Topography ‘being in no respect like it’: illustrations of Carlisle Cathedral

Grant Lewis traces the use and re-use of a highly inaccurate image of Carlisle Cathedral, and asks what this problematic case-study tells us about the workings of the London print trade.

One of the great benefits of King George III’s Topographical Collection is the opportunity it provides to compare and contrast illustrations of the same place in one place, and appreciate the collective testimony of a combination of images scarcely to be repeated elsewhere. Happily this testimony is usually coherent, but in the case of Carlisle Cathedral we find only disagreement, between the five mounted prints claiming to depict the building and also the church itself. At a glance these differences are surprisingly easy to miss, and it seems this has always been so. In the earliest catalogue of the Collection, compiled only a few years after George III’s death in 1820, very different images were obliviously intermingled in a confusing arrangement, and this same system is still used to order the prints today, apparently without having ever being queried.[1] If this curious state of affairs merits investigating from the point of view of George III’s collection, its broader interest as a revealing case-study in the history of British topographical imagery also becomes apparent when we pay each print more attention, for we soon realise that wholly conflicting accounts not only appeared within a few years of each other, but that they were also printed in the same titles, issued by the same publishers, and, in the case of John Harris, even signed by the same engravers.

South east view of the Cathedral Church of Carlisle

This view by John Buckler, produced after a drawing held at the British Library, was published in 1812 as part of a series of large-scale aquatints of England’s cathedrals and collegiate and parish churches.

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In order to attempt an explanation of this situation we first need to sort the muddled order of George III’s prints, and when we do two distinct churches emerge. One is easily recognisable as the current Cathedral (figs 1 & 5), whereas the other bears virtually no relation to it (figs 2, 3 & 4), introducing such foreign elements as a long nave and a massive crossing tower that resembles Hereford or Chester more than it does Carlisle. Once separated, some promising observations about both types appear, notably that the three prints with no resemblance to the present church are also the earliest, as if we are dealing with two successive Carlisle Cathedrals. This last supposition has some basis in historical fact. As is well known, much of the medieval church was destroyed during the Civil War period, and afterwards only the most essential restoration was carried out, giving rise to a quite different structure bereft of its monastic buildings and most of its Norman nave, which was reduced from a stately eight bays to a meagre two.[2] As the oldest image in the Collection is virtually contemporary with these changes it is tempting to assume that these early prints preserve the memory of what was lost, but enough of the medieval Cathedral either survives or is documented to show that they cannot describe that structure any better than they do the current one. The nave is too short for the pre-war church, the vestry is in the wrong place, and the monastic buildings are missing altogether, but most telling is the stark mismatch between the tower of the prints and the slight belfry of the actual Cathedral. Added in the early 15th century, the latter is the best preserved part of the medieval exterior; the only war damage it suffered was the loss of a small spire, and at risk of labouring the point the absence of even this last detail renders the illustrations still less credible.

The South Prospect of the Cathedral Church of Carlisle, by Daniel King

The South Prospect of the Cathedral Church of Carlisle.

This etching, by Daniel King, bears very little resemblance to Carlisle Cathedral.

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With the evident implausibility of this tidy hypothesis these early images become far more problematic, for the only alternative is that a purely imaginary design was perpetuated as an ‘accurate’ representation for several generations, much like (but more wayward than!) such famously erroneous images as Dürer’s Rhinoceros. Needless to say, by repeating the same unfounded mistakes these earliest prints admit the extent of their dependence on each other, and with this fact established we can begin to flesh out a chronology. The origin of these errors was almost certainly Daniel King’s print (fig. 2), the earliest engraved portrait of the Cathedral, which formed part of a large series of church views that was long deemed authoritative despite the universally poor quality of its plates.[3] This unwarranted status was due to their frequent appearance in multiple editions of one of the most scholarly and respected antiquarian publications of the 17th century, William Dugdale’s three-volume Monasticon Anglicanum (first ed. 1655-73), but further exposure came via the varied selections of views King himself published as The Cathedrall and Conventuall Churches of England and Wales – including no fewer than three editions all dated 1656. Due to the continuing appetite for both titles King’s plates remained in demand well after his death, each one appearing in seemingly limitless combinations of editions, arrangements and states that print historians have come to dread for their impenetrable complexity. The view of Carlisle is no exception: first issued in 1656 in at least two editions of The Cathedrall Churches, it remained in use in copies of both King’s and Dugdale’s titles until its eventual withdrawal sometime after 1718, by which time countless impressions had been printed, and the copper plate itself was more than 60 years old.[4]

The Cathedral Church of Carlile

This view of Carlisle Cathedral was published by Jan Kip and Leonard Knyff in their seminal topographical series Britannia Illustrata, or Nouveau Théâtre de la Grande Bretagne.

