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Archive for the ‘Art’ Category

curiocity

This delightful recent book by Henry Eliot and Matt Lloyd-Rose defies genre. One could call it a trivia book but that would do it a severe disservice. It is that, in its way, but it is so much more. I suppose we might call it a miscellany. Hand on heart, the delay of this review is simply owing to the difficulty I’ve had to define or describe it.

First of all, it is a lovely object. Large, but not coffee-table large, it is neither hard back or soft cover. It is dressed rather in crimson cloth-covered boards which are ever so slightly flexible. It is jam-packed with illustrations and entirely unblighted by photographs. Colourful and beautifully laid out, using Johnston Sans (“London’s typeface”, celebrating its 100th anniversary this year) and Caslon – both London typefaces of impeccable pedigree. Much credit to the designers and illustrators. Oh, and it smells nice too!

So what’s it about? Those of you familiar with the Curiocity maps (“London Unfolded”) which have been published by Eliot over the past five years or so won’t be surprised that the book is underpinned by a series of unusual illustrated maps of London.

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Crowdformations.

The authors have arranged their material in chapters alphabetically but intelligently avoided allowing this to be a burden (D = Dust; J = Juvenalia). Each chapter has a two-page hand-drawn map or topographical illustration, beautifully made and full of visual puns. One is reminded of MacDonald Gill‘s interwar theatre and tube posters (“Wonderground” etc.). Hanging from these chapter titles, like beautiful mobiles, there are sections which contain typically three to six morsels of quirky and interesting information. Think QI, but more interesting than that; think Steve Wright’s factoids, but more meaty than that; think Quote…Unquote, but more engaging than that. And all about London. How to describe? Picking something out as a bit of a Blake fan, for example, we have STRAND > GORGONOOZA (Blake’s Spiritual Fourfold London, this is the Map for the chapter)> St James’s Piccadilly > info how Blake was baptised in the eponymous church in the Grinling Gibbons font. The whole is wrapped up with a Philip Pullman quote about Blake. Multiply this by dozens of similarly structured sections and you have a delicious tome of rare worth.

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The Thames Archipelago.

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Sleepeasy … Speakeasy.

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Memento Mori … Memorials.

I adore this intelligent, thoughtful book, Curiocity. It has character; it has a sense of humour; it is conversational and sensational. Definitely one of my all-time favourite books about London and most certainly shortlisted for our Book of the Year. Be you the giver or recipient, it’s a Christmas present guaranteed to delight.


Curocity: In Pursuit of London (452pp) is published by Particular Books (Penguin / Random House) with a cover price of £30 but available for less. Worth every penny either way.

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Relatively unflattering, yet Nelson's favourite, portrait of Emma.

Relatively unflattering – yet Nelson’s favourite – portrait of Emma.

The Emma Hamilton story has taken many twists and turns since her own day. Her reputation was widely traduced during her lifetime. Worse was to come during the Victorian era when our national heroes had to be seen and remembered as flawless paragons: Emma was further dismissed as one who lured a helpless Nelson to her bed. Matters improved in the 20th Century when she was represented more sympathetically by Vivien Leigh (1940) and Glenda Jackson (1973). The discovery and attendant research of many private letters about ten years ago shone more light. But still, as far as she is known at all, Emma remains simply Nelson’s mistress.

Her memory deserves better and I believe a new exhibition in Greenwich does her proper justice.

To start life as a poor girl from Cheshire and end up married to the leading connoisseur of the age and rubbing shoulders with European royalty was a massive achievement. Yes, good looks were essential to take her along that road. But equally, it took intelligence, determination and hard work to secure her place at William Hamilton’s side in 1790s Naples. This she did by educating herself in everything and more that a well-born woman would know in the spheres of language, art, science, music.  If it weren’t for the mores and the snobbery of the age, the Nelson and post-Nelson years for her would surely have been less tragic.

