Cropped image taken from an 18th century panorama of St Petersburg

St Petersburg: A New City in Print

Emily Roy takes a closer look at the prints depicting St Petersburg in the King’s Topographical Collection.

The first 100 years in the history of St Petersburg – the new Imperial capital founded by Peter the Great (1672–1725) in 1703 – coincided with an intense period of development and change in Russian arts, especially printmaking. Until the last decades of the 18th century, printed views of the city were official imperial productions coordinated by the Academy of Sciences and later the Academy of Arts and required the highest imperial approval. Even when entrepreneurial print series were published, they were led by foreigners and often printed outside of Russia. Despite this, St Petersburg is well represented in King George III’s Topographical Collection, and the views of the city capture many of the developments in Russian and European printmaking in the period.

The earliest views of St Petersburg in the King’s Topographical Collection (K.Top) date from 1728–29 and were made during the short reign of Peter II (1715–1730), grandson of Peter the Great. The set of three engravings form a partial panorama taken from the tower of the Kunstkamera, the newly finished home of Russia’s first public museum and an integral part of the Academy of Sciences. The views were drawn by the Polish architect Christopher Marcelius (1656–after 1731) and engraved by the Dutch artist Ottmar Elliger III (1703–35), both of whom taught at the Academy and were among several foreign tutors to train a new generation of native Russian artists.

The prints provide an extraordinary snapshot of a moment in the city’s history when it was changing rapidly. The architectural ensemble was short-lived and almost all buildings depicted had been pulled down and rebuilt within 20 years of the prints’ publication.[1] Furthermore, the series represented a new attempt at topographical accuracy, in contrast to earlier prints which were highly schematised for dramatic effect. For example, Marcelius was the first to show both banks of the Neva in a single view, unlike Alexei Zubov (1682/3–1751), the preeminent printmaker of Peter the Great’s time, who combined both banks into one continuous line. The set in K.Top is one of very few complete sets of the series to survive.

View of the Palace Chancellery with Adjoining Buildings in St Petersburg

View of the Palace Chancellery with Adjoining Buildings in St Petersburg

This print is one of a set of three produced at the Russian Academy of Sciences at the end of the 1720s.

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The next major project to capture the city was undertaken over twenty years later, during which time the city had changed dramatically, with many timber-framed buildings replaced by stone. Empress Elizabeth Petrovna (1709–62), daughter of Peter the Great, ordered a series of 17 views of the city and surrounding palaces, bound with an extraordinary map on nine sheets, to be published by the Academy of Sciences in May 1753 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the foundation of the city by her father. The entire project was supervised by Giuseppe Valeriani (1708–62), an Italian painter and theatrical designer. The combination of vast expanses of water, careful studies of buildings, and a sense of activity likely owes much to his experience of the tradition of Venetian urban views.[2] The lead draughtsman was Mikhail Makhaev (c. 1717–70), one of the young Russian artists who had studied under Elliger and Marcelius.

View of the Twelve Colleges building and part of the Merchant’s Arcade in St Petersburg

View of the Twelve Colleges building and part of the Merchant’s Arcade in St Petersburg

One of the series of views of St Petersburg published to commemorate the 50th jubilee of the foundation of the city, this print shows the Twelve Colleges on Vasil’evskii Island.

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The jubilee views became the most famous and influential images of St Petersburg. One thousand copies were printed and were intended both as gifts to European royal libraries and Russian ambassadors posted abroad, and to be sold through the Academy for the substantial sum of six rubles.[3] K.Top holds a copy of the bound album and two further unbound views. The copy of the album in the Royal Collection (RCIN 1070278) is likely the one sent to the royal library, whereas the British royal family probably acquired the additional album and unbound views independently.

The album was incredibly popular and was reprinted three times, in 1754, 1755 and 1756. The views defined the visual identity of the city for many decades, both in Russia and abroad. This is evidenced by later prints that repeat Makhaev’s subjects and viewpoints. Most explicit in George III’s collection are those by François Denis Née (1732–1817) after Louis-Nicolas de Lespinasse (1734–1808). These were published in the encyclopaedic work Histoire physique, morale, civile et politique de la Russie Ancienne by Nicolas-Gabriel Leclerc (1726–98), doctor to the Duc d’Orléans, who spent almost 20 years in Russia. When it was published in Paris in 1783, Leclerc’s Histoire provided unprecedented insight into aspects of Russian life previously unknown in Western Europe. As such Makhaev’s views, as copied by Lespinasse, remained the definitive image of St Petersburg in the West, despite already being 30 years out of date. As with many items in K.Top, the Lespinasse views were cut from their source without reference.

