Every House of the Ant-Hill on the Plain: Richard Horwood’s London

Section from Horwood's Plan showing Westminster and the City of London

Contributor: Matthew Sangster

Location: British Library, London

Description: Richard Horwood’s vast PLAN of the Cities of LONDON and WESTMINSTER the Borough of SOUTHWARK, and PARTS adjoining Shewing every HOUSE, a project commenced in 1790 and finally completed in 1799, touches upon many suggestive contradictions between Romantic ideologies and the print culture of the period in which these were theorised. The Plan is deeply Romantic in terms of its reach and ambition: a house-by-house map of the largest city in Europe surveyed and engraved by one man over a period of nearly a decade. Horwood himself was keen to stress the novelty and grandeur of his endeavour: his prospectus described the Plan as an undertaking ‘ON A PRINCIPLE NEVER BEFORE ATTEMPTED’ and when writing to the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufacture and Commerce in an attempt to secure a premium for his work, he played up the physical and mental effort it had required:

The execution of it has cost me nine years severe labour and indefatigable perseverance; and these years formed the most valuable part of my life. I took every angle; measured almost every line; and after that, plotted and compared the whole work. The engraving, considering the immense mass of work, is, I flatter myself, well done.

When they are assembled, the thirty-two separate sheets that make up each full copy of the Plan measure more than thirteen feet across and seven feet high and display the footprints of over 100,000 separate buildings. Its sublime size renders it an immensely impractical creation in many respects, a dream of a comprehensive view that had run, like the city itself, beyond the bounds of easy assimilation. A close examination finds a peculiar combination of imaginative rigour, expressed in abstract gardens and field-shadings, and dogged persistence, as shown through struggles with street-numbering and the impressive scope of its data collection. Such aspects tempt us to approach the Plan as an art object well-suited for aesthetic consideration or ekphrastic treatments.

Horwood’s own story – insofar as this is known – also has an ending suitable for a struggling Romantic. After completing his magnum opus, he worked on a smaller plan of Liverpool before dying there in in his mid-forties. He is buried in a modest grave by Toxteth Chapel. After his death, the plates for the Plan passed to William Faden, royal geographer to George III, who was able to profit handsomely from the three revised versions that he issued in 1807, 1813 and 1819.

However, while Horwood’s project and death have Romantic resonances, the subject of his Plan is not generally considered to be a particularly Romantic location. Many British writers and artists were deeply sceptical about Romantic-period London, seeing it as a place of flashy superficiality, overwhelming plenitude and crippling inequality. Percy Shelley likened the metropolis to Hell (in Peter Bell the Third); William Blake condemned its ‘chartered streets’ (in ‘London’); and William Wordsworth described it as a ‘monstrous ant-hill on the plain/ Of a too busy world’ (in The Prelude). Where novelists such as Jane Austen, William Godwin and Mary Shelley addressed London, they usually dipped into the city as a place of complication, rather than opening or resolving their narratives there. As the centre of established power in Britain, London was a presence that writers who were invested in new modes of thinking, feeling and representing often found it convenient to define themselves against.

At the same time, however, the city was the flourishing centre of Britain’s print culture, the place where the vast majority of literary works were printed and the hub from which they circulated. London’s million-strong population voraciously consumed all kinds of printed materials and the city itself was a source of keen interest both for its residents and for wider audiences. The period between 1790 and 1820 saw the publication of more new illustrated topographical accounts of the city than the previous two centuries combined; these years also saw a burgeoning of travel accounts by European visitors such as Johann Wilhelm von Archenholz, Jacques Henri Meister and Christian August Gottlieb Goede. Many such accounts focused on the metropolis to the exclusion of other British locales, using the city as both gateway and quintessence. While London was an awkward location for literary Romanticisms, its print-cultural and social nexuses provided powerful and largely unavoidable means for connecting writers and artists with wider markets and global communities.

In some respects, Horwood’s Plan is a document representative of older systems of cultural exclusivity and newer forms of commercial modernity, both things that the mainstream Romantic tradition sought to define art against. While a hand-press product rather than a true example of mass production, it exists and survives in numerous copies, rather than as a unique museum piece. It was an avowedly commercial undertaking, if a peculiarly ambitious one, prepared for a list of nearly nine hundred subscribers. The cheapest sum for which it could be purchased was five guineas (half payable on subscription, half on final receipt), so it was forbiddingly expensive and exclusive. It was supported in its later stages by the Trustees and Directors of the Phoenix Fire Office, an insurance firm, to whom it is dedicated. It can thus be read as a project of counting and measuring of a kind with the census-taking implicitly mocked in works like Wordsworth’s ‘We Are Seven’, or as an Enlightenment-influenced attempt to construct an all-encompassing system: the sort of scheme regarding which Blake is so notably suspicious.

However, it is partly its ambivalent fit with Romantic ideologies, both as an object and in terms of what it represents, that makes Horwood’s Plan compelling as a means for thinking about the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. By encoding London in such exhaustive detail, it records much that other sources neglect. It also serves as a pertinent reminder of the emerging problems of metropolitan scale, which presented substantial practical and existential challenges to writers and artists seeking to enshrine the value of subjectivity and the primacy of the individual. Like all art movements, Romanticism is constituted as much by what it excludes as what it includes. Objects like Horwood’s Plan provide powerful provocations to think about where boundaries might be drawn.

Date: 1790-1799

Creator: Richard Horwood

Subject: Richard Horwood; London

Media rights: © The British Library Board, HUS 050.

Object type: map

Format: ink printed onto paper

Language: English

Publisher: British Library, London

Digital collection record: http://www.bl.uk/onlinegallery/onlineex/crace/p/007zzz000000005u00173000.html and http://www.romanticlondon.org/explore-horwoods-plan/ 

Catalogue number: Maps.Crace.V