The Microcosm and Me

Last week in my local auction room there was a lot comprising two framed hand-coloured aquatint engravings, both showing crowded interiors of large public buildings. Nothing unusual about that. You would be hard put to find a general auction sale anywhere in the United Kingdom that doesn’t include a few examples of 18th or 19th century architectural prints populated with human figures to provide scale.

But these two pictures stood out from the general run, or at least they did so to my eyes. Firstly, because I had seen and examined both images before while researching earlier posts for this blog. Secondly, because each of the buildings depicted has a special and personal significance for me. If either had come up separately I would have bid for it. Seeing both in the same lot was quite extraordinary, and naturally I was ready to go all-out to get them. Fortunately, however, there wasn’t much competition and I bought the pair for £50.

These prints are neither rare nor unusual. They are both taken from a publication called Microcosm of London, published in three volumes between 1808 and 1810. This is considered to be

one of the most beautiful books of the nineteenth century.  It was produced through a series of collaborative efforts organised and coordinated by the German-born printseller Rudolph Ackermann from his Repository of Arts at 101 The Strand[1]

The work contains 104 plates, each showing a notable London building or group of buildings, exterior or interior: places of worship, commercial centres, theatres, markets, pleasure gardens, courtrooms. Each plate is accompanied by a few pages of narrative commentary.

My pictures are:

  • Exhibition Room, Somerset House (Volume 1, Plate 2)
  • Synagogue, Duke’s Place, Houndsditch (Volume 3, Plate 18)

The original edition of the Microcosm of London was a great success, and it was reissued over a number of years, with further reprints and revised versions appearing over the next century or more. Without removing my prints from their frames for close inspection for watermarks (which I don’t wish to do) I’m unable to confirm that they are taken from an early edition, but it’s likely that they are early, high quality, original images.

20211123_123821I can say this quite confidently because both prints have passed the last several decades undisturbed inside excellent quality frames, each bearing on the back a paper label for Frank T Sabin of Albemarle Street, Mayfair, London. Sabin was a well-known and extremely upmarket art dealer specialising in prints, and it can be reliably stated that anything framed and sold in his gallery has impeccable provenance.

The production of the Microcosm of London was a complex, innovative and highly commercial operation, all carefully orchestrated by the publisher and gallery owner Rudolf Ackermann. He employed the artists Augustus Pugin and Thomas Rowlandson to collaborate on the drawing of the pictures. Then he used the best engravers to produce plates from the drawings, and oversaw the printing of the plates by the aquatint method. Next, Ackermann employed a team of refugees from the French Revolution to hand-colour each print individually – a huge task considering that the first print run of the 104 plates ran to 1,000 copies.

To write the narrative sections, Ackermann engaged the authors William Henry Pine for Volumes 1 and 2, and William Combe for Volume 3. The commentaries are somewhat pedestrian in nature, and if you look at a volume of the Microcosm you’ll soon find yourself skipping past the words in order to get rapidly to the next coloured plate.

Augustus Charles Pugin (1762–1832) was responsible for drawing the buildings and interiors. Pugin was a well-known architectural draughtsman, illustrator, and writer, but he wasn’t nearly as well-known as his son Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin would become a couple of decades later when he designed the magnificent Gothic Revival Palace of Westminster, home of the British Parliament.

Thomas Rowlandson (1757-1827) was a celebrated caricaturist, political satirist, social observer and occasional pornographer. He added humanity and humour to Pugin’s rather dry and academic architectural studies by populating them with crowds of visitors, worshippers or partygoers as appropriate to each image’s subject.

The collaboration of Pugin and Rowlandson worked a treat. As soon as groups of plates were ready for printing, Ackermann began to sell them to his well-to-do customers, firstly in monthly parts and then in bound volumes. His palatial shop and gallery at 101 the Strand, in Central London, was strategically placed for passing trade, just a block away from Somerset House, the then headquarters of the Royal Academy of Arts.

In 1810 the completed set of three volumes was priced at fifteen guineas (£15.75). It was indeed a luxury item, bearing in mind that at this time the average annual wage for a worker was between £30 and £40.

