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In 1738 John Rocque, a Frenchman, began his survey of London. His map (engraved by John Pine) covers an area from Marylebone and Chelsea in the west to Stepney and Deptford in the east. It was finally published in 1747. Pasted together, its 24 sheets measure 13 x 6 ½ feet – that is how it is shown in the exhibition London 1753 at the British Museum until 23 November. A contemporary catalogue suggested that it be put on a roller or made into a screen. (Today a more convenient version is available: The A to Z of Georgian London, published in 1982, reproduces the sheets, one to a spread, still perfectly legible, at a little over half-size.) To trace parts of London you know well in Pine’s neat engraving is to learn which bits are resilient and which aren’t. The position of the LRB office, for example, can be found: it is opposite the back of St George’s Bloomsbury in Little Russell Street; the church was then, as now, surrounded by housing, but few if any of the original domestic buildings survive. You see why a church hemmed in like this put its burial ground out in the empty fields beyond what would become Russell Square. It survives as a tomb-laden garden tucked behind the Thomas Coram Foundation Museum.

The exhibition encourages you to find modern parallels to things which are, at first sight, of their time. Last month’s papers showed the lucky few holding up numbered tickets to the public gallery at the Hutton Inquiry. Two hundred and fifty years ago it was numbered tickets to Westminster Hall that were in demand: two Jacobite earls and a lord were on trial there. Graphics are not what they were – no swirl of copperplate breaking into black lettering for ‘High Treason’ – but the same appetite is being served.

Take the sixpenny prints of Miss Chudleigh, maid of honour to the Princess of Wales. In 1749 she attended the Grand Jubilee Ball after the Venetian Manner at Ranelagh Gardens as Iphigenia. Her costume left her breasts uncovered; the engravings differ in detail – one shows a classical design, the other is more operatic – but they agree on that essential point. Just the kind of scandalous undress paparazzi look for at film premieres. Miss Chudleigh’s career would have provided food for scandal sheets at any period. She had many rich protectors, left the country after a conviction for bigamy, bought an estate in St Petersburg, and died in Paris in a house she had from the King’s brother.

Ranelagh Gardens itself is well displayed. Engravings show the great Rotunda: 150 feet across, surrounded by two tiers of boxes and the pleasure garden with its canals, Chinese pavilions and people in fancy dress (more demure than Miss Chudleigh’s). You can plot its position on Rocque’s map – to the east of Chelsea Hospital and right by the waterworks. It was immensely popular. ‘Everybody goes there,’ Horace Walpole reported. ‘You can’t set your foot without treading on a Prince, or Duke of Cumberland.’

These colourful pleasures are shown in black and white, for this is an exhibition dominated by engravings. Reynolds’s portrait of Garrick being tugged right and left by Comedy and Tragedy is here, but as a mezzotint. Hogarth’s work is represented in the form of drawings and prints, not paintings. The topography comes that way too. The Sandby watercolours (above and below) are only palely tinted and Canaletto’s Old Horse Guards from St James’s Park and The Thames and Westminster Bridge from the North are in monochrome pen and wash. The soft, sooty depths of the mezzotints after Reynolds by Edward Fisher and Edward Okey, the sharp unambiguous lines of Luke Sullivan’s etching after Hogarth’s The March to Finchley and the delicate precision of the Sandby drawings are not put in the shade as they might be were they required to compete with the more substantial reality suggested by oil paint. The engravers are, very properly, given equal billing in labels and catalogue entries.*

The best art doesn’t necessarily help most when you try to imagine the social reality of 18th-century London. Hogarth’s inventions are brilliant, but his characters are so well formed and distinctly characterised – the drunk, the lecher, the pretty girl, the blind fiddler, the avaricious lawyer – and his satirical purpose so well served by this talent, that you can’t reconfigure them and make them merely ordinary. On the other hand, a rather stiff engraving – like the one after Cipriani which shows poor boys being charitably fitted out for the Navy – encourages you to find your own reading and to think about street children then and now. Stand Coachman, or the Haughty Lady Well Fitted shows what is said to be a true incident. A lady refused to move her coach which was blocking the path, so a man opened the door, climbed in and made his way out the other side, followed by ‘the mob . . . bespattered and dirty’. Had the engraver been a better artist he might not have offered so much incidental information about the clothes and attributes of the passers-by.

The success of the exhibition lies in its ability to make you attend to mundane detail. It presupposes curiosity and will probably mean most to people who are also curious about the city as it is now. You search out buildings you know as you follow Samuel and Nathaniel Buck’s panorama of the Thames. You go back to Rocque’s map, where you begin to find places which, as far as outward appearance goes, have changed hardly at all – North Street still leads into Smith Square; the towers of St John’s Church are recognisable in several views.

London of 250 years ago is a distant province. The news that London 1753 brings is as mixed as a modern pile of tabloid newspapers, advertisements, maps, pictures of places and people and all kinds of printed ephemera. Conflicting versions of what is going on were as common then as now. The last plate in Hogarth’s Four Stages of Cruelty shows the cadaver of Tom Nero, hanged for his crimes, being anatomised in the Cutlerian Theatre of the Royal College of Physicians: ‘Those Eyeballs from their Sockets wrung,/That glow’d with lawless Lust!’ The first impression is that cruelty is being met with cruelty: the doctors wielding knife and scalpel look as vicious as the boys torturing dogs and cats in plate one. But the popular press today, too, has problems with autopsies and organ retention.

Rococo trade cards in which the elegant, asymmetrical curves of the frame enclose vignettes of craftsmen at their benches or examples of things on offer – food, jewellery, silverware, garden tools and so forth – suggest an elegant world not so far from the one Boucher was recording in France. But this advertising art may be misleading. Devis’s group portraits were of a stiff, starchy sort, and in Hogarth’s Marriage à la Mode the charm of a pretty interior can become a moral negative. There are no regular patterns of avenue, palace and barracks – the architecture of autocracy – to give bones to Rocque’s map. The Bucks’ panorama suggests ant-like commercial energy rather than concerted power; Old London Bridge was still standing and still lined with houses. The scaffolding round Mylne’s new Blackfriars Bridge, in an engraving by Piranesi, is as grand a structure as anything shown. The bridge was a response to objections from the Corporation of London to the building of Westminster Bridge at the administrative end of town.

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