The Microcosm of London is a glorious window into the social life and architecture of London on the cusp of the Regency. The original 1808 – 1810 edition of this magnificently illustrated set is extremely rare, and therefore prohibitively expensive. The reduced-size reprint of 1904 is nearly as scarce and almost as costly. But thanks to the world-wide web, this rich resource is freely available to anyone with a computer and an internet connection.
Just what is The Microcosm of London, and where can you find it?
Nine years before the publication of his Repository of Arts, Literature, and Fashions, Rudolf Ackermann began to publish views of the most well-known sites and buildings across contemporary London, with accompanying conversational historical text on each of the locations. He titled it The Microcosm of London, or London in Miniature. It was originally published in sections, which Ackermann called "numbers," beginning in 1808. These numbers were then later bound into volumes for those who wanted and could afford the whole set. Initially Ackermann had intended to issue four volumes, but he later reduced the scope of the publication to three volumes, partially due to cost. He need not have worried, both the loose numbers and the bound sets sold very well.
Ackermann was one of the first publishers in England to produce books with colored illustrations. He found there was a great market for such editions, and he built his career on delivering a range of profusely illustrated volumes for the enjoyment of the public. A gregarious and unpretentious man, he had many contacts within London’s artistic community which enabled him to recruit the best artists and illustrators for his publications. His books and magazines were produced using the latest technologies with high-quality materials. Artists trusted him because they knew their original work would not be degraded by slip-shod printing processes or shoddy materials.
As you can read in the Introduction Ackerman wrote for the Microcosm, he understood that each artist had their own special talents. One artist might be very skilled in depicting the human figure, but might have little talent for the delineation of architectural features. So rather than trying to find one artist to produce the plates for the Microcosm, he instead brought together two of the most talented artists in London, each with their own special set of skills. Charles Augustus Pugin, a talented draftsman and artist who had been trained by John Nash, drew the architectural elements for the plates. Thomas Rowlandson, the noted caricaturist, drew the figures which populated Pugin’s architectural spaces.
It would have been difficult to find two artists so totally different. Pugin was a small, energetic and pompous man. He was extremely precise in his drawings, and very much a gentleman in the style of pre-Revolutionary France. Rowlandson was a big, jocular Englishman, hard-drinking and often lazy. His drawings were brisk and spontaneous, rife with his genius for capturing the immediacy of the everyday life of his fellow creatures. And Ackermann had the wisdom to see that these two were perfectly complimentary, Pugin could draw architecture, Rowlandson could draw life. More importantly, though they were complete opposites, they worked well together, which was essential, since they both had to work on each of the drawings. It is this remarkable partnership which resulted in the extraordinary plates which were published in The Microcosm of London.
Ackermann also commissioned William Henry Pyne to write the text which accompanied the plates for the first two volumes. The text for the third was written by William Combe. Ackermann wrote the Introduction himself, Pyne and Combe provided a general history of each of the locations illustrated in the plates.
The three volumes of the 1904 reprint edition of the Microcosm have been digitized and are available through Google’s online Book Search service. Volume I, Volume II and Volume III of the Google version are the complete books, each contains both the plates and the text. The Table of Contents for each volume has been tagged with HTML links to each plate, so it is a simple click to get to the image you wish to view, with its accompanying text.
The plates of the original 1808 – 1810 edition of Ackermann’s Microcosm have been digitized at the MOTCO Image Database. The MOTCO Project is an immense undertaking in the United Kingdom to use modern information technology to digitize the wealth of images and maps found in older publications which are no longer readily available to the public. This project serves a two-fold purpose with this effort. Not only are these older materials now available to a world-wide audience via the internet, the originals can now be better preserved by significantly reducing their handling, since scholars and others can view the digitized versions. MOTCO also has many of these high-quality digitized images available for sale on CD. The images available from MOTCO cover a broad spectrum of British history, though they currently do not have a great many images available from the Regency era. One lovely exception is the images of all the plates from The Microcosm of London for 1808. The Microcosm image database is very well designed, allowing you to view a small size image of each plate, which you can then click to view a much larger, high-quality image. I highly recommend a visit to this magnificent resource of Regency London.
Though the final year of publication of The Microcosm of London was 1810, a year before the Prince of Wales, to whom the book was dedicated, became Regent, it is still a valuable resource for scholars and readers of Regency romances who wish to know what London looked like in the early years of the nineteenth century. Cities, neighborhoods, even single buildings, tend to change slowly, over time. Thus, much of what was illustrated in the Microcosm looked much the same during the decade of the Regency as it had in the decade which came before it. Would you like to know how the Tower of London appeared in Regency times? It does not look much like it does today. Or, would you like to see the inside of Astley’s Amphitheatre, or the Covent Garden or Drury Lane theatres? Perhaps you would like to see the inside of a workhouse, the Bow Street office, or the Fleet Prison? Mayhap the Carlton House Hall, the Subscription Room at Brooks’s Club, or the main pavilion at Vauxhall Gardens is more appealing? They are all captured within the pages of Rudolf Ackermann’s The Microcosm of London, or London in Miniature. And those images are now available to you via the world-wide web. Enjoy!