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Issue 76 - Illustrating Scotland

Scotland Magazine Issue 76
August 2014


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Illustrating Scotland

John Hannavy looks back to the days before guidebooks were illustrated photographically

The illustrated guidebook is, today, a ubiquitous component of our leisure travels, but the earliest travelogues were rarely illustrated. The cost and time involved in preparing plates suitable for early printing processes meant that the provision of illustrations was not considered to be a commercial imperative, a good text being considered description enough.

Thus, until the late 17th century, Scotland’s architecture was largely unknown to those who did not live close enough to see it for themselves – and of little interest even to many who lived within the shadows of the country’s great buildings.

Architectural heritage, and the appreciation of it, was the reserve of an educated few with sufficient money both to indulge in travel and to afford expensive books. For most people, ancient castles, abbeys and palaces were simply abandoned relics of a past of which they knew little, the crumbling ruins often seen simply as no more than a ready free source of dressed stone.

The first attempt to record the country’s architectural glories is attributed to John Slezer, of German and Dutch descent, who arrived in Scotland in 1669 to work as a military engineer. Although the crowns of Scotland and England had been united more than sixty years earlier, Scotland still had its own government, and military establishment.

In 1688 he was appointed ‘Captain of the Artillery Company and Surveyor of Their Majesties Stores and Magazines in the Kingdom of Scotland’, a post which involved him in a great deal of travel around
the country.

It was while fulfilling that role that he set about making illustrations of the buildings and places he visited – the first person in Scotland so to do – and in the process, created priceless historical documents showing buildings and townscapes which have long been lost, as well as illustrating buildings which were in a much more complete state in the closing years of the 17th century than they are today.

The results were published in 1693 as
Theatrum Scotiae containing the prospects of their majesties Castles and Palaces Towns and Colleges the ruins of many ancient Abbeys, Churches, Monasteries and Convents within the said Kingdom all curiously engraven on copper plates with a short description of each place by John Slezer, Captain of the Artillery Company, and Surveyor of Their Majesties Stores and Magazines in the Kingdom of Scotland.

He referred to his illustrations as ‘prospects’ and by today’s standards, many of them seem rather simplistic, lacking fine detail and sometimes displaying rather odd perspective, but at the time they were celebrated for thei
accuracy and precision. The published volume was a first, and today constitutes an important source of information about what Scotland looked like more than three centuries ago.

To aid his work, he traced his views of the buildings on thin paper using a ‘camera obscura’, an artist’s drawing aid, the principles of which had been known for hundreds of years. A portable version of the device, involving a large wooden box, a simple meniscus lens, and an internal 45 degree mirror, had been refined earlier in the 17th century by Johann Sturm. Slezer’s drawings were then used as the basis of engravings, some of them later being hand-tinted.

The concept of a country’s major monuments being described and illustrated within a book was one which – although not commercially successful in itself – established an expectation on which others would seek to emulate and improve.

While the first to published an illustrated account of Scotland’s architectural heritage had been a German, the second was the son of a Scottish father – Mansfeldt de Cardonnel of Musselburgh – and an English mother. Adam de Cardonnel – sometimes styled Adam de Cardonell or Adam Mansfeldt de Cardonnel-Lawson – published the first part of his
Picturesque Antiquities of Scotland in London in 1788, illustrated with his own small etchings.

The work eventually comprised four parts, the last being published in 1794 – all four parts were also offered as a single volume – and in addition to illustrating numerous castles, the work was also an early attempt to enumerate the monastic orders active in medieval Scotland and list all of their known or assumed foundations. From an historical point of view, despite the small scale of the illustrations, parts three and four contained etchings of several monuments which have subsequently been destroyed or lost.

The third to rise to the challenge, Francis Grose, the soldier and antiquarian whose friendship with Robert Burns we featured in the last issue of
Scotland Magazine.

Starting with Edinburgh Castle – opening a chapter delightfully titled ‘Edinburghshire’ – Grose illustrated and described eighty-four of Scotland’s castles, together with numerous abbeys, cathedrals and churches – one hundred and seventy-nine plates in total.

Grose barely saw the second volume of
The Antiquities of Scotland appear in print, as he died in Dublin in May 1791, just a month after publication, while he was working on The Antiquities of Ireland.

All three Antiquities were published by London publisher Samuel Hooper, with the majority of the engravings created by Samuel Sparrow.

