For someone whose work is so well known it’s surprising how little biographical information is recorded about Johannes Kip, the topographical engraver. He is best known for Britannia Illustrata, his work with Leonard Knyff, which has illustrations of the estates of late 17thc and early 18thc England, but he was also a prolific book illustrator with a sideline in selling prints from a shop in his house at Westminster.
Today’s post is a quick look at the range of his work, and then a closer look at his enormous engraving of St James Park in London first published in 1720.
What we do know is that Kip was born in Amsterdam sometime before 1653 and trained as an engraver there. His earliest known engraving dates from 1672, but very shortly after the Glorious Revolution, Kip followed the new monarchs William and Mary and moved to England.
Kip was at the forefront of the new fashion for topographical prints. His first known work in Britain was a view of Chelsea Hospital published in 1690. Its shows the then extremely plain grounds of the hospital ,which of course is now the site of the Chelsea Flower Show. But it was his success with making bird’s-eye prospect views of country houses on which his reputation rests.
Apart from his work with Leonard Knyff on Britannia Illustrata Kip also worked on the illustrations for two county histories. He drew and engraved the sixty-five plates for Robert Atkyn’s The Ancient and Present State of Gloucestershire (1712) and then engraved Thomas Bladeslade’s drawings for John Harris’s The History of Kent (1719).
Apart from his topographical work Kip also worked for a variety of London printers and booksellers, becoming a prolific book illustrator, as well as producing a whole miscellany of portraits, frontispieces, travel and architectural images. He must have been reasonably successful as, like Knyff, he also went into printselling, opening a shop at his home at 4, St John’s Street in Westminster.
His greatest single project after Britannia Illustrata was a large engraving of St James’s Park, for which he solicited subscriptions in the Daily Courant in 1715.
The view was drawn from the vantage point of the roof of Buckingham House, which Kip had also engraved, and was dedicated to the Princess of Wales, the future Queen Caroline.
It was a massive undertaking and thus a slow process and the 8 plates were not finally issued until the summer of 1720 when they became available as decorative hangings or window blinds.
St Jame’s Park is the oldest of London’s Royal Parks, and is overlooked by three royal palaces: The Palace of Westminster, Buckingham Palace and of course St James’s Palace itself.
The area was once just watermeadows but in the 13thc a leper hospital was founded by monks which lasted until at the dissolution of the monasteries when Henry VIII added their land to his collection of hunting parks and built the Palace of St James’s.
James I managed to improve the drainage and water supply but during the Commonwealth period the trees were largely cleared for timber and the deer hunted out of existence so the park must have presented a sorry sight when Charles II returned in 1660. Almost his first act was to commission its remodelling along continental lines.
The park was redesigned, with a canal running diagonally to maximise the illusion of space, several double of avenues of trees were planted and lawns laid. The king then opened the park to the public and liked to be seen holding court, feeding the exotic birds in his aviary, taking boat rides on the water or just walking amongst his subjects.
That’s the theory at least. In practice, although Kip presents a wonderful all-embracing vista of the park showing its relationship with the rest of the city, when you examine it more closely you get the clear impression that it was very much an elite playground where mere mortals were excluded.
At the scale that Kip was working the level of detail is extraordinary. The scene is dominated by the great central canal, with its associated double avenues of trees.
On the right there is a group of much larger trees overshadowing what appear to be smaller ones lining the formal avenue beside the canal – is this simply a bit of artistic licence or perhaps there actually were some surviving specimens?
One’s idea of such a formal layout might suggest it will be almost perfect, with smooth lawns and gentle gradual slopes or steps for level changes. In fact one can see quite rough grass, and steep slopes down to the canal in places. It’s also clear that the park had been restocked with deer, although whether they were actually hunted traditionally is doubtful.
In addition to, and in contrast with, the formal canal there is also another pond, much more rustic and ‘natural’, with clumps of trees laid out informally. Might these too be survivals, or perhaps merely opportunistic trees that had grown up, and not removed since they did not interfere with the redesigned formal area of the park.
Another surprising feature which can be seen on Kip’s plan, but which is usually overlooked when thinking about the park, are the very orderly neat gardens in the south eastern corner of the park. Are they perhaps a grand kitchen garden and orchard, with a gardeners lodge?
In the opposite corner, on the south west side, the formality of the avenues and walks gives way completely to an almost rural scene and the king, George I, together with Caroline and her husband, the future George II, can be seem driving through in their carriages.
In the distance the city looks well-nigh perfect. Uniform classical terraces fill the western suburbs, and over the spires and towers of the city churches can be seen the hills of Highgate and Hampstead to the north and Blackheath and the edge of the North Downs to the south. [You have to imagine these 3 images joined together to create the whole skyline] What is surprising is how rural large parts of the capital south of the river are, and in fact they remain so for more than the next century largely because of poor drainage.
Several London landmarks are clearly visible. St James Square in its very plain state; the area which was to become Horseguards Parade at the end of the canal, with the Banqueting House beyond; and the pleasure gardens known as the Spring Gardens, along with the great gardens along the mall roughly where Carlton House Terrace now stands; and Westminster Abbey and its ‘secret’ gardens.
There are also insights into other smaller, but still elite gardens in Westminster and the West End.
In the images immediately left and above you’ll see gateways from a private garden into the park giving them privileged access. Although the park was open to the public during the day it was in theory locked at night, but by the late 18thc the number of permitted keyholders stretched into the thousands, so it was effectively an open space all the time.
Most of the time the royal parks are elite places of fashion and recreation, not for working people or the idle poor. They were the place to be seen during the midday period in the winter, when most ordinary people were at work, and very late in the evening in the summer, proving that one did not have to rise early either. Kip’s depiction of the park very much reflects this understanding.
You will need to look hard to find anyone who is not well dressed and leisured, although of course that’s easy to understand as they were Kip’s potential market. Kip includes a group of cavalry exercising their horses, a few servants, a fruitseller and, of course, the milkmaid selling fresh milk direct from the cows for which St James’s was famous.
However, this exclusivity is not the complete truth by any means. A German visitor Conrad von Uffenbach went to St James’s on two consecutive Sundays in June 1710. There were “prodigious crowds of people who walk up and down”, but “mostly of the commoner sort” and “a vast number, especially by night,” of masked “harlots”, although he admits that “during the week gentlemen of the highest fashion are to be met here.” There are, unsurprisingly no harlots shown by Kip, and the only poor people are shown outside the walls of the park.
We have no idea of how commercially successful this project of Kip’s was, because a ‘John Kipp’ was buried in St Margaret’s Church, Westminster, on 12 August 1721. However there was another edition of the print issued later, which was updated to include St Martins-in-the-Fields consecrated in 1726. Since his death Kip’s reputation has suffered, with the credit for much of the quality mistakenly going to Knyff but as I hope you have seen from these details of this print of St James’s Park he was a more than competent draughtsman himself and has left us a very evocative image of early 18thc London.