And so to the two pictures which (from my point of view) were combined so felicitously together in a cheap auction lot. What’s so special about them that I got all excited? Let’s take them one at a time.

Exhibition Room, Somerset House

I first studied this image a couple of years ago when I was doing some background research on the Royal Academy of Arts Summer Exhibition for a previous blog post which you can read here. If you haven’t clicked on the here at the end of the last sentence, then you simply need to know that the blog post was about an engraving made from a painting by the artist Daniel Maclise which was the big hit of the 1851 Summer Exhibition.

By 1851 the Royal Academy of Arts had moved out of Somerset House in the Strand and was temporarily housed in the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square before moving on again in 1868 to its long-term and current home in Burlington House in Piccadilly.

But in 1808, the year when Pugin and Rowlandson drew and Rudolf Ackermann published the image in the first monthly instalment of the Microcosm of London, The Royal Academy was still housed in the North Wing of Somerset House. Since 1780 the Academy had been holding  its popular annual Summer Exhibition in the magnificent upstairs Exhibition Room or Great Room designed for the purpose by the architect William Chambers.

Somerset House, North Wing, © Copyright Jim Osley

You can see from the print the way in which the pictures in the Exhibition were fashionably crowded together without a single square inch of wall space visible around them. And you can also see from Rowlandson’s caricatures how the visitors were fashionably crowded together as they always have been at the Summer Exhibition – at least until very recently when forced apart by pandemic rules on social distancing. 

After the Royal Academy moved away from Somerset House in 1837, the North Wing was used as government offices, achieving enduring fame for more than a century as the General Register Office, headquarters of the Registrar General of Births, Marriages and Deaths for England and Wales. Then in 1989 the North Wing returned from administrative to artistic use as the home of the Courtauld Institute of Art, the UK’s foremost centre for the study of art history, and of the Courtauld Gallery, a smallish but perfectly-formed art museum containing a jaw-droppingly wonderful collection of paintings, drawings, sculptures and other artworks.

Exhibition _Stare_ Case - The Metropolitan Museum of ArtThe Exhibition Room or Great Room is still there on the top storey of the North Wing. It is awkwardly reached via a tall and elegant but narrow staircase which itself was the subject of a famous Rowlandson cartoon in 1811. I have climbed the staircase and entered the Room on many occasions, although when there it was quite difficult to tell that you were in a huge room because it was subdivided into several smaller spaces for display of the permanent Courtauld exhibition.

Only by withdrawing your eyes from the artworks (difficult) and looking up towards the clerestoried ceiling could you discern that you were inside a jigsaw of small partitioned rooms which together made up a vast, grand space.

Those partitions have all gone now. The Courtauld Gallery has been closed for the past two or three years while a huge refurbishment project has been undertaken, the centrepiece of which is the restoration of the Exhibition Room – now renamed The LVMH Great Room after its commercial sponsors – to its original proportions and decor. As I write this paragraph the reopening is taking place. I can’t wait to see it – but will have to wait because I don’t go to London often in these pandemic days and it’s likely to be several months until my next visit.

In the meantime, here for comparison (above) is how the room looked in 1808 and an impression of how it looks in 2021. Three points:

  • first, note how accurately the space was depicted by Pugin in his 1808 image;
  • second, note how much the fashion in exhibiting paintings has changed in the intervening 213 years, from full-on wall-coverage to minimalist sparseness;
  • third, note how in Rowlandson’s depiction of the 1808 crowd, it’s quite clear that fashionable visitors to the exhibition were at least as interested in viewing each other as in viewing the pictures, whereas in 2021 you keep your distance and focus on the art.

I have told you that I’m very familiar with the space shown in the Exhibition Room, Somerset House print, but haven’t told you why I’m so especially interested in it. It’s because I’m in love with the Courtauld.