Yet while she did so well and achieved so much in her extraordinary life, to any observer Emma Hamilton’s story is also a heartbreaking one. Having moved to London as a teenager and based in notorious Covent Garden, Emma worked in domestic service for local families and leading thespians. Her beauty ensured additional work as an artists’ model. But falling pregnant to a typical Georgian swell with the almost comical toff name of Sir Harry Fetherstonhaugh, she then fell under the wing and into the bed of Charles Greville. Although she saw her daughter occasionally, the girl was taken care of by others, and they led separate lives. Later on, when Greville himself sought and advantageous marriage, he virtually sold Emma on to his uncle, the aging Sir William Hamilton, the British Envoy to the Kingdom of Naples. Emma had no idea the Greville would not be following. She was distraught. Nonetheless, she knuckled down and made a singular success of her new situation.

Emma Hamilton: Seduction and Celebrity at the National Maritime Museum (NMM) tells this story brilliantly. And fairly. Comprising a wonderful mix of objects, the exhibition is nonetheless dominated by portraiture, most of which is from the NMM’s own collection (it has the second largest portrait collection after the National Portrait Gallery itself). Emma was captured by many painters, illustrators and cartoonists great and small. Most prolific among these was George Romney whose portraits are the most accomplished simply because he knew her the best and was clearly smitten. She was also still young. But Joshua Reynolds had a go, as did Thomas Lawrence – not one of his best but interesting to see for comparison. Rowlandson and Gilray had their fun with her, notably the latter, who was uncompromisingly vicious. But funny, to be fair.

Emma as la Penserosa by Sir Thomas Lawrence, 1792. © The Abercorn Heirloom Settlement Trustees

Emma as la Penserosa by Sir Thomas Lawrence, 1792. © The Abercorn Heirloom Settlement Trustees

Dido in despair by James Gilray. The departing fleet in the background. © National Maritime Museum

Dido in despair by James Gilray. The departing fleet in the background. © National Maritime Museum

It is the Romney portraits which dominate the first half of the show and probably what one takes away. It is good that this show raises his profile, deservedly so. To what extent his Emmas are idealised is difficult to say. Certainly she was a huge celebrity model in her time, in the modern sense, pretty much. This, combined with her obsessive self-improvement, puts one in mind of Marilyn Monroe. Their fame and vulnerable position at society’s top table strike one as eerily similar.

 

The postergirl image of this exhibition. Emma as Circe by George Romney c.1782 © Tate.

The poster girl image of this exhibition. Emma as Circe by George Romney c.1782 © Tate.

The exhibition includes many other personal objects such as tea sets, frocks, jewellery, Nelson’s hair and dress coat. These are interesting, but it’s the sizeable collection of letters between our leading players in Emma’s life which give weight and balance to the whole and make it truly personal. There are also great examples of books which give a good flavour of the times. I was pleased to see copies by moralistic Georgian do-gooders Jonas Hanway (“the most boring man in London” (!)) and Mrs Trimmer.

This show succeeds on many levels. First, it gives a very balanced assessment of Emma Hamilton’s life. Although titled Seduction and Celebrity (you have to catch the punters’ eye), it nonetheless emphasises her achievement, and that is most important. It sets her place properly in the historical and social context of women’s place in late Georgian society, reminding us of the essential weakness of their position and their lot.

But if I were to describe it in a word, I would say: lavish! Beautifully designed, lit and presented. Looking back at NMM shows of recent years such as Royal River (2012) and Pepys, (2015) this is something NMM does particularly well. This Emma Hamilton show is easily the equal of those superb exhibitions.

Highly recommended.

Emma Hamilton: Seduction and Celebrity runs at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, until 17 April 2017. Tickets are £12.60 (adults, concessions apply).

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A guest blog post by London Historians member the artist Liam O’Farrell who describes a London Historians tour of  Smithfield Market in August this year. 

The tour I attended was for Smithfield Market and St John’s. The St John’s Gate visit was just as interesting though for the sake of this blog I have just featured Smithfield Market, and the painting of Smithfield Market.

Arriving at Smithfield Market
The Market opens at 2am would you believe? This is far too early for a visit for even the most intrepid tourist that said we were all still mustered outside Barbican Station at 7.00. I am not a morning person at all though thankfully Peter Twist is, and got us all up and rolling in no time at all.

