The Microcosm of London. Thomas ROWLANDSON, Augustus Charles PUGIN.
The Microcosm of London.
The Microcosm of London.

The Microcosm of London…
The Microcosm of London.

London: Rudolph Ackermann, 1808-09.

Three volumes quarto, with 104 hand-coloured aquatint plates; engraved dedications with vignette head-pieces; in a superb binding of dark red straight-grained morocco, sides with geometric borders, spines with complex panelling between raised bands, all in gilt, double labels, marbled endpapers with inner dentelle borders in gilt, top edges gilt.

Pugin and Rowlandson collaborate with Ackermann to depict all of London

An excellent, early copy of the great Microcosm, "one of the great colour-plate books... a carefully selected copy should form the corner stone of any collection of books on this subject. The plates by Rowlandson and Pugin present an unrivaled picture of London in early 19th century, of historic value, as many of the buildings no longer exist" (Tooley). Early impressions are particularly prized: "original impressions of these splendid plates have a luminous quality entirely absent from later printings" (Abbey). This is an early issue, with all but one of the errata uncorrected, and with all watermarks that appear being dated before first publication. Plates are generally in the second state described by Tooley, though X and XI are in the first. The first plate of each volume is bound as a frontispiece. Half-titles are not present. Of the various errata listed at the end of Vol. III, all but one remain uncorrected in the text, though one erratum does not appear at all where listed and we presume must be an erratum in the errata (!).

An excellent, early copy of the great Microcosm, "one of the great colour-plate books... a carefully selected copy should form the corner stone of any collection of books on this subject. The plates by Rowlandson and Pugin present an unrivaled picture of London in early 19th century, of historic value, as many of the buildings no longer exist" (Tooley). Early impressions are particularly prized: "original impressions of these splendid plates have a luminous quality entirely absent from later printings" (Abbey). This is an early issue, with all but one of the errata uncorrected, and with all watermarks that appear being dated before first publication. Plates are generally in the second state described by Tooley, though X and XI are in the first. The first plate of each volume is bound as a frontispiece. Half-titles are not present. Of the various errata listed at the end of Vol. III, all but one remain uncorrected in the text, though one erratum does not appear at all where listed and we presume must be an erratum in the errata (!).

The wonderful coloured aquatints are based on work by Rowlandson and Pugin. "Pugin supplied the architectural drawings which have an accuracy and serene beauty which provide the perfect contrast to Rowlandson's figures of the population of London engaged in their everyday life. The most magnificent [book] in artistic scope, admirable from its encyclopaedic readiness to guide us through all aspects of life concealing little was the Microcosm of London. A good copy of the Microcosm is a fine work indeed, first among Ackermann's major books, a notion of all London open to view, the world of poor or rich, wretched or mighty. The London book was a true Microcosm: charities, churches, prisons, fairs, courts, markets, theatres, hospitals. The alphabetic order of appearance was more effective than more obvious divisions. for we have them mixed, the book like life" (Franklin).

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"The book was issued in twenty-six monthly parts, each part containing four plates, and at 7s. a part, a price that was advanced early on to 10. 6d. for non-subscribers. A thousand sets are said to have been issued, a statement that may be correct for the original part publication, but must be considerably short of the final number, when bound sets distributed later are taken into account. At the end of the third volume, a list of thirteen errata for the three volumes is given. If these have been corrected then the set will be found to be a late issue: if all the errata are uncorrected (this is rare), then the book has been bound from parts; the same claim of part binding can be made for sets that have errata uncorrected…" (Abbey).

"The Microcosm was a new undertaking in that it treated Regency London pictorially, and ranged over new and ancient buildings and meeting places, capturing the mood of London at the time. Life in London during the Regency era was distinctive for its architecture, literature, fashions, and politics. Socially, it was a combination of two extremes, with extravagance and opulence for the aristocracy with their affluent buildings to the overcrowded slums and poverty endured by the poor. It was an era of economic uncertainty caused by the Napoleonic Wars, and social unrest due to the Industrial Revolution and its introduction of machine-based labour over manual labour.

"The three volumes are laid out in the form of a dictionary, with the buildings listed alphabetically for ease of reference. Each entry includes a colour plate and is accompanied by descriptive text ranging in length from very brief to very detailed: the description for the King's Bench Prison is only a paragraph, whereas that for the House of Commons covers thirty-nine pages.

"From the introduction, Ackermann puts forward his intentions in producing such a work. It is aimed at those inhabitants of London who are either too busy to appreciate the architecture surrounding them, or those who are largely familiar with it, but not in great detail. It would also appeal to visitors to the city for the first time as a source of reference. Two-thirds of the buildings included no longer exist, which adds to its appeal today. These include The Pillory, The Old Bailey, King's Bench Prison, Royal Cockpit in Birdcage Walk, Brooks' Subscription House, India House of Charles Lamb, and King's Mews (now the National Gallery) and Christie's Auction Room.

"With its elaborate coloured aquatints, the Microcosm was a masterpiece. The nineteenth century was the most formative period in the history of book illustration, with one of the most important events during this time being the opening of Ackermann's Repository where he produced hand-coloured aquatints. Between 1790 and 1830, the principle process in book illustration was aquatint engraving, a method notably used for publications devoted to topography. Although this form flourished for no more than half a century, these books remain the most attractive in the history of illustration...". (University of Reading, Special Collections, https://www.reading.ac.uk/web/files/special-collections/featuremicrocosm.pdf).

Provenance: James Fairfax (from his library at Retford Park, Bowral NSW, with bookplate).

Abbey, Scenery, 212; Bobins, The Exotic and the Beautiful, 606; Franklin, 49-54; Prideaux, pp.121-4; Ray, 33; Tooley, English Books with Coloured Plates, 7.

Price (AUD): $14,000.00  other currencies Ref: #4505143

Condition Report