The Microcosm of London or London in Miniature: The Royal Academy

published by Rudolph Ackermann in 3 volumes, 1808–1811.

Previous to the institution of a Royal Academy, there was an exhibition at the Lyceum in the Strand. It was denominated THE SOCIETY OF ARTISTS OF GREAT BRITAIN; and the profits were to be applied to the relief of distressed artists, their widows and children. In this place were exhibited some very fine productions by Mortimer and other of our most celebrated painters. 

The princes of the house of Hanover had many virtues of a description that adorn and dignify human nature. George II, was a gentleman of high honour and undeviating integrity; but he possessed no portion of taste for the fine arts, the professors of which were very coldly considered during his reign. 

The accession of his present majesty displayed a very different scene, and those who had talents found now a sovereign who had taste to discern and appreciate them, and sought every opportunity of affording them countenance and protection.

The Royal Academy

In the year 1774, old Somerset Place was purchased of the crown, and an act of parliament passed for embanking the river Thames before Somerset House, and for building upon its scite various public offices, &c. The part of the building appropriated to the artists, is the object of our present enquiry. 

The room on the ground-floor is allotted to models of statues, plans, elevations, and drawings. 

The coved ceiling of the library was painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds and Cipriani. The center is by Sir Joshua, and represents the Theory of the Art, under the form of an elegant and majestic female, seated on the clouds and looking up wards: she holds in one hand a compass, in the other a label, on which is written, 

Theory is the knowledge of what is truly nature. 

The four compartments in the coves of the ceiling are by Cipriani, and represent Nature, History, Allegory, and Fable. These are well imagined, and sufficiently explain themselves. 

The adjoining room, being originally appropriated to models and casts from the antique, of which this society has a most valuable and curious collection, is plain and unornamented. 

The council room is more richly decorated ; the stucco is in a good taste, and in the center compartment of the ceiling are five pictures painted by Mr. West. The center picture represents the Graces unveiling Nature; the others display the four elements from which the imitative arts collect their objects, under the description of female figures, attended by genii, with Fire, Water, Earth, and Air, exhibited under different forms and modifications. The large oval pictures which adorn the two extremities of the ceiling, are from the pencil of Angelica Kauffman, and represent Invention, Composition, Design, and Colouring. Besides these nine large pictures, there are in the angles, or ospandrells in the center, four coloured medallions, representing Apelles the painter, Phidias the sculptor, Apollodorus the architect, and Archimedes the mathematician; and round the great circle of the center, eight smaller medallions, held up by lions, on which are represented, in chira-obscuro, Palladio, Bernini, Michael Angelo, Fiamingo, Raphael, Dominichino, Titian, and Rubens; all of which are painted by Rebecca.

Sir Joshua Reynolds

Sir Joshua Reynolds was the first president ; and his urbanity of manners, and high rank in the arts, gave him a respectability with the society, which it will not be easy for any of his successors to equal. 

It is not proper to pass the name of this great man without some general account of his character: 

“His art was nature, and his pictures thought.” 

He was born heir to the manor of portrait-painting, the soil of which he has so improved, enriched, and fertilized, as to give this hitherto barren spot in the province of art, an importance it was never before thought capable of receiving. At the hour he began to paint he was the leader of his art, and, whatever improvements were made by his contemporaries, preserved that rank to the last year of his life. He was sometimes praised for excellences which he did not possess, and sometimes censured for errors of which he was not guilty. To analyze his character fairly, it is necessary to consider the state of the arts when he began to paint; and to say a man was superior to the painters who immediately succeeded Hudson, is, with very few exceptions, saying little more than that he was a giant among pigmies. By his fondness for experiments in colours, he frequently used such as vanished before the originals they were designed to commemorate, and many of them the world need not lament. 