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Thanks to this reputation and reuse King’s plate was soon established as the stock image of the Cathedral, a status it retained well into the next century. In fact, it went unchallenged as the only print of it for almost six decades, and when a second one finally appeared around 1710 it took the form of a heavily dependent copy (fig. 3), engraved as part of a set of imperial-sized church prospects intended for the Britannia Illustrata.[5] As one of the most prolific and lavish topographical publications of the early 18th century, the prestige of the Britannia Illustrata enabled this fine derivative to cultivate an independent reputation of its own, and within a few years of its debut John Harris had produced a small copy for Henry Overton’s volume of miniature reproductions of the Britannia’s church views (fig. 4).[6]

The Cathedral Church of Carlile

This small plate first appeared in Henry Overton I’s View’s of all the Cathedrall Churches of England and Wales &c neatly Engrav’d (not before 1715), a set of 29 miniature cathedral views engraved by John Harris and Elisha Kirkall.

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Thus, just as King’s plate was facing withdrawal its design was given a new lease of life, but this sudden flurry of derivatives did not end here. Overton’s idea of reducing the Britannia’s church prospects soon caught on, and around 1723-4 another, less refined vignette of the Carlisle plate was published by John Bowles as part of a more affordable collection of the same stock images, which emulated Overton’s more exclusive volume to the point of lifting its bilingual title almost word for word.[7] Our rogue image also spread beyond London, and sometime before 1720 a crude woodcut copy was published in Nottingham by Anne Ayscough as part of another, still cheaper imitation of Overton’s set.[8] Appearing less than a decade after the deluxe plate for the Britannia Illustrata, this descendant brings King’s design into the somewhat different world of the provincial popular print, one which has only recently begun to receive an adequate level of scholarly attention. So vast is this subject, however, and so incomplete the archive, that there are surely other similar variants that have eluded the present author and are still awaiting discovery, and no doubt more which through wear and neglect have been lost altogether. The survival of Ayscough’s set in one bruised and battered copy is fortunate in itself, and perhaps just sufficient to suggest the extent to which King’s type likely transcended its original context and filtered throughout the multi-layered domain of early English printed imagery.[9]

Indeed, regardless of their financial means or whereabouts in the country, the early 18th-century layperson was unable to progress beyond the same stock image. In London, meanwhile, King’s design had become well entrenched in the leading topographical and antiquarian publications of the day. This ubiquity must have been particularly inescapable around 1720, when most of the aforementioned prints were in circulation together, and a visitor to one of the city’s print shops would have been presented with an account that must have seemed comfortingly consistent, with each derivative endorsing the claims of the others. Yet the more this design proliferated the sooner its shortcomings were bound to be exposed, and in fact the challenge came swiftly, in the very publication that had issued the largest and finest copy of King’s type: the Britannia Illustrata. When the cathedral views were reprinted in 1724 as part of Joseph Smith’s four-part edition of the Britannia, the plate of Carlisle was replaced with an infinitely more accurate substitute signed and dedicated by the Dutch draftsman and engraver Jan Kip, which makes for a rather incongruous addition to cathedrals set, with a fussier attention to the church’s surroundings and an entirely different style of title below the image.[10] Of course, the old type did not disappear overnight. At least one derivative, John Bowles’, was engraved after Kip had completed his plate, and both Overton and Bowles’ copies remained in use until at least the 1730s, and, in the case of the latter, perhaps until the early 19th century.[11] Nevertheless, Kip’s design was swiftly accepted as superior to King’s, and within a few years all new prints began to copy it instead, beginning with the small view (fig. 5) engraved for Browne Willis’ Survey of the Cathedrals (1727), which is signed by the same John Harris responsible for the very different illustration produced for Overton – and for many of the original church plates from the Britannia Illustrata.[12]

The North Prospect of the Cathedral Church of St. Mary at Carlisle

This plate was engraved by John Harris for Browne Willis’ A Survey of the Cathedrals of York, Durham, Carlisle.