1Every year the Courtauld Institute of Art offers a summer school programme of intensive week-long short courses in various aspects of art history, which (for a substantial fee) are open to all comers[2]. The bright young students and heavyweight researchers of term-time are replaced by a delightful collection of privileged superannuated dilettante middle-class art-loving amateurs, who attend the courses in order to learn a little about the history of art while trying fleetingly to recapture what it felt like all those decades ago to be young, carefree undergraduates. Or at least those are my reasons for attending.

In recent years I have participated in three of these wonderful courses. Two of these were held at the Courtauld in Somerset House before the move to their current long-term temporary premises near King’s Cross Station, and the third was offered online because of covid restrictions. My courses were as follows:

  • 2015: The Gothic Image: Exploring the Medieval Imagination
  • 2016: True to Nature? Picturing Landscapes, Animals and Plants in Northern Europe, 1550-1750
  • 2020: Van Eyck at the Burgundian Court

How magnificently obscure! How stupendously abstruse! How gloriously recondite! I loved every moment of every one of my courses.

And thus a short time as a temporary student wandering the halls of the magnificent 18th century building and a slightly longer time sitting at the feet of some world-class lecturers has turned me into a hopeless devotee and acolyte of everything to do with the Courtauld and Somerset House. That’s why I was so delighted that the Microcosm print was one of the two pictures in my auction lot.

Synagogue, Duke’s Place, Houndsditch

I became aware of the second image in my auction lot by seeing it online while reading about London’s Great Synagogue for an earlier blog post which you can read here. However, I have never visited the building – for the simple reason that it was obliterated by German bombs during the night of 10th May 1941. Presumably Hitler and his cronies were extra pleased on the following day when they heard the news that the principal place of worship for British Ashkenazi Jews had been utterly destroyed by Luftwaffe bombers.

Although I never had the opportunity to visit, I had heard a great deal about this particular Synagogue from a very early age. I’ll tell you why in a while, but first a little information about the building itself, its illustrious history, and about the very remarkable picture of it drawn in 1809 by Pugin and Rowlandson.

The Great Synagogue was built around 1690 in Duke’s Place, Houndsditch, in the City of London. It was the centre of worship for Jews of the Ashkenazi tradition – immigrants from Germany, the Netherlands and parts of northern and eastern Europe[3]. One of the first purpose-built synagogues in London, Duke’s Place was first constructed a few years before Bevis Marks, the (still surviving) prayer house for Jews of the Sephardi tradition incoming mainly from the Iberian peninsula. The two communities were on friendly terms, but there wasn’t much mixing or intermarriage between them.

The Duke’s Place building was replaced on the same site in 1722, and enlarged in 1766. Then it was demolished and a grand new neo-classical building, designed by the architect James Spiller, was opened in 1790.

While we can assume as with the Somerset House engraving that Pugin’s rendering of the synagogue interior is architecturally accurate, you don’t have to look very hard at the print to discern that Rowlandson’s portrayals of members of the congregation are outrageous stereotypes of Jews, complete with hook noses, hunched shoulders, pointy beards and generally malevolent demeanours.

These conventional antisemitic tropes, have, of course, recurred in images of Jews over many hundreds of years. They never have been and never will be acceptable. However, in this instance it’s worth pointing out that Thomas Rowlandson’s general contempt for all humanity tended to be distributed in an even-handed and fairly non-discriminatory way across all of the many classes and races which he caricatured over a long and scurrilous career as a social and political satirist and cartoonist. I suggest that his depiction of Jews in this particular print was no more and no less insulting than the manner in which he drew members of any other community or sector of society – or, indeed, than the manner in which he pictured himself (see self-portrait above).

Historically Jewish communities tended from time immemorial to keep very much to themselves in order to minimise exposure to the virtual inevitability of antisemitic persecution. Thus, the portrayal of the synagogue and its congregation in the 1809 print, and its wide distribution through sales of the Microcosm of London, was an unusual phenomenon, indicative of a new level of religious tolerance in a Britain where politics and government were much influenced by the Enlightenment principles of the 18th century and the liberal ideals of the French Revolution. 

