When we watch Bridgerton or the many film adaptions of Jane Austen novels, it is easy to identify with the characters, they seem just like us but wearing fancier clothes.
I think the truth is quite different. Their world, without electric light, the motor car or railway, or indeed modern sewage systems, would have seemed eerily quiet, rather dark, and a bit smelly. Living in such a world, travel was nowhere near as easy then as now, and without photography, most people had very little idea of what the world (i.e. anywhere beyond a twenty-mile radius) looked like.
There was a void waiting to be filled and into it stepped the German-born Rudolph Ackermann. He wasn’t the only publisher of finely executed aquatint and lithograph illustrations, but he was a great businessman who built an international base for his publications which ran into the hundreds. The importance of his work is that it established a topographical image bank that was enthusiastically adopted by the burgeoning British middle-class who were newly enriched by the industrial revolution. It was through Ackermann’s prints that people began to see the world. Previously most illustrations had been in monochrome, and were designed for the antiquarian, Ackermann’s books were for everybody.
Ackermann’s first large format book was theLoyal Volunteers of London, 1799. This was a slightly different type of work in that it shows the volunteer regiments that were formed for the defence of England at the time of the Napoleonic Wars. It did, however, give Ackermann a chance to show his patriotism for his adopted country, and he seized it with both hands, the text having a strong anti-French message. The plates themselves are more interesting than the typical military books of the time as they show various drills. Our copy is one of the early ones with the plates heightened with gold and silver. It was a great way for Ackermann to launch himself into the world of luxury books.
What he has left book collectors is a large collection of books usually in superlative condition, the result of his discrimination in the first place, and just as important the fact that they have changed hands very infrequently. Indeed, until the 1975 sale, these books would only have come to market at the Hamilton Place sales in the 1880’s, Beckford’s daughter Susan, having married the Duke of Hamilton, where they were bought by the fifth Earl of Rosebery.
A classic Ackermann book is The History of the University of Oxford, 1814. Although there had been other notable Oxford books, this was the first to include accompanying text for each image, the first to depict the colleges in colour, and was alluded to by Evelyn Waugh in Brideshead Revisited, when he writes of ‘aquatint Oxford’. Our copy is particularly desirable as it is one of only 50 large paper examples. These have finer colouring, and the ample margins show the colleges especially well.
In the same vein is The History of the colleges of Winchester, Eton and Westminster, 1816. The plates in this work are very fine, in many ways superior to those in the university books, but what I find fascinating is that the same schools described here (the above plus Harrow, Charterhouse, Rugby, St. Paul’s, Merchant Taylors’ and Christ’s Hospital), would still be today right up there amongst the top colleges. Empires rise and fall, banks and businesses all may have their day in the sun before collapsing, but the English public school system seems to sail on regardless. One particularly noteworthy plate is that depicting a cricket match at Rugby.
A particular favourite of mine is Papworth’s Select Views of London, 1816. What I like is that it shows plenty of modern buildings, and includes temporary structures erected in the parks to celebrate victory over Napoleon. There is also a fine series of the London squares.
No series of topographical views would be complete without showing the Thames. Ackermann commissioned William Westall to produce a wonderful series of views charting the river from source to sea. Picturesque Tour of the River Thames, 1828, depicts the great towns and cities along its banks. It is a very interesting book because the use of aquatint is not so pronounced, which gives the individual colourist more freedom to express themselves. This can lead to noticeable differences between copies, much like the river itself always changing. Our copy is again very special, being a large paper example with the plates in 2 states, and superior colouring.