The Art of the Small Town

In addition to collecting data about small towns we have begun to collect contemporary images of small towns of England, from the period 1700-1860. Presently only Norfolk and Suffolk have been selected as these are intended to be a pilot sample. Later we hope to add more images to our Catalogue, relating to other regions.

The images we have are of value for a study of the cultural life of small towns because they not only show the role of artists and patrons in the portrayal of small towns, but also depict town activities such as sports gatherings and schooling.

However there are fewer contemporary images of small towns than larger ones for the following reasons:

  • There was a bias towards the depiction of landscapes. As the eighteenth century wore on the natural countryside became ever more popular, due in part to its increased accessibility as a result of better transport; as well as an interest in man’s growing control over the landscape, resulting from the enclosure movement and industrial developments. Also, in a number of cases the pattern of exploration for prints and paintings was initiated by patrons, who preferred to visit more picturesque locations.
thetford1_tn.jpg Sketch map of Thetford by Thomas Martin, c.1760, when he was preparing his 'History of Thetford'. The map is highly inaccurate in scale and orientation, but it is valuable because it is the earliest known one of Thetford. 
  • Small towns were less likely to be depicted by topographers than larger ones. The two most important topographers in the 1720s were the Buck brothers, Samuel and Nathaniel, whose work included 87 long prospects of English and Welsh towns.
  • These were marketed by subscription, and so, for commercial reasons they, like many other topographers, restricted themselves to drawing towns which were big enough to attract enough subscribers, to ensure expenses were recouped. The same limitations applied to map makers. Often maps would be financed by wealthy patrons, who were rewarded by mentions in the finished works.
  • Another reason for the lack of images relating to small towns was the late development of the provincial arts, as until the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century few provincial towns had an artistic community. The provincial arts only developed at this late stage because increasing competition for patronage in London forced artists to seek work elsewhere.


Painting in 18th and early-19th centuries in Small Towns

In the eighteenth century water colour became quite a popular medium, whereas it had previously been superseded by oils. Water colours were convenient because they were the best medium to use on sketching tours. It was also easier to produce engravings from a water colour painting than from an oil one and as there was an expanding market for prints it made economic sense to artists to use this material, as they could have works copied and printed, which therefore widened their marketability.

rochester_tn.gifRochester by Thomas Girtin, c.1790.
Pen and ink with water colour over pencil, from Walker's Gallery, London. Here we see Rochester viewed from across the Medway, with the castle and cathedral. Girtin undertook extensive sketching tours around the British Isles, in 1796, 1797, and 1800.

There was a concentration on English landscape by painters of the late eighteenth century, partly due to the fact that foreign travel was hazardous and difficult due to the French Revolution and the resulting war. This encouraged artists to explore their more immediate surroundings, including smaller towns, such as Rochester shown here.


Drawing and engraving in 18th and early-19th centuries Small Towns

In England, topography as a subject emerged comparatively late and was considered to be a poor relation to landscape. However, as many drawings and engravings were produced to accompany text, their makers were to benefit as a result of the growth in the print trade in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and the expansion of a number of publishing companies. At the same time technical improvements, such as the development of lithography, and the new process of engraving on steel, speeded up production times.

leeds_tn.gifA detail from 'East Prospect of the Town of Leeds', 1722, by Samuel Buck. It is of interest because it is a self portrait by the artist, and so seems to suggest that he was proud of his occupation. 

Towns could either be portrayed as a prospect, or as a bird's eye view. The prospect was a topographical view from a vantage point, and for this reason it was impossible to include all of the town buildings, unlike in a bird's eye view.


Maps in 18th and early-19th centuries in Small Towns

There are fewer maps available relating to small towns than larger ones as might be expected. This is because surveying was an expensive procedure and map-makers had to be sure that there would be a good market for the finished product. In small towns there was a risk that there would not be enough subscribers interested to enable map-makers to recoup their expenses. Instead in the eighteenth century more maps were produced for counties rather than individual towns, and especially after the Royal Society of Arts offered a financial incentive for new county surveys of quality.

gtyarmouth1_tn.jpgThe west prospect of Great Yarmouth - an example of a topographical view of a larger town. This is a line engraving of 1724, by J Corbridge, size: 665 by 1414mm. Its publication was announced in the Norwich Mercury, 19 November 1726, and it cost 7s 6d. Around the map are details which include churches, public buildings, and houses of important inhabitants which are labelled.

Joseph Hodskinson, who was involved in the production of at least four printed surveys of English counties, actually won a medal for his map of Suffolk of 1783. This map is typical in that it included a plate of a Ipswich which is one of the main towns in Suffolk — it is rare to get maps of smaller towns in these county surveys. Nevertheless it is possible to find contemporary maps of small towns (such as the one here, of Sudbury) although only the more flourishing of these tend to be represented.


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