Rowlandson’s satirical cartoon depiction of the Royal visit to the Great Synagogue, 1809

This emergence of British Judaism into the light received another huge boost in 1809, when the Great Synagogue was honoured with an unprecedented royal visit to a Jewish religious ceremony. The Dukes of Cambridge, Cumberland, and Sussex, sons of King George III, were welcomed with great pomp and ceremony to a Friday evening service.

“…the spectacle was magnificent and most solemn. The Royal Dukes and the Nobility … stood on a rich platform with four beautiful Egyptian chairs and stands for their books, flowers, etc. The Synagogue was brilliantly illuminated by chandeliers …  The singing was excellent and the Royal Dukes appeared much gratified by the Choruses … The galleries were crowded with beautiful Jewesses who attracted much the attention [sic] of the Royal Party.”[4]

As the synagogue frequented by London’s richest and most influential Jews (including, for example, many members of the Rothschild family), Duke’s Place for many years played a dominant role in the organisation of British Jewry. In 1870, it took the initiative to combine with several other orthodox Ashkenazi congregations to form the United Synagogue of Great Britain.

Nathan Marcus Adler, first Chief Rabbi of the United Synagogue

Although its authority was challenged from the start by other groups from both the orthodox and reformist wings of Jewish worship, the United Synagogue achieved a high level of political power and recognition. The presiding rabbi of the Great Synagogue in Duke’s Place was for several decades automatically appointed as the Chief Rabbi and held up as the principal representative of the Jews of Great Britain (generally to the annoyance of the other groups).

The reason why I’m so preoccupied with all this history, and so fascinated with a building which was destroyed several years before I was born, is a very personal one. It’s to do with my late Mother. Her proudest boast, and her greatest claim to a pre-eminent place in society, was the fact that her grandfather Isaac Lion Defries was the shammas of Duke’s Place Synagogue.

As a boy I attended a progressive synagogue which didn’t use the traditional title of shammas, so I had no idea what a shammas was or what he did. But the way my Mother told it, the shammas was by some distance the most senior synagogue official, to whom the Chief Rabbi was a mere and lowly subordinate.

Gravestone of Isaac Lion Defries in Marlow Road Jewish Cemetery, London

Naturally I was somewhat put out to discover later that the shammas was in fact the caretaker – a salaried beadle or sexton whose highly respected but essentially junior role was to look after the building, to keep it clean and orderly, and to prepare for services. He also performed some minor liturgical duties during services, and, most impressively of all, his official dress code included wearing a top hat at all times.

Whatever his status within its hierarchy, Isaac Lion Defries was a valued and respected employee of Duke’s Place Synagogue for more than 40 years, during which he and his family were domiciled on the premises. But since he was born in 1846 and died in 1932, there was of course no way that he could have officiated at the service pictured by Rowlandson in 1809. Neither could his forebears have been present, because in 1809 they all still lived in Amsterdam, and young Isaac only arrived in London with his parents in the 1850s or 1860s.

However, it is very possible, indeed highly likely, that some of my other ancestors were present in the synagogue in 1809. On my maternal side, Isaac’s wife Elizabeth Levy came from at least two generations of Duke’s Place members dating back to the late 18th century. Similarly, Simeon Simmons, my Father’s grandfather, was also from a family of longstanding members, as was his second wife, confusingly also called Elizabeth Levy.

So, two or more of my several-times-great-grandfathers would almost certainly have been in the congregation drawn by Rowlandson, and two or more of my several-times-great-grandmothers would have been among the “beautiful Jewesses” observing from the balcony.

Having always rather wanted to be someone whose walls are hung with distinguished ancestral portraits, I should be pleased. Now, my copy of the Great Synagogue engraving enables me proudly to show off images of my great-great-great-grandparents, done in 1809 by none other than Thomas Rowlandson, one of the most celebrated of British artists.

But hang on a minute. I’m having second thoughts. Given that the faces are antisemitic caricatures, and given that you can’t tell which ones among them are my progenitors – on balance I’m not quite certain if I should be delighted or outraged.




[3] Information and some of the images for this section taken from The History of the Great Synagogue by Cecil Roth, 1950, at

[4] From the Kentish Gazette, 21 April 1809, quoted at

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s