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We can be sure that Harris’ adoption of this new type was dictated by Willis, for we are fortunate to have the latter’s typically forthright thoughts on the images of the Cathedral available to him, in which he also provides a pithy summary of the narrative offered above:

The other Parts of the Church, as the Cross Isle, Tower in the Middle, and West End, are very meanly built, with small Windows, darkish and narrow; and the Roof lies low, like a common Parish Church; as may be seen in Mr. Kyp’s Draught, which here is also given, forasmuch as it is the only true Representation of it, the Draught in the Monasticon, by Daniel King, which is printed also on a sheet of imperial Paper [our fig. 3], and in a lesser Size [our fig. 4?], being in no respect like it; and may as well pass as well for any other Church as this.[13]

With our story now clear, so too are the complexities encircling our central problem. As Willis implies, we are not only dealing with a highly misleading view, or even a highly misleading view perpetuated over many decades, but one which gained acceptance within a genre of imagery – topography – we assume was charged above all else with conveying trustworthy ‘facts’. Indeed, in spite of their grave failings we sense this charge in the prints themselves, which assure us of their documentary worth with supporting evidence, such as the position from which the ‘view’ was taken (fig. 2), or the fellow testimonies of the contemporary witnesses gathered below the Cathedral (fig. 3). None acknowledge their debts to earlier images, and if all stop just short of claiming to have recorded the building ad vivum, the innocent observer could be easily forgiven for assuming that each draughtsman had far greater familiarity with his subject than was in fact the case.

These difficulties are particularly noteworthy, in fact, for the decades through which we have traced this troublesome design were seminal for the development of printed topographical imagery in Britain, witnessing the establishment of a home-grown production and its rapid evolution into a major cultural export. This success was thanks in no small part to many of the titles and individuals mentioned above, and a failure like the Carlisle design provides us with an opportunity to dissect the workings of the topographical print trade during this period, its acquisition of information and reuse of hackneyed images. For while this is an exaggerated example, copying was just as widespread in topography as in other genres of early modern imagery, to the extent that even printed illustrations of well-known subjects were frequently based on no more than a handful of templates, even when reliable information was readily available. Indeed, the most popular of these templates soon became recognisable in their own right, independent of their subject, but even so the full extent of this phenomenon has not been appreciated, and beyond the obvious cases there are other more inventive copies which have still not been identified for what they are. The motivations for any single instance of copying are far too varied and complex to be discussed here (cultural, economic, psychological, and so on), but the clear genealogy of the Carlisle type does allow us to highlight and expand upon several practical and financial factors of broad import for all kinds of printed imagery.

The root cause of these errors was obviously a lack of dependable reference material, and here distance was clearly a factor. Despite the apparent focus on Carlisle, the story of these prints is entirely a London one, and of all its London-centric protagonists only Jan Kip might have made the six-day journey north, but even this is not certain.[14] In spite of his confident dismissal of the building fabric we know that even Browne Willis did not, thanks to the eulogy delivered to the Society of Antiquaries soon after his death, which recalls that ‘During the course of his long Life he had visited every Cathedral in England and Wales, except Carlisle’.[15] Nevertheless, the task of obtaining a reliable drawing of a major landmark in the same country was far from an insurmountable one – certainly not compared to the challenge of obtaining, say, a rare beast – and throughout the life of King’s design there would have been people in London more than capable of pointing out its inaccuracies. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine the print trade remaining ignorant of its failings for very long, which begs the question as to why nobody felt compelled to act before Kip. The subject probably played a part. Willis’ singular omission of Carlisle gives us the sense, corroborated elsewhere, that the church was something of an outlier among English cathedrals, little-known by the public because of its perceived architectural inferiority as well as its remoteness. Evidently, for many publishers this lukewarm enthusiasm and general lack of knowledge did not make the effort and expense of obtaining a new design of the Cathedral worthwhile, especially when the battered reality was far less enticing than King’s idealised offering, thereby allowing the latter to continue unchallenged by default.

When we delve deeper into the workings of the London print trade, however, it becomes apparent that the perpetuation of an image was actually encouraged by the close-knit and commercially pressured environment in which these and so many other topographical images were produced. If financial reasons favoured the reuse of plates to the point of expiration, artisanal and familial ties also facilitated the exchange of plates and designs between both publishers and printmakers, which becomes easier to grasp when we realise just how few people were responsible for the images discussed here – many of them major players in the London print trade with a hand in more than one plate. As we have already mentioned Harris, let us take Henry Overton I as an example. The son of a successful publisher who had inherited Daniel King’s stock in the 1660s, Overton would no doubt have known the latter’s view of Carlisle from his father’s publications, and it may well have been he who recommended King’s church prospects as models for the engravers of the Britannia Illustrata, with which he had been involved since at least 1708.[16] Indeed, throughout the 1710s Overton owned a share in all of the plates from the Britannia, including the cathedral series, and in these same years he also commissioned from Harris the reduced copy for his own pocket-sized set of church views. Of course, it is not difficult to imagine how habit and convenience might have persuaded Overton to stick with the design he knew. Yet it is also important to note that for this last volume the repetition of an inaccurate image actually made good business sense, for copying King’s type allowed Overton to cement the desired association of his title with the feted Britannia Illustrata, and to advertise his part-ownership of the Britannia’s plates; judging by the obvious appetite for similar ‘copycat’ publications (e.g. Bowles’ and Ayscough’s), it is possible that this surprising motivation was not uncommon.[17]

