bucks to fashion particular readings of a site. Here Andrew Kennedy has convincingly interpreted the juxtaposition of the medieval gatehouse with the Italianate gardens of Corby Castle as a confident statement of improvement, and we can further support this reading by noting that the contrast is in fact a contrived one.[7] If the comparison is suggested by the landscape, to make it effective the Bucks have had to move the gatehouse some 170 metres closer to the River Eden in order to allow both gatehouse and garden to be illustrated in a satisfactory level of detail and in clear relation to each other.

The north-east view of Scaleby Castle

Engraving of Scaleby Castle

In this view of Scaleby Castle the distance between the moat and castle (in reality about 50 metres) has been greatly reduced to enable a more detailed representation of both.

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The west view of Wetherall-Priory, in the county of Cumberland

THE WEST VIEW OF WETHERALL-PRIORY, IN THE COUNTY OF CUMBERLAND

The only surviving part of Wetheral Priory after its dissolution was its 15th-century sandstone gatehouse

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The second type might still more loosely be described as the simplification of complex subjects like Naworth Castle (BL Maps K.Top.10.26.), which the renowned naturalist Thomas Pennant thought a ‘true specimen of ancient inconvenience’ when he visited in 1771.[8] A bird’s-eye view bears this out: in front of the trapezoidal quadrangle is a gatehouse spun at an awkward angle to the castle behind and to another, larger crenellated block at the right, the so-called Bote House, which also sits much further forward.  The Bucks’ castle, by contrast, is a far more orderly affair. The two disparate blocks in the foreground have been repackaged as a pair and used to balance the façade, investing the whole with a symmetry continued in the towers and outbuildings. To realise this, the Bucks have downplayed the difference in size between the two and made them parallel with the castle keep and with each other, initiating a horizontal relationship secured by the sharp band of white light running along the top of the foreground wall. To cohere further the components of the façade the gatehouse has also been attached to the castle wall behind, and a single archway inserted through both walls, rationalising two entrances down to one.  Of course, many of the idiosyncrasies of detail are carefully recorded, but they are grafted to an essentially classical structure which enables the Bucks to document each component clearly and better explain its relation to the whole.

The east view of Naworth Castle

The east view of Naworth Castle

In this engraving, the Bucks have rearranged the ancient fortifications and buildings of Naworth Castle to make the scene appear more symmetrical.

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To this end the Bucks were prepared to go much further. We have already referred to the range airbrushed from the first view of Lanercost, but a still more drastic omission occurs in their account of the medieval ruins of Calder Abbey (BL Maps K.Top.10.50.a.). Here the mansion still attached to the south (i.e. right) transept is missing, in stark contrast to the prominence it receives in Matthias Read’s roughly contemporary painting (Abbot Hall Art Gallery), which suggests that the house should have been a prominent feature of the Bucks’ view, easily obscuring most of the right half of the image.

The west view of Calder Abbey

The west view of Calder Abbey, in the county of Cumberland

This view of the medieval ruins of Calder Abbey neglects to include the mansion attached to the south transept.

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Where do these inaccuracies leave the Bucks’ claim to have portrayed their subjects ‘on the spot’? Intact, surely, for it is clear that these inconsistencies cannot be described as ‘mistakes’, not least because in describing them it becomes impossible to divorce them from their clear purpose: to make the images more not less descriptive.  Comprehensiveness, not photographic accuracy, was clearly the goal the Bucks and their patrons had in mind, and the goal by which they should be judged. After all, Richard Houston’s praise for the Bucks having ‘Snatched from th’inexorable Jaws of Time The Mouldering Ruins of each loftie Pile’ could only be justified by their recording as much of a site as possible.[9] In the same vein we may also recall William Stukeley’s oft-quoted belief about ‘how much better an idea [engravings] convey to the mind than written descriptions, which often not at all, oftener not sufficiently, explain [things]’, an opinion which might have made an impression on the young Samuel Buck when he toured with Stukeley in the same year they were published, 1724, right at the beginning of the ‘antiquities’ project.[10]

