For about three decades in the mid-18thc two brothers from Yorkshire, Samuel and Nathaniel Buck, toured Britain every summer. They sketched towns, landscapes, estates and antiquities, and every winter they turned their sketches into engravings for publication.
Their work is an important source of evidence of what there was, and what has gone – including gardens – but it is also an important factor in understanding the development of the whole idea of what it meant to be British in the 18thc.
Unless otherwise stated the images in this post come from Robert Sayer’s 1774 compilation and re-issue of the Buck’s work – Buck’s Antiquities or Venerable Remains of above four hundred Castles, Monasteries, Palaces etc etc in England and Wales. As Sayer said in his Preface “as this undertaking was carried on by the sole effort of Two Men it will rather excite astonishment at their progress than admit of cavil at any omission.” It is not on-line as far as I can see, however many of the original prints can be found via google searches.
I’m going to start with a brief philosophical diversion: how does a nation define itself? [Skip the next couple paragraphs if you like!] One way is definitely by writing [or rewriting or even inventing] its own history, and fixing that in the public consciousness. The way we perceive our past helps us find our future. It has parallels even today with the way we regard Br***** with one side choosing to see our past in one way, and claiming it points the way to the future, while the other side sees exactly the same things but believes they foretells a very different future. Envisaging a new Britain was almost as important in the early 18thc when the idea of Britain was, believe it or not, a new “concept”. The Scottish and English Parliaments were only united in 1707 and our victory in the wars against the French in the War of the Spanish Succession which made us a world power both altered our self-perception. Our national history had to be “adapted” to new circumstances.At the forefront of this were antiquarians who revived an interest in the monuments of the past and tried to weave them into a coherent national story. It wasn’t necessarily accurate – indeed it often wasn’t – but that didn’t matter. The Buck brothers provided visual evidence to support this process. Between 1726 and 1753 they published 81 prospects of towns, as well as views of well over 400 antiquities such as ruined abbeys and castles. These constitute, argues Andrew Kennedy in his PhD thesis on British topographical prints, “the most significant print series produced in Britain in the first half of the 18th century” and provided the imagery for what the rising British middle class thought of as “our history.”
It all started in 1719 when a group of Yorkshire antiquarians including Ralph Thoresby and John Warburton encouraged Samuel, the elder brother, then just 23, to sketch views for a history of the county that Warburton was writing. While they wanted drawings of antiquities they also wanted modernity, and asked him to draw urban centres too, including Leeds [Thoresby’s home town] which was already becoming industrialised.
Samuel was soon introduced to William Stukeley and began attending meetings of the Society of Antiquaries which had been founded in 1707. He also began accompanying Stukeley and other fellows of the society on their horseback tours of the country investigating monuments and landscapes. His job was to record the scene for them, in much the same way a photographer would today. At first his efforts, as can be seen in a very early sketch book now in the British Library, were “amateurish” to put it mildly but Stukeley saw his potential.
Samuel’s drawings of the ruins of Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire were shown at a Society meeting in 1723, and that led to the publication of his first sets of engravings of Yorkshire antiquities and ruins in 1724 and 1726. Some of these were however not based on his own drawings but those in the collections of his patrons.
Nathaniel, his younger brother, was also a capable artist but he had even greater talent as a salesman. Soon he began a marketing campaign looking for subscribers for these sets of engravings and commissions for future possible ones. Amongst his ploys was offering to feature the properties of subscribers or to add flattering inscriptions, and the campaign worked, because 15 out of the 24 plates published in the 1726 Yorkshire series were dedicated to owners, who may even have contributed towards the production costs. The print-seller Robert Sayer later commented that a ‘more respectable list of Subscribers is rarely seen’. It crossed all strands of the country’s elite – aristocrat and commercial, rural and urban and covered all its political and cultural interests.
Stukeley’s Itinerarium Curiosum published in 1724 included a plea for the recording of all of Britain’s antiquities, and this seems to have inspired the Bucks to pursue a more ambitious project of doing just that. Nathaniel even drummed up business by making house calls on potential subscribers. A set of Lincolnshire and Nottinghamshire scenes was issued in 1727 , and Lancashire and Cheshire followed in 1728, and then the brothers announced they would visit and record all the northern counties. After that their summer tours visited the Midlands, the South and then Wales, eventually leading to a total of 17 sets of views, usually of 24 plates each. These were generally arranged by county or groups of neighbouring counties, and included every English and Welsh county except Radnorshire.
Between 1728 and 1753 they also produced a separate series of smaller single sheet prospects of the country’s towns, sold in sets of six, at 15 shillings a set, and one much larger 5 sheet panorama of London from the Thames that was about 4 metre long when joined together.
We know from the sketches and notes that have survived that these summer trips were always well prepared. Adverts soliciting subscriptions were taken out in the areas they were to visit although there were often problems because of the poor state of the roads. In any case travel on horseback with servants and a packhorse for the equipment was uncomfortable and slow. They sketched initially in pencil, blocking in rather including all the details, and often did drawings of any important buildings separately.
By the autumn they were ready to return to London to turn these into engravings. This often included assistance from other artists to transfer the drawings onto copper plates, or add detail such as figures in the foregrounds. That process took all winter and publishing usually was not until the following March or April. Once the subscription list had been provided with their prints any spares would be available to the public.
They were, however, not cheap. At 2 guineas a set they were much more expensive than the run-of-the-mill topographical print of the time, which tended to be smaller in scale but only about a shilling a set. The Bucks clearly aimed at an elite clientele of the wealthy and dedicated antiquarians, but while this exclusivity might initially have limited their wider influence, as so often happened they were later copied for a more general market.