About Peter Twist (London Historians member)
Peter is a qualified as a City of London Guide since 2012. You may recognise him from the recent groundbreaking Channel 4 show, The Audience. He is a retired Metropolitan Police Senior Officer and brings a wealth of life experience and good humour to bear upon his guided walks.

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Peter Twist leading a group around Smithfield, here at the modern poultry market.

About Smithfield Market
Once on site Peter took us over the history of the market. A livestock market occupied the area as early as the 10th century. That said, it was always a bit of a butchers’ yard as this was where London performed its most gruesome executions. Here in 1305 William Wallace was hanged, drawn and quartered after upsetting Edward I. Wat Tyler too met his end here in an equally revolting fashion after leading the ‘peasants revolt’. You can add to this the protestant martyrs and lord knows how many others.

Thankfully public executions have long since come to an end, and the site we have here today was opened in 1868. It was designed by The City Architect, Sir Horace Jones. In true Victorian style he saw the new meat market as a cathedral of meat complete with its own grand avenue. No expense was spared over its ornamental cast iron, glass, stone and red brick features. Time has proven that from did follow function though the form is certainly impressive.

Once the talk on the history and the outer buildings were complete we passed through the cast giant cast iron doors into the main part of the market. These doors weigh 15 tons each, yet they are so well balanced that you can open them with one finger.

The painting of Smithfield Market
As Peter took us around the market I busied myself in making written notes and drawings around the site, and inside too. The view I finally chose was the three quarter view showing the majestic sweep of Horace Jones’ design with the towers on each corner.

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I produced a small watercolour on site to add to my notes and produced a larger one back in the studio. A print of Liam’s painting will be one of London Historians’ December prizes, see forthcoming newsletter for details.

Inside Smithfield Market

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Once you are inside the market you can really see the advantages of a tour guide as opposed to a guide book. Over the years Peter has got to know many of the market traders and they are more than willing to share stories and traditions of the market.

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Biffo.

The self-styled ‘Biffo’ is more than willing to hold court, and told us that if someone is getting married they are likely to be stripped and covered in flour below the market clock.

He recalled when he first joined workers would fight each other for the best jobs. It was a heavily unionised, hard man’s world. Not a place for a sensitive artist!

In the old days things could seriously get out of hand between the traders to such an extent that the market still has its own police station and police force too. The current police force no longer have powers of arrest, though they can occasionally still be called on to sort out disputes.

The traders and workers traditionally have almost all been white, male, Londoners. These days the market is much more cosmopolitan with even the occasional woman. Biffo said that without the foreign workers willing to do the punishing hours the market would simply die.

Peter took us around the whole site and despite the tough reputation of the market it has a very friendly atmosphere and all the traders were very willing to chat to you about their work and their families’ history of the market.

Visitors are often surprised to know that the market is not totally wholesale. There is no minimum spend and some real bargains can be had. It is not all traditional goods either, as on a few days a month even seagulls eggs can be purchased.

Once the tour was complete we were all pretty hungry and were ready for a big English breakfast at one of the traditional cafes on the square. I stuffed myself!

Tours
I can really recommend this tour. There is a real advantage in having someone on the inside to guide you around the real nooks and crannies of the market. It really made the tour work, and that’s coming from someone who hates mornings!

The City Guides offer a walking tour of Smithfield Market. Tours take place once a month, starting at 7am and lasting an hour and a half. Booking is essential.

Liam O’Farrell
Liam is an extremely talented painter and illustrator who specialises in landscape and cityscape scenes, many of which are on London subjects. His web site.

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dsc05907dSetting aside not being much cop at punching other people’s dads and Tin Machinery, David Bowie was a great success at virtually everything to which he turned his hand. This is especially true of collecting art, his main private passion.

Bowie’s collection goes up for auction at Sotheby’s next week on 10 and 11 November. Over 350 pieces, comprising drawings, paintings, sculpture, pottery, furniture, installations. Virtually all forms of art are represented, but mainly 20th Century British stuff which forms the backbone of the collection. There are plenty of other forms too, for example contemporary African art. Much floor space is taken up by furniture and installations which are simply fun items: playful purchases. So, a highly eclectic group as you may expect, but the whole thing has a unity which tells you a lot about the late owner, mainly that he had a great eye and exquisite taste.

