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Portfolio of seven hand-coloured engravings from Middleton’s Geography

Portfolio of seven hand-coloured engravings from Middleton’s Geography


Samuel Wale and others (artists), Isaac Taylor and others (engravers)


Etching with engraving and watercolour on laid paper (one on wove paper)

Plate marks approx. 170 x 290 mm; sheets approx. 238 x 385 mm

In a stamped leather portfolio 365 x 485 mm

Higher res images available on request

On 6 March 1777, an advertisement in the Morning Chronicle announced ‘AN ENTIRE NEW WORK Elegantly printed on an excellent new letter and superfine paper … to be enriched with at least one hundred beautiful copper-plates finely engraved by a capital master; the whole forming the most superb set of prints ever given in a work of the kind, in this or any other kingdom.’ This was Charles Theodore Middleton’s,  A New and Complete System of Geography, an ambitious attempt to bring the entire world’s natural and political geography, ethnography, zoology and more into a single publication. It was issued in weekly parts at sixpence apiece and when the final part was issued at the end of 1778 they formed two volumes with 101 engraved illustrations. Four of those illustrations, along with three more from similar publications, have been hand coloured and gathered together in this leather portfolio.


Middleton’s Geography was the first in a rash of publications that fed the public’s appetite for knowledge of their expanding world. William Augustus Russel’s New and Authentic History of England, also published in 1777, employed many of the same artists end engravers as the Geography, and it is not unlikely that the Middleton and Russel were pseudonyms for the same anonymous editor. They were followed by John Hamilton Moore’s New and Complete Collection of Voyages and Travels (1780). Each of these used the same format of dense text leavened with plentiful, full-page illustrations.


The publishers pulled out all the stops to tempt subscribers, and the artists and engravers employed were among the leading practitioners of their time. Samuel Wale (1721-1786) was one of the founder members of the Royal Academy of Art and its first professor of perspective. He was a prolific illustrator, contributing to over 100 publications. Charles-Nicolas Cochin II (artist of ‘Habit of the Horsemen’) was equally esteemed and prolific in his native France. Isaac Taylor and John Lodge were also both highly-regarded engravers.


There is a boundless self-confidence in these publications that reflects Britain in the Age of Enlightenment: a time of scientific discovery, classification, exploration, financial power and expanding Empire. They situated late eighteenth century Britain in its geographic and historic context, with the implication that it all led to Britain's  pre-eminent position in the late eighteenth century world. The expansion of knowledge underpinned the expansion of empire; while the East India Company’s private armies pushed the territorial boundaries of empire, it was publications like Middleton’s Geography and Hamilton’s Voyages that constructed that empire in the minds of the millions of Britons in the metropolis.


The principal aim of both editors and readers, however, was self-improvement, with plenty of enjoyment along the way. ‘Middleton’ hoped to be ‘at once instructive and entertaining [with] all the captivating graces of a refined amusement’, pointing out that ‘Geography is deemed the most polite study by persons of both sexes’.


It is almost certain that these engravings were hand-coloured by a woman. Publishers sometimes offered hand-coloured engravings for sale, but these appear to have been coloured by an amateur, albeit one with skill and an eye for colour. Colouring engravings was part of a young woman’s artistic education, as well as being part of an active engagement with print and paper culture that included cut-outs, collage, dressed prints and ‘grangerisation’. The invention of solid, easily soluble cakes of watercolour by William Reeves in 1780 helped drive a surge in watercolour painting in the late eighteenth century.


Until recently, such activities have been dismissed as trivial ‘accomplishments’ acquired only for the sake of husband-hunting, but recently scholars such as Serena Dyer have argued that women engaged in creative and self-improvement activities because of a genuine interest, talent and desire for self-actualisation. Colouring the illustrations from Middleton’s Geography, Russel’s History and Moore’s Voyages allowed our unknown watercolourist to expand her knowledge of the world, its history and peoples while developing her artistic skills through an activity that was indeed ‘instructive and entertaining’. It is a delight that this portfolio of coloured engravings has survived as a testament to her industry.



With thanks to Serena Dyer, whose book Material Lives (Bloomsbury, 2021) informed this essay.


Engravings included:


From Charles Theodore Middleton, A New and Complete System of Geography, (London, 1777-8)

‘Punishment of a Butcher of Grand Cairo’, Samuel Wale (artist), Isaac Taylor (engraver)

‘View of the Schorskarskoi-Pagost in Siberia/A View of Trojesski on the Siberian River Oby’, artist and engraver unknown

‘Circumcision of the Negroes at Senegal’, artist and engraver unknown

‘General View of Turin the Capital of Piedmont in Italy’, artist and engraver unknown 


From William Augustus Russel, A New and Authentic History of England (London, 1777)

‘Cassivellaunus and other British Princes suing for Peace to Julius Ceasar’, Samuel Wale (artist), White (engraver)

‘Vasquez de Gama introduced to the Zamorin (or King) at Calicut in India’, John Lodge (artist and engraver)


From John Hamilton Moore, A New and Complete Collection of Voyages and Travels (London, 1780)

‘Habit of the Horsemen in Barbary and the mode by which the Women Travel’, Charles-Nicolas Cochin II (artist), Isaac Taylor (engraver)

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