Every succeeding year of his life he improved; and that some of his later pictures have been painted with colours that fled, every man of true taste will regret; at the same time that the mezzotintoes so frequently engraved from them, shew us in shadow, that such things were. He did not aim at giving a mere ground-plan of the countenance, but the markings of the mind, the workings of the soul, the leading features which distinguish man from man; by which means he has represented real beings with all the ideal graces of fiction, and united character  to individuality. Invention and originality have been said to be the leading excellences of a poet or a painter, and the president has been accused of borrowing from the works of others. Let it be remembered, that the merit does not lie in the originality of any single circumstance, but in the conduct and use of all the branches and particular beauties which enter into each composition. Such appropriation has a right to the praise of invention, and to such praise was Sir Joshua entitled. He frequently united the elegance of the French style with the chastity of the Roman; he imitated the brilliant hues of Rembrandt, but never introduced what was either mean or disgusting; he had the richness of colouring of Rubens without his excess and tumult; and by thus judiciously selecting and skilfully blending the colours of the various masters, he has formed a style wholly his own, on the merit of which other painters have separately about as high claim, as the mason who hewed the stones for Whitehall had to the honours due to Inigo Jones. 

Considered in every point of view, he has given a new character to portrait-painting, and his pencil may, without exaggeration, be called creative. 

The School

The stated professors of painting in its different departments, read lectures to the students in their various branches; and as they possess a most capital collection of casts and models from antique statues, &c. they have what may be fairly deemed a good school for drawing. A school for colouring they still want; and it has been recommended to them to purchase a collection of pictures, to which the students might resort, and compare their own productions with those of the great masters, whose works have stood the test of ages. The Lectures by Sir Joshua Reynolds are published, and are models of elegant composition as well as scientific taste. Those by Mr. Barry were published a few years ago, and contain much original and useful information, blended with some of this singular painter’s peculiarities. 

Mr. Sheldon, professor of anatomy, delivers six lectures annually, during the summer season. 

Prize medals (of silver), for the best academy figure, are delivered once a year. 

Gold medals for historical compositions in painting, sculpture, and designs in architecture, once in two years. The latter are presented to a full assembly, and succeeded by a discourse from the president. 

Students have generally during the whole year an opportunity of studying nature from well chosen subjects, and of drawing from the antique casts. 

Admission to the lectures is by a ticket signed by an academician; they are held on Monday evenings, at eight o’clock, in Somerset Place. 

The annual exhibition generally opens in May, and every person admitted pays one shilling ; and sixpence for a catalogue, if he wishes to have one. 


The room in which this is done we have already described; and by the manner in which it is arranged, and their errors being pointed out, a number of our young students draw with great correctness. It is devoutly to be wished that their colouring was as meritorious as their drawing; but for colouring they have not yet a good school, though several of the royal academicians have made many attempts to obtain it; but, alas! those attempts have not hitherto been crowned with success. 


This most spirited drawing is covered with the representation of pictures and figures, in a manner with which it would not be easy to find one with which it could be paralleled; nor would it be easy to find any other artist, except Mr. Rowlandson, who was capable of displaying so much separate manner in the delineations placed on the walls, and such an infinite variety of small figures, contrasted with each other in a way so peculiarly happy, and marked with such appropriate character. The peculiar mode by which different persons shew the earnestness with which they contemplate what they are inspecting, and display an absorbed attention to the object before them, is incomparably delineated; and the whole forms an admirable little picture of that busy scene, in which such crowds are annually engaged in watching the progress of the fine arts as annually exhibited at the Royal Academy. 

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The Exeter Road: The Weyhill Fair, Amesbury Abbey and the Extraordinary Duchess of Queensberry

dust jacket

The following post is the ninth of a series based on information obtained from a fascinating book Susana recently obtained for research purposes. Coaching Days & Coaching Ways by W. Outram Tristram, first published in 1888, is chock full of commentary about travel and roads and social history told in an entertaining manner, along with a great many fabulous illustrations. A great find for anyone seriously interested in English history!


The Weyhill Fair

The Telegraph, rival of the Quicksilver which our author repeatedly states can do 175 miles in eighteen hours, used to pass through Weyhill, which was famous for its annual fair, “which would make those people who have never seen one stare.”