Indeed, it is not difficult to imagine scholar and draughtsman discussing the respective merits of text and image, and Stukeley’s familiarity with this well-worn comparison may have been particularly enriching for the Bucks, highlighting a constraint exclusive to visual artists: the single viewpoint.[11] Where no one satisfactory prospect existed, the challenge for the Bucks became how best to pack as much information as possible into one or two small images – the most a project of this scale and ambition could afford to devote to one site.  Returning to Lanercost it is easy to appreciate their efforts. Rearranging the church and gatehouse not only allows the Bucks to illustrate both in far greater detail, but to do so from their optimal angles: thus the largely one-dimensional gatehouse is described frontally, while the facade behind is presented in three-quarter view, which brings the added benefit of exposing one whole side of the church for description. To avoid confusion the two are also clearly distinguished from each other, both compositionally and by a strong tonal contrast which silhouettes the gatehouse but bathes the church façade with light, leaving only thin, wiry outlines to describe the relief mouldings in an almost diagrammatic fashion. The elimination of the buildings in between the church and gatehouse now also makes sense, decluttering the already busy right third of the image so as not to confuse this carefully contrived relationship.

In short, when we deconstruct these images we find in this mainstay of the topographical genre that very quality topography has long been defined as lacking: invention. To appreciate the problem this find poses to traditional understandings of  the genre we need only recite Henry Fuseli’s famous dismissal of it as nothing other than ‘the tame delineation of a given spot’, a condemnation reserved, of course, for a lecture on invention.[12] It is difficult to underestimate the importance of invention to the likes of Fuseli. For any academician it was easily the most desirable artistic quality, elevating the creative artist above the reproductive draftsman intellectually incapable of anything other than the slavish imitation of nature. With regard to ‘views’, it was invention alone which separated ‘true’ landscape painting from informational images like the Bucks’, which were among the last places Fuseli would have expected to find it. Were he presented with the evidence of these prints Fuseli would surely object that our understanding of invention is quite different from his own, which is undeniable. Of course we do not find virtuosic displays of the artistic imagination in the Bucks’ views, or even ingenuity realised with much stylistic grace, but in this narrow definition of invention lies part of the problem. Because scholars have glossed over this functional, and by its very nature restrained, invention, the opposite has automatically and incorrectly been assumed. Yet in contrast to the perceived tendency of antiquarians and topographers to amass material indiscriminately, the Bucks impose some rule on their subjects by selecting and structuring information, guiding readings and taking care to ensure each part is explained in itself and in relation to its surroundings. Here naturalism and invention are inseparable not incompatible, and against the evidence of these prints their traditional opposition appears a wholly inadequate, indeed counterproductive means of framing this material.

Thankfully, the redefinition – or rather dissolution – of the topographical genre is well under way after important contributions by John Barrell and others, and happily we can dovetail our own findings with their conclusions.[13] By closely studying the usage of ‘topography’ Barrell has convincingly doubted the very existence of a separate topographical genre in the 18th century – especially one that was defined by a lack of invention. The picture appears especially fluid in the first half of the century, in fact, when the distinction between the imitative and intellectual was also more blurred than it was in the second, as Martin Myrone has noted in relation to George Vertue, a contemporary of the Bucks also in the employ of the Society of Antiquaries.[14]

We may extend this lexical scrutiny to terms commonly used to describe topographical images.  To the Bucks and their contemporaries adjectives like ‘natural’ and ‘objective’ would have meant something quite different from what they do today, and should be used with equal caution.  Indeed, it was only after a philosophical shift in the late 18th century that ‘objectivity’ came to be understood as the representation of something as it truly is, unblemished by human interference. The visual ideal, moreover, was only widely realised in the early 19th century after the advent of photography, a medium which doubtless guides our expectations of earlier informational imagery more than we may realise, perhaps leading us too readily to assume views like the Bucks’ aspired to be ‘snapshots’ of a particular place at a particular time. Of course, both naturalism and objectivity were preceded by terms like ‘truth to nature’, but for most of the 18th century this had quite a distinct meaning, namely the ability to represent the general rather than the particular, and improve on actual appearance through the exercise of judgement. When we revert to the historically appropriate terms we find no friction with the inaccuracies that initially took us by surprise. As we have seen, it is not difficult to identify the idealising streak of ‘truth to nature’ in the Bucks’ oeuvre, whether in the rationalisation of the façade of Naworth Castle or the erasure of post-medieval additions from Calder Abbey. Spared of demanding from this material functions it was never expected to fulfil, we can begin to see the benefits of actively trying to take the Bucks on their own terms. If we do we are richly rewarded, for if the images’ documentary value is compromised we can begin to appreciate them as highly contrived pieces of pictorial design, design which for nearly three centuries has functioned so well as to go largely unnoticed.