View of the Palace of Oranienbaum

This print shows the palace of Oranienbaum, St Petersburg

This engraving was produced to illustrate the first major encyclopaedic work on the history, customs and governance of Russia to appear in Western Europe.

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In addition to the grand jubilee views, the collection also holds a series of prints after Makhaev on a very different scale. The nine tiny views of the city and its surroundings each measure around 10cm by 13cm. These belong to a series of 12 which were produced in the Summer of 1761 as part of a project to create a pocket calendar for seven-year-old Grand Duke Pavel Petrovich (1754–1801), the future Paul I, great-nephew of Empress Elizabeth Petrovna.  However, the pocket calendar project was abandoned amid the period of great upheaval from 1762 that saw the death of Elizabeth, the succession of her nephew Peter III (1728–62), father of Pavel Petrovich, and the coup mounted by his wife – the soon to be Catherine II – which ultimately led to Peter’s death. Despite this, the prints went on to be sold, as miniature views, for more than 25 years from the bookshop of the Academy of Sciences.[4]

View of the New Winter Palace of Her Imperial Majesty from the River Neva

View of the New Winter Palace of Her Imperial Majesty from the River Neva

This tiny view depicts the Winter Palace.

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One artist who weathered these turbulent times was the French painter Jean-Baptiste Le Prince (1734–81), who arrived in Russia in 1758 at the request of Empress Elizabeth but went on to produce several commissions for Catherine. Le Prince travelled extensively during his five-year stay and was best known for his picturesque scenes of Russian peasant life. Many of these views were produced after he had returned to Paris, which, as a result, set a new trend for “Russerie”. There is a small and curious print in George III’s collection after a now-lost painting by Le Prince. The painting was his only known view of St Petersburg and was exhibited at the 1765 Salon, where it received a less than favourable review from Denis Diderot who described it as ’dark, sad, without sky, without effect of light, without effect at all.’[5] Diderot did, however, praise Le Prince’s depiction of a woman, to the right of the composition, who is seen lounging in a coach ‘no doubt in the manner of the country’, in line with Le Prince’s popular works and seemingly “Russian” enough to satisfy Parisian tastes.[6]

Diderot explains that the 'the little French figures placed at the front' are the French ambassador Paul-François de Galluccio, marquis de L'Hôpital (1697–1767), who held the post between 1757 and 1760, and his entourage. Although painted under Elizabeth, and presumably before l’Hôpital was succeeded in 1760, by the time that Le Prince’s view of the Neva was eventually reproduced in a large engraving by Jacques-Philippe le Bas (1707–83) in 1778, it was prominently inscribed with a large dedication to Catherine II.  The K.Top print is not, however, this grand engraving but a much smaller version – around a third of the size. It is cut within the platemark so any helpful inscriptions at the edges have been removed, though further research into 18th-century guidebooks and histories of St Petersburg may reveal its source.

View of the Neva at St. Petersburg

print showing the Neva River in St Petersburg

This view of the Neva River in St Petersburg was based on a painting by the respected French artist Jean-Baptiste Le Prince.

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Le Prince was just one of many foreign artists and writers who travelled to the new Russian capital and published their impressions on their return home. The British artist Joseph Hearn arrived in Russia in 1787, after which point very little is known about his life.[7] However, the series of six aquatints after watercolours by Hearn were the most popular views of St Petersburg to be published since the 1753 jubilee prints. They were published in London in 1789–90 but were sold in both London and St Petersburg.[8] The prints were published by Thomas Malton (1748–1804), a prolific and influential London painter, engraver and publisher, who exhibited topographical works at the Royal Academy and published series of aquatint views of London and Cambridge.

Hearn’s views have a different atmosphere from those of Makhaev, with greater attention to the bustle of city life rather than sweeping vistas of the river and architectural ensembles. This is particularly the case in his view of the Fontanka river (erroneously titled the Fontanka canal), which focuses on the busy comings and goings of the embankment. While not the masterpieces of the jubilee prints, the set was highly successful, in part due to the use of aquatint. Le Prince had been one of the pioneers of this technique, but it became immensely popular in Britain among the growing markets for more affordable prints, and its watercolour-like tonal effects were particularly well-suited to urban views. The set in K.Top is printed in sepia tones, but hand-coloured versions were also available.

A View on the Fontancka River, St. Petersburg

This sepia aquatint is one of a series of six views of St Petersburg after watercolours by the British artist Joseph Hearn. It shows the bustling bank of the Fontanka

This sepia aquatint is one of a series of six views of St Petersburg after watercolours by the British artist Joseph Hearn. It shows the bustling bank of the River Fontanka.