This festivity, which is indeed quite an un-English and out-of-the-way sight, begins on October 10th (Michaelmas Eve) and goes on for six days, during which all the country-side seems to have broken loose, and high junketings are to be seen. Besides junketings (which prevail chiefly on the last day of the fair in connection with peep-shows of the most blood-curdling description, whirligigs, merry-go-rounds, rifle galleries, and gingerbread) are also to be seen wonderful shows of sheep, magnificent cheeses, the finest hops in England displayed in the Farnham Row, great exhibits of machinery and enormous carthorses, and, enveloping all, a Babel indescribable.

Amesbury and the Abbey

Amesbury is where Guinevere arrived “somewhat late at night, after a ride across the Plain” after her affair with Lancelot was discovered.

“…hither came Queen Elfrida in 980…after her murder of her stepson Edward at Corfe; and, bent like all medieval murderesses suffering from a temporary mental depression, on building a church. When she came to the point however, and had interviewed the architect and the abbot, she went the whole hog and built an abbey.”

Amesbury Abbey (the church)

Amesbury Abbey (the church)

Prior to Henry VIII’s dissolution, the abbey played host, when “the Exeter road at that time was but a medieval cart-track, and a very bad one too,” to Eleanor of Brittany, sister of Prince Arthur and Mary, sixth daughter of Edward I. “Eleanor, Queen of Henry III, died here, and Katharine of Aragon stayed for a while here on her first arrival in England in 1501.”

Following the dissolution, “the abbey of Amesbury became Amesbury Abbey and passed from the Earl of Somerset, to whom it was granted by Henry VIII, into the respective hands of the Aylesburys, Boyles, and Queensberrys…”

The Abbey eventually became the parish church, and the nearby mansion of the same name built by Inigo Jones is now part of a group by the same name that operates nursing and retirement homes in the area.

Amesbury Abbey_thumb

Amesbury Abbey (the stately home)

This is where Kitty, “the charming Duchess of Queensberry played the Lady Bountiful in the place, and by entertaining Prior and Gay the Abbey graced the quaint old Wiltshire town with the memories of two of the not least celebrated of the English humorists.”

The Duchess of Queensberry

According to the Douglas family history, Catherine Douglas, née Hyde, was an outspoken, rather eccentric woman who “loved walking, avoided alcohol and was an enthusiastic planter of trees at her husband’s estates.” She’d grown up “in a household frequented by literary celebrities,” and it was she about whom Prior wrote the poem “The Female Phaeton: Upon Lady Kitty’s First Appearing in Public” when she was sixteen.

Catherine Douglas, Duchess of Queensberry

Catherine Douglas, Duchess of Queensberry

Following her marriage to Charles Douglas, 3rd duke of Queensberry, the acclaimed beauty Kitty became an avid patron of the arts, to the point of being exiled from court when her defense of the playwright John Gay offended King George II. Gay spent the last years of his life at the Abbey, where he wrote the Beggar’s Opera, and was given a lavish funeral at his death in 1732.

The Douglas family history fails to mention the fascinating story of Julius Soubise, a Negro slave from the West Indies who was given to the duchess in 1764 when he was ten years old. She gave him a privileged life, treating him as her own son, and he became a noted fencing and riding master, a member of the most exclusive clubs, and quite popular among upper-class social circles. A violinist and singer, he trained in oratory with the actor David Garrick. At times he claimed to be African royalty, calling himself “Prince Ana-Ana-maboe” or the “Black Prince.” It was rumored that the duchess and her protégé had a sexual relationship, so perhaps that is the reason Soubise was left out of the family history. Is it only coincidence that the duchess died two days after Soubise sailed for India?


Julius Soubise

One reason I love delving into these family histories is the interesting things you find. The 3rd Duke of Queensberry, it turns out, succeeded his father “due to special remainder,” when his older brother James was declared insane. Both of the 3rd duke’s sons predeceased him and the title passed to a distant cousin, William Douglas, who later became a friend of the Prince of Wales.

The Duchess of Queensberry Rules

Actually, it was the 9th Marquess of Queensberry to whom the  1867 code on which modern boxing is based can be attributed (although he was not the author, merely the endorser). This code, meant for both amateur and professional matches, is and was the first to mention the use of gloves for boxing. The dear duchess had nothing to do with it, having passed on ninety years earlier.