Like Slezer and de Cardonnel before him, Grose’s work included detailed illustrations of several monuments which are no longer in existence – or which exist today as little more than foundations.

He also illustrated many others which, during the subsequent two centuries of decay and neglect, have seen major collapses and widespread stone theft, leaving us with ruins which are mere fragments of what was visible to the 18th century visitor.

Grose and Sparrow did not originate all the illustrations, acknowledging the input of others, including his footman – “It is necessary to inform the reader that the following views were drawn by my servant, Thomas Cocking, who promises to make an excellent draughtsman.”

While Slezer’s
Theatrum Scotiae may have been well ahead of its time, Grose’s publication was timely, as interest in abbeys and castles – ignored for so long – was in the ascendancy amongst the affluent and educated sectors of society.

More than half a century later, however, with the publication of the epic four volumes of
The Baronial and Ecclesiastical Architecture of Scotland, Robert Billings raised the bar considerably with what has been described by several writers as the most beautiful series of books ever published on the subject.

While acknowledging the importance of Captain Grose’s work, he was, however, rather less than complimentary about the accuracy of the views, noting Grose’s admission that he “reduced and finished up every drawing but one for the engraver”. It seemed to him that as a result “His artists first corrected nature, and he added to their inaccuracies by correcting them”. Billings assured his readers that his own illustrations were the epitome of architectural accuracy.

In his introduction he also admitted to what he thought some of his readers might see as a shortcoming – that a considerable number of important buildings had been omitted. That he explained was a necessary consequence of trying to undertake such a large project, and that when embarking upon it, many of Scotland’s baronial and ecclesiastical antiquities had been quite unknown to him.

‘Scotland has invariably been described as a poverty-stricken field as regards architectural illustration;’ he wrote, ‘and the writer, when he commenced his labours as a stranger to the country, of course shared the general opinion. But he was speedily undeceived, and at once extended his labours very considerably beyond his original intentions. In spite of these additions, however, the results of his travels so multiplied the subjects for delineation, that some of those issued at the commencement of the work would have been withheld, to be replaced by others of higher merit, could the extent of the field have been from the
first foreseen.’

That comment is difficult to reconcile with the published work, as the structure of the four volumes is strictly alphabetical.

The journey had been a revelation, but his plan had originally only been to illustrate a representative cross-section of the styles of architecture surviving at the time.

Perhaps he had already sent earlier drawings to the engravers before encountering buildings ‘of higher merit’ later in his travels. However, the fact that he had quite a large team of engravers working on the project suggest that the technical process of making the plates was undertaken after the original journeys had been completed.

The interior of St. Margaret’s Chapel in Edinburgh Castle, for example, was one of those which did not get included, but Billings “referred to the interiors of Dalmeny and Leuchars as embodying its general features, for it is but their designs in miniature.”

Well aware that his work would reach only a small educated readership, he had wished that a larger publication might one day be both possible and affordable.

‘During his journeying through Scotland, so many places unknown to fame, presented themselves to his notice, that the writer determined, should other circumstances seem to warrant a work supplementary to the present publication, to remain in the field until every architectural vestige was made known in a form, and at a price, that would have insured its introduction even to the cottage. He considers that were a respect for Antiquities once created among the labouring population, it would do more, by tenfold, for their preservation than any means which could be devised short of actual restoration. This idea, however, he has now been compelled to abandon.’

An interesting feature of Billings’ ‘delineations’ was his depiction of light – “even improbable effects of light and shade have been admitted. Light upon all features requiring delineation has been the rule, for it would have been inconsistent with the object of affording an accurate representation of interesting details, to present them in the obscurity of shade.”

When publishers later started to move towards using photographic illustrations – photography had been invented a few years before Billings embarked on his journeys, but was not yet widely practised or published – photographers would have to choose their lighting conditions very carefully to avoid ‘the obscurity of shade’. Billings simply exploited the ability of the human eye to see into shadows just as easily as it can see highlights.

In some of his engravings, that decision imparted a somewhat eerie quality to the illumination, but the results were entirely consistent with his intention of illustrating every aspect of architectural detail as clearly as possible. They were a publishing landmark, setting a high benchmark for high quality illustrations, a benchmark which proved difficult to raise, even when photographic illustrations became commonplace.

Today, first editions of Billings’ books are treasured by collectors – myself included – and the books have been reprinted several times, most recently in a fine two-volume edition by Birlinn.

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