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The roll call of artists represented here – and in numbers – is striking. A partial list, here goes: Frank Auerbach, Leon Kossoff, Wyndham Lewis, Graham Sutherland, Henry Moore, Jean-Michel Basquiat, David Bomberg, John Bellany. At least a dozen exquisite drawings by Eric Gill. And hey, there’s even a Tintoretto. Dozens more.

Percy Wyndham Lewis (1882 - 1957)

Percy Wyndham Lewis (1882 – 1957)

Percy Wyndham Lewis (1882 - 1957)

Percy Wyndham Lewis (1882 – 1957)

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The absolutely rock-bottom estimate for the most obscure tiny thing starts at £1,500, but the bulk of these items are expected to fetch £20,000 and more. Much more. It’s not often I curse my lack of wealth.

The auction over, the great man’s beloved collection will be cast to the four winds, so I urge you to try and get around to Sotheby’s the early part of next week. You will see wonderful modern art for free that would easily cost £15 and more in a conventional gallery exhibition. Sensational.

www.sothebys.com

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carl gilesToday we celebrate the centenary and life of the cartoonist Ronald “Carl” Giles (1916 – 1995), who was born and raised in North London.

Giles was probably the most beloved cartoonist of the 20C with his gentle pictorial commentary on the impact of politics and current affairs on – primarily – working-class Britain. The Giles annual became an inevitability for every dad’s Christmas stocking filler. Today it remains ubiquitous at charity shops and car-boot sales throughout the nation. Nobody could capture the misery of grotty British weather quite like Giles.

He worked for Express Newspapers between 1943 and 1989, producing three or four cartoons per week during most of that period, a total of over 7,000 pieces of work. Much of that time he alternated with Michael Cummings whose style was far more hard-edged, direct and overtly political. It was a nice balance.

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Giles developed his skills in an animation studio in the 1930s before joining the left-wing Reynolds Weekly as a cartoonist before being enticed by the larger coffers of the Express group. Uncomfortable to begin with, it was a situation which clearly grew on him, allowing him to feed his enthusiasm for classic sports cars, fine cigars. There was definitely a Mr Toad side to his character.

World War 2. Unfit for active service, Giles nonetheless had an extremely interesting war. As a war correspondent, his illustrations of army life became increasingly cartoony and mixing with the troops allowed him to develop the world-weary everyman characters which populated his post-war output. Doing reportage as an illustrator, when the Nazi regime crumbled, he frequently found himself in the grim surroundings of internment camps, notably Bergen-Belsen. Against his better judgement he couldn’t help liking the murderous camp commander Josef Kramer, who was an admirer of his work!

American soldier in WW2 enjoying an English pint. From the Carl Giles Collection, University of Kent.

American soldier in WW2 enjoying an English pint. From the Carl Giles Collection, University of Kent.

For more on Carl Giles, there are good entries in both Wikipedia and the ODNB (sub required).
I found this nice page, featuring Giles on the home front in WW2.

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DSC03489_200David Bowie. We’re still smarting, are we not?

Our greatest rock star and the coolest Englishman who ever lived.

Yesterday I popped into this very temporary exhibition, in Heddon Street exactly opposite the Ziggy Stardust plaque. It features a selection of previously unseen portraits by three of Bowie’s favourite snappers: Chalkie Davies, Tony McGee and Denis O’Regan. It runs until Sunday.

David Bowie: Fame Fashion Photography.

Pic: Denis O'Regan, 1978

Pic: Denis O’Regan, 1978

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All the pieces are wonderful: how could they not be? But I particularly like the more informal contact sheet-style series and the informal ones rather than official photoshoot types. But how can you tell? Was Bowie always “on”, or was he simply so cool, so photogenic that it was simply impossible to take a bad picture?

If, like me, you are a bit of a fan, this wonderful show is bitter-sweet. It touches you.