In short, accuracy was not always the paramount concern for those few individuals in control of the Cathedral’s image, and by way of conclusion we may briefly consider the obvious implications of their prerogatives for their contemporaries’ accumulation of knowledge, and for our own approaches to topographical imagery. Collectors who sought to derive facts from prints were constantly at the mercy of the editorial decisions of the printmakers and their publishers, especially if, like George III, they seldom ever travelled. Moreover, the consequences of these choices long outlived the (usually short-term) incentives motivating them. The King’s collection is a case in point, and progressing further into the 19th century, we might spare a thought for a determined curator who tried to reconcile the real Carlisle Cathedral with Daniel King’s by ‘correcting’ the orientation of the latter’s view in one of the copies of the print now in the British Library.[18] Their attempt, while admirable, was of course futile, and it serves as a cautionary tale about the pitfalls of too readily embracing any early modern epistemic image as an objective, factual account. As is becoming increasingly apparent, and as examples like these make abundantly clear, even seemingly innocent ‘views’ are deposits of a far more complex and drawn-out process, guided by commercial realities and technological constraints, and often undertaken by multiple individuals working over decades if not generations. Like so many conscious attempts at documentation, these deposits are often more illuminating about the circumstances of their own creation than they are about their subject, and from the historian’s perspective they are all the richer sources for it.

Acknowledgements: thanks to Christina Farley of St. John’s College, Cambridge, for reading a draft of this paper.


[1] 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, p. 206. Although published in 1829, the text was complete by 1823, only three years after the King’s death.

[2] For the changes to the Cathedral fabric in and around the Civil War see especially the richly detailed account in D.W.V. Weston, Carlisle Cathedral History, Carlisle, 2000, pp. 19-20.

[3] King’s own sources, if there were any, are obscure, and for all his apparent personal disingenuousness we may well believe his claim to have designed as well as etched this plate.

[4] The plate of Carlisle is present in at least two of the three permutations of the Cathedrall Churches dated 1656: The Cathedrall and Conventuall Churches of England and Wales. Orthographically delineated by DK Anno MDCLVI, London, Daniel King, 1656 (Maps C.10.a.14.), and The Cathedrall and Conventvall Churches of England and Wales orthographically delineated by D.K. Anno MDCLVI., London, Daniel King, 1656, the only known copy of which is the British Library’s (Maps C.24.e.17.). I have not attempted to identify every later use of the plate but rather suggest its longevity in print, and a better sense of the frequency with which it appeared can be gained from the note in R. Pennington, A Descriptive Catalogue of the Etched Work of Wenceslaus Hollar, Cambridge, 1982, pp. 155-7, which despite its provisional intent remains the most complete collation of King’s series. The last known appearance of the Carlisle plate is in one of the two versions of the English translation of the Monasticon published in 1718.

[5] As is well known, the Britannia Illustrata was also published for export as Le Nouveau Théâtre de la Grande Bretagne, but for convenience I have used the former title throughout. The latest permutation of the Britannia that contains this plate is the offshoot volume of church views published by Joseph Smith in 1719: Ecclesiarum Angliæ et Valliæ Prospectus or Views of all the Cathedrals in England and Wales, Of the Collegiate Churches of Westminster and Southwell, & of the Royal Chapel of St. George at Windsor. Accurately Engrav'd on 40 copper plates by the best artists and printed on imperial paper; to which is prefix'd an historical account of each of them. = Veues de toutes les cathedrales d'Angleterre & du pais de Galles des eglises collegiales de Westminster & de Southwell et de la chapelle royale de St. George a Windsor. Exactement gravées sur quarante planches de cuivre par les meilleurs graveurs. Avec une relation historique de chacune de ces eglises, London, Joseph Smith, 1719.

[6] View’s of all the Cathedrals in England and Wales &c neatly engraved = Vues de toutes les Englises Cathedralles d’Angleterre et de Galle &c. proprement gravée, London, Henry Overton I, not before 1715. This date is taken from the last view of the series, of St Mary’s, Fairford, the only plate in the set not derived from the Britannia Illustrata, which is signed ‘H. Beighton delin 1715.’