 Index to all the posts in this series

1: The Bath Road: The (True) Legend of the Berkshire Lady

2: The Bath Road: Littlecote and Wild William Darrell

3: The Bath Road: Lacock Abbey

4: The Bath Road: The Bear Inn at Devizes and the “Pictorial Chronicler of the Regency”

5: The Exeter Road: Flying Machines, Muddy Roads and Well-Mannered Highwaymen

6: The Exeter Road: A Foolish Coachman, a Dreadful Snowstorm and a Romance

7: The Exeter Road in 1823: A Myriad of Changes in Fifty Years

8: The Exeter Road: Basingstoke, Andover and Salisbury and the Events They Witnessed

9: The Exeter Road: The Weyhill Fair, Amesbury Abbey and the Extraordinary Duchess of Queensberry

10: The Exeter Road: Stonehenge, Dorchester and the Sad Story of the Monmouth Uprising

11: The Portsmouth Road: Royal Road or Road of Assassination?

12: The Brighton Road: “The Most Nearly Perfect, and Certainly the Most Fashionable of All”

13: The Dover Road: “Rich crowds of historical figures”

14: The Dover Road: Blackheath and Dartford

15: The Dover Road: Rochester and Charles Dickens

16: The Dover Road: William Clements, Gentleman Coachman

17: The York Road: Hadley Green, Barnet

18: The York Road: Enfield Chase and the Gunpowder Treason Plot

19: The York Road: The Stamford Regent Faces the Peril of a Flood

20: The York Road: The Inns at Stilton

21: The Holyhead Road: The Gunpowder Treason Plot

22: The Holyhead Road: Three Notable Coaching Accidents

23: The Holyhead Road: Old Lal the Legless Man and His Extraordinary Flying Machine

24: The Holyhead Road: The Coachmen “More Celebrated Even Than the Most Celebrated of Their Rivals” (Part I)

25: The Holyhead Road: The Coachmen “More Celebrated Even Than the Most Celebrated of Their Rivals” (Part II)

26: Flying Machines and Waggons and What It Was Like To Travel in Them

27: “A few words on Coaching Inns” and Conclusion

The Banqueting House: An Artistic and Historical Masterpiece


The Banqueting House on Whitehall Street is the only remaining building of the Palace of Whitehall, which was the primary residence of English monarchs for much of the 17th century. In its day, it was the largest palace in Europe, eclipsing even Versailles and the Vatican with its 1500 rooms. Henry VIII married Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour there (in 1533 and 1536), and it was there where he died in 1547.

banqueting2In 1622 James I commissioned Inigo Jones to redesign the Banqueting Room, and Charles I was responsible for adding the beautiful ceiling with paintings by Rubens. These paintings, designed to reinforce Charles I’s belief in the divine right of kings, were completed in Antwerp and rolled up for transportation to England, where they were painstakingly laid out and attached to coffers in the ceiling.

Prior to the addition the ceilings, the room was often used for elaborate masques and pageants. Afterward, it was determined that the smoke from the bright lights would damage the ceiling, and it was used primarily for official functions.

It was across this floor that Charles I walked one final time before meeting his fate on the scaffold constructed outside. (So much for the divine right kings.)

banqueting9For some reason, Cromwell chose not to destroy the building as he did so many other buildings symbolic of royal preference. Perhaps because he decided to use it for his own state functions.

Fires in 1691 and 1698 destroyed nearly all the Whitehall Palace buildings, except for this one, probably because Sir Christopher Wren, the reigning architect of the day, had the building next to it blown up to prevent the fire from spreading to the Banqueting House.

A Single Room

While it’s only a single room, it’s definitely something not to be missed. The audio guide that comes with your admission fee is excellent, there are lots of chairs and benches where you sit and gaze at the room while listening, and if you’re very fortunate, you can grab one of the beanbags on the floor and lie prone while admiring the lovely ceiling. When I was there on a Saturday, there weren’t a lot of people there—while I expect everywhere else in Westminster was teeming with crowds as usual—and I could lie there and contemplate the historical and artistic significance of the room in peace.