There is a lovely catalogue which you can buy via donation (minimum £5, please) and all the pieces on display (and a few others) are for sale via silent auction. Bid range at time of writing £500 – £3,500. All proceeds to Cancer Research UK.

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A guest post by London Historians member Robin Reynolds.
You can see higher resolution versions of all images in this article in our Flickr space, here

Visscher’s view of London has long been a puzzle. If, as many people believe, he never visited the city, how was his panorama researched, and by whom? The further puzzle is why did his neighbour and rival, Ludovicus Hondius, publish the London panorama when Visscher himself was already an established and successful publisher?

We may never know for sure, but perhaps there’s enough, in the many engravings and etchings that he left behind, for us to understand something about the man, and to make a reasonable guess as to how the London engraving was compiled.

Visscher's London Panorama of 1616

Visscher’s London Panorama of 1616

Existing documentation allows us to sketch his life in outline. Son of a shipyard carpenter, he was born in Amsterdam around 1587. So he’s 13 at the turn of the century, and 16 when Queen Elizabeth I dies, to be succeeded by the Stuart King James I.

Visscher marries Neel Floris in 1608, and the following year they buy a house in the city centre, where he bases his studio and publishing operation. So already, aged just 22, he’s a thrusting businessman, originating new work and reviving worn-out second-hand plates sold off by other publishers. (In those days an engraved copper plate was limited to 1,000 prints or so before the grooves faded under the weight of the press. Visscher’s craftsmen would recut the grooves and print off new editions.)

He runs a highly productive workshop up to his death in 1652, and he hands on to his son one of the most successful publishing businesses in Europe.

His own achievements as an engraver are humbling. His series of small landscapes capturing the rural life and scenery of the Low Countries are the subject of academic studies today. He produced posters – for example promoting a lottery to fund an old people’s home. The creation of polders – large-scale drainage and land reclamation projects – began in his time, and he produced maps of the new farmland, in which he promoted the precision of the surveyors’ measurements alongside the quality of his own work.

Dutch countryside by Visscher_500

Dutch countryside by Visscher.

His most profitable line was publishing Reformation bibles, and his most spectacular work is Leo Belgicus, a stunning statement of the defiance of the protestant Low Countries in their long-running and bloody conflict with Catholic Spain.

Then there are his city panoramas. Not many prints survive, but we know that at least 28 came out of the Visscher workshop.

And finally there is his most intriguing line, news pictures.

Together, these works help us to picture the man and to get some measure of his personality.

Amsterdam’s Kalverstraat, where he lived and worked, was the publishing hub of the city, and a shared sense of humour and self-mockery seems to have attached itself to this emerging industry. Hondius names his workshop The Watchful Dog (Hondius = de Hondt = dog). Dancker Danckerts calls his publishing house In Gratitude. Likewise Visscher makes a joke of his own name, adopting as his trademark a fisherman with two rods. The figure appears again and again in different works, so perhaps this image – a cross between Father Christmas and a garden gnome – is how he saw himself.

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On the face of it he’s a likeable fellow, referred to fondly in a poem by one of the writers with whom he collaborated:

‘The young should rack their brains
And with great diligence strive for knowledge,
As did Visscher, who teaches in his prints
How one may become a master in this art’

But to judge from his news prints, he’s far from being Father Christmas. He’s a Calvinist activist, supporting the House of Orange in the Dutch Revolt. He produces diagrams and illustrations of battles on land and at sea, and he revels in atrocities perpetrated by the Calvinists against their enemies.

Witness the fun he has over the execution of Hendrick Slatius, an Arminian protestant who plotted to kill the prince of Orange. As the sword falls, Slatius throws up his hands. One is sliced off and the other dangles by a thread. How do we know this? Visscher gives us a grisly close-up. Another image shows the headless torso exposed for the crows high on a wooden plinth. Thoughtfully nailed to the perch beside him is the severed hand.

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Visscher produces a veritable comic strip of ensuing events. The body, head and hand are retrieved under cover of dark by friends unknown, and buried decently – albeit secretly – in a farm field. But not for long. The farmer’s plough turns up the coffin, and the bits, including the hand with its distinctive nail-hole, are dragged back to town.

