Above: A small-scale version of Visscher’s panorama, published in 1616.
In 1616 a young Dutchman, born in Amsterdam, of about 29 or 30 years of age, decided to make a large drawing showing London from an imagined point some distance south of the tower on the church we now call Southwark Cathedral. Why he did this we do not know. It is not because he was visiting London at the time, in fact he may never have visited London at all !
That was 400 years ago and, of course, we are talking about Claes Visscher who had a remarkable talent for drawing and engraving. This year we celebrate the 400th anniversary of one of the most well-known panoramas of London ever produced. It is also one of the most respected of all the panoramas that still exist.
The obvious question to ask is ‘If Visscher never visited London, how did he know what it looked like?’ to which there is no definitive answer. It is likely that he used other panoramas and maps of London to produce his view – particularly a view by John Norden called ‘Civitas Londini’ which was produced about 1600.
If you are thinking that it would be inconceivable to produce a view of London today without actually visiting the place, it is necessary to understand that printing was in its infancy in the 1600s. The very first map of London dates from about 1550 and the well-known ‘Agas’ map was produced around 1561. The people who bought maps or panoramas were the very wealthy gentry. These large sheets of maps or views were very expensive and only the very rich could afford to purchase them. Engravers or mapmakers usually produced maps as a venture to make money. Their printed works were acquired more for their artistic merit rather than for their geographic accuracy. Few of the maps or panoramas that were produced were ever actually used to find places on them. They were either kept in lavish private libraries in the houses of noblemen or they were framed and hung on the wall as works of art.
It is people like historians today who look at the maps and panoramas with critical eye and use the visual information to gain an insight into to how London looked all those centuries ago. Visscher’s panorama was made on four separate plates, depicting the Thames mainly as a straight line running from east to west. For that reason the perspective is somewhat distorted. The view looks north from a point to the south of what was then known as St Saviour’s church just west of old London Bridge. To the east of the bridge we see St Olave’s church tower, in Tooley Street. In the most commanding position of all is drawn the old pre-fire St Paul’s Cathedral. The massive Gothic building is seen with its central tower but no spire because in 1561 the spire was hit by lightening and it totally collapsed. The spire was never rebuilt and, of course, St Paul’s was itself destroyed in the Great Fire of London (1666) – just 50 years after the panorama was published.
In the foreground we see much of Bankside with some of the famous theatres – including the Globe. Along the north bank we see the City of London and some of the grand houses lining the river beside the Strand. There are several geographic errors on the engraving but they are nothing too serious and they will not be discussed here. In days when photographic aerial views have been taken to new ‘heights’ by the likes of Google Maps, it is so easy for us to dive onto the Internet and bring up pictures from almost any angle of any place we chose. Four hundred years ago the only visual representation of a city was one produced by an artist or engraver who was more interested in making money from his skill than producing an accurate portrayal of the buildings.
Above: A Google view showing today’s Southwark Cathedral from a similar aerial position – set against the backdrop of the modern City of London.
Because we have become accustomed to looking at aerial views of London (or anywhere else for that matter) we have probably lost sight of the wonder that those who saw the printed panorama in the 1600s must have felt as they gazed on a view that they knew existed but had never witnessed for themselves.
Even when all is said and done, Visscher’s panorama is a fine record of London with only a very few minor errors. It gives a good general impression of how London must have looked and marks an important chapter in mapmaking in its general sense. In passing it should also be mentioned that the Guildhall Art Gallery is marking the 400th anniversary with a special free exhibition (20 February – 20 November 2016) under the title ‘Visscher Redrawn: 1616-2016’. As well as showing Visscher’s original panorama, the Zimbabwe-born artist Robin Reynolds has recreated a modern view with a six foot panorama depicting the brilliant architecture of today’s metropolis.