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The popularity of aquatint among early 19th-century British artists of city views is attested by a further set of prints in the collection. Like Marcelius 70 years before him, John Augustus Atkinson (1775–1831) sketched a panoramic view of St Petersburg from the observatory at the top of the Kunstkamera tower. Unlike his predecessor, Atkinson achieved a continuous 360-degree view of the city. Despite spending 17 years of his life in Russia, Atkinson did not publish the four aquatints that make up his ‘Panoramic View of St Petersburg’ until after his return to London in 1801. In fact, the first materialisation of Atkinson’s panorama was an immersive exhibition at Mr. Wigley’s Great Room at No. 5 Spring Gardens, London, in 1807. The panorama would have been an enormous painted canvas that was viewed from a platform. Such displays, and later mechanical moving panoramas, were immensely popular in early 19th-century London, as demonstrated by the excited throng shown in an 1823 satirical print by Charles Williams titled The Moving Panorama, or, Spring Gardens Rout. An advertisement for Atkinson’s panorama tempted visitors with an additional ‘Panorama of Boulogne’ by John Thomas Serres (1759–1825), alongside eclectic entertainments including ‘the beautiful Albiness‘ and ’the experiment of the invisible girl’, and a trinket auction ‘as at the Palace Royal, Paris’.[9]

The aquatints are therefore a greatly reduced reproduction of a largescale painted panorama, split across four sheets, based on original sketches made from life. They were published with a title page depicting Etienne Maurice Falconet’s (1716–91) monument to Peter the Great featuring an effusive dedication to the Emperor Alexander I (1777–1825) in place of the dedication to Peter from Catherine II on the monument’s famous rock pedestal. Despite the dedication, the panorama was not an official commission and was self-published by Atkinson in London. Further, the dedication states that the panorama of the city was taken ‘a century after its foundation by Peter the Great’, which was impossible as although the prints are undated Atkinson had already left Russia in 1801 and the centenary was in 1803. It is likely that both the imperial association and centenary claims were clever marketing ploys.

Panorama of St Petersburg

3rd of 4 plates showing a panorama of St Petersburg

This the third of four plates showing a panoramic prospect of St Petersburg from the observatory at the top of the Kunstkamera on Vasil’evskii Island.

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18th- and early 19th-century views of St Petersburg not only provide a window to a new and rapidly changing capital city, but also give insights into the cross-cultural exchanges in print production and consumption in the period. Foreign artists travelled to Russia and produced state commissions, as well as training Russian students, and often published their observations on their return home. This small sample of George III’s extensive topographical collection reveals something of the dynamism and variety in printed urban views produced in Britain, Russia and beyond in this lively period.


[1] Larissa Salmina-Haskell, Panoramic Views of St. Petersburg, 1716-1835 (Oxford: Ashmolean Museum, 1993)., n.p.

[2] Ibid. 

[3] K. V. Malinovskii, Mikhail Ivanovich Makhaev (St Petersburg: Kriga, 2008), p.97.

[4] M. A. Alekseeva, Mikhailo Makhaev: master vidovogo risunka XVIII veka (St Petersburg: Zhurnal Neva, 2003), p.170.

[5] Denis Diderot, “141. Vue d’une partie de Pétersbourg”, in Jean Seznec and Jean Adhémar ed., Salons (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1957) p.292. “sombre, trist, sans ciel, sans effet de lumière, sans effet du tout.”

[6] Ibid. “sans doute à la manière du pays”.

[7] Anthony Cross, 'By the Banks of the Neva': Chapters from the Lives and Careers of the British in Eighteenth-Century Russia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), p.315.

[8] Anatolii Krasnov, “Vidy Peterburga i Moskvy Dzhozefa Khirna”, Zhurnal Neva, St Petersburg, 2003/1.

[9] “Bell’s Monthly Compendium of Advertisements for June, 1807”, Supplement to La Belle Assemblée, or Bell’s Court and Fashionable Magazine, (London, 1807), Volume 2.

  • Emily Roy
  • Emily Roy is a PhD placement student at the British Library, working on the King’s Topographical Collection. Her doctoral research concerns printed views of St Petersburg and explores questions of modernisation, cultural exchange and innovation in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Russian print culture. She is in the second year of an AHRC-funded collaborative studentship between the University of Cambridge and the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford and her primary material is the Talbot Collection at the Ashmolean, a unique and little-known resource of c.1500 prints. Previously she was a curator at Waddesdon Manor (The National Trust, Rothschild Collections), specialising in applied and decorative arts. She completed her BA in History of Art at Oxford University in 2010 and her MA in Russian Studies at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, UCL, in 2012.

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