Visscher has a final laugh as the body is reinstated. The clumsy handlers lose their grip, and the headless, naked body slips off its perch and dangles upside down.

That was in 1623. Seventeen years earlier, Visscher produced a news sheet depicting the execution of the Catholic Gunpowder Plotters in what is supposedly St Paul’s Churchyard, London. But, revealingly, the bodies are being chopped and burned by men in Dutch clothing against a Dutch townscape.

So we can say with certainty that in 1606 Visscher didn’t know what London or Londoners looked like. Ergo, he did not make sketches of Elizabethan London three or more years earlier.

The way Visscher went about his 1611 Amsterdam panorama tells us this is a man for the short cut. Rather than row across the river to make his own sketches, he buys the plates of a relatively sparse 1599 Amsterdam panorama by Pieter Bast, adds extra ships and foreground characters, and bish-bosh, we have what is probably his first wide city view.

Amsterdam panorama by Bast.

Amsterdam panorama by Bast.

Amsterdam panorama by Visscher

Amsterdam panorama by Visscher

I think this is further evidence that Visscher wouldn’t have taken time out to go to London, but I also think it’s where Visscher’s involvement in the London project begins.

The London project almost certainly belongs to the publisher, named as Ludovicus Hondius following the recent death of his father Jodocus Hondius. In fact Ludovicus would have been just 14 at the time, so in all probability his mother Colette (of the Van den Keere engraving family) was pulling the strings.

But it’s a solid guess that the idea originated with the late Jodocus, who was familiar with London and had substantial London connections. A Flemish cartographer and artist, Jodocus spent nine years in England, a refugee of the religious troubles in his homeland. In that time he hooked up with, among others, the seafaring hero Francis Drake. Two Drake portraits at the National Portrait Gallery are attributed to Hondius.

It’s possible that when he moved to Amsterdam in 1593, he took with him a sheaf of sketches of London, made from the top of St Mary Overie (today’s Southwark Cathedral). However it’s more likely that he remained in touch with artists in London, and was sent a sketched view, by an acquaintance unknown to us, of the city around the turn of the century.

Either way, nothing is done with those sketches until several years later. Possibly not until after Hondius’s death in 1612. By then Visscher’s Amsterdam panorama is in circulation, and no doubt doing well.

I fancy that at Number 9 Kalverstraat Visscher is thinking it’s time for another city panorama, while a few doors away Mrs Hondius is going through the papers of her late husband. She comes across the London sketches, knocks at Visscher’s door, and a deal is done. She supplies the sketches, Visscher does the engraving, she takes it to market.

Neither of them, evidently, takes much notice of content. That the royal barge is still flying the Tudor flag, 13 years into the reign of the Stuart King James, is neither here nor there. One of them – probably Mrs H – decides that for this first edition, there should be a tract of Latin text, lifted from William Camden’s Britannia, describing London in glorious terms. When the copy falls short, their solution is to drop in a few paragraphs about, of all things, glass-making, taken from Johan Pontanus’s recent History of Amsterdam. Again it doesn’t seem to matter that people might notice.

Visscher London with Latin

Visscher London with Latin

Some thirty years after Visscher’s death, the family produced a catalogue of the prints they had on offer. The inventory includes 28 four-plate city panoramas, from Lisbon to Constantinople, Augsburg to Vlissingen, Rome to Cracow.

It seems unlikely that Visscher engraved all of these himself, and still less likely that he researched them in person, on location. But in the world that explorers such as Drake had opened up, there was undoubtedly an appetite for the exotic, and Visscher exploited it to the full.

You can see higher resolution versions of all images in this article in our Flickr space, here


Visscher Redrawn, the brainchild of Robin Reynolds, is a project in which Robin drew a panorama for 2016 from the exact viewpoint of Visscher’s famous 1616 version. Both images are on display at the Guildhall Art Gallery from Saturday 20 February until November. Robin will be speaking at a London Historians evening event at the gallery on 8 March. Over a glass of wine. Event details and booking here.

London panorama by Reynolds, 2016.

London panorama by Reynolds, 2016.

 

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