[7] Prospects of all the Cathedral & Collegiate Churches of England & Wales neatly engraved. = Veués de toutes les Eglises Cathedrals et Collegiats d’Angleterre et de Galle, proprement gravée, London, John Bowles, probably 1723-4. This date is proposed in B. Adams, London Illustrated, 1601-1851, London, 1983, p. 65. Adams’ date broadly corresponds with the anecdotal evidence inscribed onto one of the British Library’s copies (Maps C.22.a.18.) by Joseph Banks, who in a note dated 22 December 1807 recalled that it ‘must be near 90 Years since this book was engraved as it was done in the early part of Mr Bowles’s time who was in Business 60 years & has been dead 30 years.’

[8] A prospect of all the cathedral-churches in England and Wales: with a particular account of the founders, bishops, &c. of each church, Nottingham, Anne Ayscough, before 1720.

[9] In the same vein it would also be interesting to discover whether the same design reappeared in media typically reliant on prints for designs, such as ceramics and embroidery.

[10] Nouveau Théâtre de la Grande Bretagne, London, Joseph Smith, 1724, volume 3, titled Ecclesiarum Angliæ et Valliæ Prospectus, or Views of all the Cathedrals in England and Wales, Nouveau theatre de la Grande Bretagne ou description exacte des archevechez & evechez d'Angleterre. The title-page, revised from Joseph Smith’s earlier issue of the same plates (see note 5), is dated 1719. As Kip died around 1721 his plate must have been prepared a few years before its appearance in the Britannia Illustrata, and the dedication to Thomas Gibbon, Dean of Carlisle (d. 1716) would support this. George III also owned a copy of this print, which remains in its volume (191.g.12.).

[11] For the survival of Bowles’ plates see Adams, 1983, p. 65.

[12] Kip’s type remained authoritative for the rest of the 18th century, and with a little more research it might be possible to demonstrate that 150 years’ worth of printed portrayals of the Cathedral were based on no more than two designs.

[13] Browne Willis, A survey of the cathedrals of York, Durham, Carlisle, Chester, Man, Lichfield, Hereford, Worcester, Gloucester, and Bristol. Giving an account of their foundations, builders, antient monuments and inscriptions, endowments, alienations, sales of lands, patronages; dates of consecration, admission, preferment, deaths, burials, and epitaphs of the archbishops, bishops, deans, precentors, chancellors, treasurers, archdeacons, and prebendaries, in each stall belonging to them. With an exact account of all the churches and chapels in every diocese; distinguished under their proper archeadonries and deanaries, the patrons of them, to what religious houses impropriated, and to what saints many of them are dedicated. The whole extracted from numerous collections out of the registers of every particular see, old wills, records in the Tower, and Rolls Chapel. And illustrated with 20 curious draughts of the ichnographies and uprights of every cathedral; newly taken to rectify the erroneous representations of them in the Monasticon, and other authors. By Browne Willis Esq, London, Robert Gosling, 1727, p. 258.

[14] Samuel and Nathaniel Buck are rare examples of London draftsmen who definitely visited Carlisle in this period.

[15] Delivered to the Society by Andrew Ducarel. Quoted in J. Evans, A History of the Society of Antiquities, Oxford, 1956, p. 129. In addition to Kip’s engraving, Willis was apparently supplied with information about the Cathedral by William Stukeley, whose diary entry for 20 March 1722 records that he ‘drew the Ground plot of Carlisle & Chester Cathedrals for Mr. Brown Willis.’ Quoted in The Family Memoirs of the Rev. William Stukeley, M.D., ed. W.C. Lukis, Durham, 1882, vol. 1, p. 66.

[16] His imprint appears alone on one of the 1708 editions of the Britannia Illustrata. Overton was not the only publisher of the Britannia who was familiar with King’s plates, as Joseph Smith later reissued them in 1718.

[17] Overton was particularly keen to publicise his ownership when loaning the Britannia’s plates to others; for example, small pieces of paper bearing his imprint have been pasted onto several of the prints in the Royal Academy’s copy (03/2808) of Joseph Smith’s volume of the Britannia’s church prospects (see citation in note 5). Overton’s choice of Harris was another means of ensuring coherence between the miniature volume and the Britannia, as Harris had also engraved many of the original cathedral plates.

[18] Maps C.24.e.17., where the word ‘South’ has been crossed out of King’s title and replaced with the letter ‘N’. This addition probably dates from the late 19th or early 20th centuries, when the volume belonged to the British Museum.

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