Yet despite their price they were often not particularly well drawn or engraved, and Ralph Hyde catalogues a list of probable inaccuracies. However, the one print that has been comprehensively analysed – the London series – has been proved to be very close to what we know from other sources.[Hugh Philips The Thames about 1750, 1950]. The only “inaccuracy” is that the Thames is shown “straight” rather than “curved”this was done by stitching together a series of drawings taken from different high points along the south bank. A set of this London panorama was was recently on sale at Peter Harrington Books for £12,000.
The Bucks moved their base to the Middle Temple in London in 1735 where they remained for the rest of their working lives. Nathaniel died sometime between 1753 and 1759 but Samuel continued working, teaching drawing, watercolours and perspective. He also exhibited his work at the Free Society of Artists, the Society of Artists and the Royal Academy. He was however poor and his friends had to support him financially too once he reached his 80s. He died in August 1779 and was buried in St Clement Danes churchyard on the Strand.
So what made the Bucks influential? It was partly because gradually their subscribers included the middle class, professionals and better-off tradespeople who were becoming more interested in our national past as well as showing off contemporary prosperity which came largely from the trade and industry they were running.
In many instances the past and present are combined. History and modernity can be seen side by side, for example, in the 1739 view of Wetherall Priory in Cumberland. Behind the historic gatehouse are the contemporary gardens and grounds of Corby Castle, with its cascade to the left and neo-Palladian garden temple to the right. Mind you to make the image work visually the Bucks had to ‘shift’ the gatehouse about 150 yards.
This is an early sign of the importance of the historic ruin in the landscape. It was a way of rooting the present landed elite in the landed traditions of the distant past, suggesting continuity and stability as well as the march of ‘progress’. Similar things can be seen in some earlier posts: Mounts and Mounds and Torrington.
Contemporaries recognized that what the brothers were doing was capturing ancient sites before they fell victim to the ‘inexorable Jaws of Time’. Joseph Strutt’s 1785 Dictionary of Engravers noted that “in many instances [these] are the only views we have of the places represented; and in some the only views e will ever have as several of the ruins engraved have since that tome been totally destroyed. Although as will be seen from the full dictionary entry Strutt wasn’t as flattering as they might have liked.
From a garden historian’s point of view they show how little garden many houses, like Clattercote Priory, actually had…
how boringly plain others were ,and how little they had changed…
with the Elizabethan-style plain great court still surviving in many cases with very little modification
There are few signs of the grand baroque gardens we are used to seeing in Kip and Knyff engravings of grander country houses in Britannia Illustrata just a couple of decades earlier. Powis Castle is probably the best example in the series…
But there were a couple of other surprising gardens. Probably most notable were the grounds of Belvoir Castle where the slopes were laid out with walks and a line of statues…
The Bucks foreshadowed the picturesque too. They were the first to illustrate Dolbarden Castle on the Llanberis Pass in Wales with its rugged mountain backdrop, almost like a theatrical stage set. But at the same time Dolbarden is described ‘an ancient British fort’ once again rooting the site and the view in a long and continuing national history.
Their townscapes are equally carefully contrived. These were towns for tourists, the new wave of genteel visitors who travelled the country to see the sights for their own sake.
At the same time the brothers often include local industries including factories – in their images, but, without any of the associated grot! Towns and suburbs are always neat and tidy, well-ordered and pleasing to the eye. Kennedy is clear this “is ‘industry’ in the sense of pleasing ‘industriousness’ “, rather than the dark satanic mills of William Blake.
Would you guess, for example, that their view of Derby has a huge new silk factory, which ran on the latest mechanical technology, slap-bang in its centre.
Even in views of Bristol which was the country’s second city and an industrial and commercial centre with large docks, tobacco and sugar factories there is little sign of the smoke and pollution there undoubtedly was. Industry here is almost genteel and, like the port, drawn from a viewpoint which separated it from the city proper.
They even manage to make London look like it had clean air and no real industrial detritus. Their 1749 five-sheet panorama of the capital, makes it look neat, tidy and unpolluted, pretty much the exact opposite of reality.
In 1774 long after Nathaniel was dead and Samuel had stopped work, Robert Sayer, a leading London print seller acquired the plates and made a killing by reissuing prints in a whole series of different forms from more affordable single sheets at 18 guineas a set , to collections bound into 3 volumes for 20 guineas. Sayer’s reissue meant that the Bucks images spread far wider than the original largely elite circle – they have been found in India and China – whilst , as Ralph Hyde argued, also becoming “embedded in the public consciousness” in Britain. More than that, Andrew Kennedy believes their style also served as .”the prototypes of thousands of derivatives produced by a community of topographical artists, book and magazine illustrators for years to come” They were still being issued from the original plates as late as 1813
The last words should be the poem engraved on the double portrait of the brothers in Sayers re-issue:
Long, Ancient Structures and ennobled Domes The Work of Ages past, neglected lay Till you, O BUCKS! By emulation fired Snatched from th’inexorable Jaws of Time The Mouldering Ruins of each loftie Pile To future Ages shall your fame be known And your great Works immortalize your Names While others, by Misfortune, scarce survive You, Phoenix like, by your own RUINS live.
For more on the Bucks see:
A prospect of Britain : the town panoramas of Samuel and Nathaniel Buck / Ralph Hyde. 1994