Picturing Places: George III’s Topgraphical Collection online

The royal palaces feature prominently on the British Library’s new website, ‘Picturing Places’, which brings together nearly 100 articles and over 500 topographical prints and drawings from the British Library’s collections. I know this because I used to work at the British Library and before that I was an Assistant Curator at HRP working on the Pagoda project.

Map of America, from the Klencke Atlas. BL Maps KAR. Public Domain.
Map of America, from the Klencke Atlas. BL Maps KAR. Public Domain.

Many of the featured items are found in the King’s Topographical Collection – or ‘K.Top’ as it is more affectionately known. This vast group of more than 30,000 prints, drawings and bound volumes was assembled by King George III before being donated to the British Museum by his son, George IV. It includes items that were bought or received as personal gifts, as well as some items inherited from George’s ancestors, such as the mammoth Klencke Atlas – once the largest atlas in the world – which was given to Charles II in 1660 by a group of Dutch merchants in an attempt to secure good trade deals! The contents of K.Top span the globe and allowed the King (who never left the south of England) to travel the world from the comfort of the Royal Library. Indeed, George III liked to take his collection of books and maps with him wherever he was based. Even when he was ill and taken to Kew, he insisted that a library was created for him in his ground floor apartments at the Palace.

West Front of the Royal Palace of Hampton Court, by John Spyers. BL Maps K.Top.29.14.l.1. Public Domain.
West Front of the Royal Palace of Hampton Court, by John Spyers. BL Maps K.Top.29.14.l.1. Public Domain.

John Spyers’ view of the West Front of Hampton Court Palace will already be familiar to anyone who visited Hampton Court last year and saw our exhibition, ‘The Empress and the King’s Gardener’. The exhibition brought together around 70 views of the historic gardens by John Spyers. Spyers worked for Hampton Court’s Chief Gardener, ‘Capability’ Brown, and later sold his drawings to the Russian Empress, Catherine the Great. However, six of the drawings formed the basis for a series of prints that could be produced in quantity and sold to English collectors. Presumably Spyers used his preparatory sketches to create the prints, which were published in 1786, after the finished drawings had been sold to the Empress. The King’s Topographical Collection includes the complete set.

The Royal Observatory at Richmond Gardens, by John Spyers. BL Maps K.Top.41.16.r. CC-By-NC 4.0
The Royal Observatory at Richmond Gardens, by John Spyers. BL Maps K.Top.41.16.r. CC-By-NC 4.0

Although the majority of Spyers’ drawings remain in Russia today, a small number of original but largely unknown drawings can also be found in K.Top. One provides a rare, late-summer view of George III’s Observatory in Richmond Gardens (now a private residence). Built in 1768, the Observatory was designed by the King’s favourite architect, William Chambers, and was used for a time to store the King’s collection of scientific instruments.

The Great Pagoda, by Thomas Miller after William Chambers. BL 56.i.3. Public Domain.
The Great Pagoda, by Thomas Miller after William Chambers. BL 56.i.3. Public Domain.

Chambers also designed the nearby Pagoda, which HRP is currently restoring to its original appearance, complete with ornamental dragons as shown in Chambers’ view published in 1763.

The distribution of His Majesty’s Maundy in the Chapel Royal [Banqueting House], by S. H. Grimm. BL Maps K.Top.26.5.r. Public domain.
The distribution of His Majesty’s Maundy in the Chapel Royal [Banqueting House], by S. H. Grimm. BL Maps K.Top.26.5.r. Public domain.
The distribution of His Majesty’s Maundy in the Chapel Royal [Banqueting House], by S. H. Grimm. BL Maps K.Top.26.5.r. Public domain.

Two more drawings from George’s collection show the interior of the Banqueting House, Whitehall. The building was fitted up as the Chapel Royal after the rest of Whitehall Palace was destroyed by a fire in 1698. This view, by Samuel Hieronymus Grimm, shows George III and Queen Charlotte in the royal pew overseeing the distribution of Maundy Money in 1783. The Banqueting House had been used for this ceremony since the time of Charles II. (You can find out more about Grimm in the article ‘Everything Curious’ by HRP Curator Brett Dolman).

The Tower of London, from a book of poems by Charles, Duke of Orléans. BL Royal MS 16 F II, f.73. CC-By-NC 4.0
The Tower of London, from a book of poems by Charles, Duke of Orléans. BL Royal MS 16 F II, f.73. CC-By-NC 4.0

Outside of K.Top, one of the earliest views featured on the site shows parts of the Tower of London including the White Tower. It comes from an illuminated manuscript of around 1483 containing poems by the Duke of Orléans who was imprisoned at the Tower in the early 15th century, and is the earliest known topographical view of the Tower. One of the White Tower’s walls has been helpfully removed to show the Duke signing a release (right) before being escorted from the Tower (left).

Aside from the pieces in K.Top there are hundreds more items and places to discover on the British Library’s new website, from the Arctic to Australia.

Explore the world from the comfort of your own armchair at: https://www.bl.uk/picturing-places.

Tom Drysdale

Archivist (Curators’ Team)

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