Footnotes

[1] A. Kennedy, ‘Antiquity and Improvement in the National Landscape: the Bucks’ views of antiquities 1726-42’, Art History, XXV, September 2002, pp. 488-99, p. 488.

[2] In their projects the Bucks were assisted by numerous artists and engravers, including Thomas Rosse, Hubert François Gravelot, Jean-Baptiste Chatelain, Peter Monamy, and Samuel Scott. Identifying individual contributions lies beyond the scope of this small paper, however, and for convenience ‘the Bucks’ is used throughout to refer to the creators, albeit cautiously.

[3] See, for example, Proposals for publishing by subscription, twenty four perspective views of the present state of the most noted abbies, religious foundations, castles, and other remains of antiquity, in Norfolk, Suffolk, and Essex. By Samuel and Nathaniel Buck, London, 1737. For Stukeley’s involvement see R. Hyde, A Prospect of Britain: The Town Panoramas of Samuel and Nathaniel Buck, London, 1994, p. 18.

[4] In the case of the Cumberland series discussed below, the plates were reprinted in Carlisle as late as 1877, under the title The castles, abbeys, and priories of the county of Cumberland, being a collection of 19 impressions from the original copperplates executed by Samuel and Nathaniel Buck in the year 1739 with descriptive letterpress accompanying the edition of 1837.

[5] Hyde, 1994, p. 29, in a section titled ‘Reliability’, which expands upon this view. His focus is on the town prospects series, and it would be interesting to see whether the ‘antiquities’ were decidedly less imitative.

[6] All measurements are taken with Google Maps.

[7] Kennedy, 2002, p. 496.

[8] Pennant quoted by Francis Grose in The Antiquities of England and Wales, vol. 1, London, 1783, p. 53.

[9] This eulogy, moreover, is based on Samuel Buck’s own proposals for his antiquities of Lincolnshire and Nottinghamshire, published in 1726.

[10] William Stukeley, Preface to Itinerarium Curiosum. Or, an account of the antiquitys and remarkable curiositys in nature or art, observ’d in travels thro’ Great Brittan. Illustrated with copper prints. Centuria I, London, 1724.

[11] This paragone between text and image has a distinguished pedigree, with Horace its renowned progenitor. It was frequently debated during the Renaissance, and there are striking parallels between Stukeley’s views and those of 16th-century writers such as Leonart Fuchs, who opined that ‘those things that are presented to the eyes and depicted on panels or paper become fixed more firmly in the mind than those that are described in bare words’ (De Historia Stirpium, ff. x-xi.). This is not to suggest that Stukeley was directly copying Fuchs – it does not appear that he ever owned the Historia – but it is the sort of text he may have encountered during his medical education, and the similarities do suggest that Stukeley’s thoughts on the problem were informed by the breadth of his learning.

[12] J. Knowles ed., The Writings of Henry Fuseli, vol. 2, London, 1831, p. 217.

[13] J. Barrell, ‘Topography v. Landscape’, London Review of Books, vol. XXXII, no. 9, 13 May 2010, pp. 9-12.

[14] M. Myrone, ‘Graphic Antiquarianism in eighteenth-century Britain: the career and reputation of George Vertue (1684-1756)’, in M. Myrone and L. Peltz eds, Producing the Past: Aspects of Antiquarian Culture and Practice 1700-1850, Aldershot, 1999, pp. 35-49, p. 46.

  • Grant Lewis
  • Grant Lewis is Cataloguer of the King's Topographical Collection.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.