The Visscher Panorama

It is a happy coincidence that in the year when two later panoramas are being prepared for publication by the London Topographical Society (LTS), it is also possible to celebrate the conservation, with funding from the LTS, of one of the most famous earlier examples owned by London Metropolitan Archives (LMA).  In this article, Jeremy Smith, Assistant Librarian of the LMA considers its changing status, and Caroline De Stefani, Conservation Studio Manager of LMA, writes about its repair and repackaging.  A survey of the Visscher panorama in the context of London historical writing is in preparation for a future volume of the “London Topographical Record”.

The Visscher panorama is an engraving by Claes Jansz. Visscher first published in Amsterdam around 1616 with the title “Londinum Florentissima Britanniae Urbs Toto Orbe Celeberrimum Emporiumque”. It is one of the most iconic images of medieval London; a low-rise cityscape dominated by the spires and steeples of its churches. Published in the year of Shakespeare’s death, Visscher’s engraving is one of the few visual records of London before much of it was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666.

London Metropolitan Archives holds two copies of the Visscher panorama. In 2016 one copy (ref. SC/GL/PR/LBV/p7494086) was displayed at the Guildhall Art Gallery alongside artist Robin Reynolds’s panorama of today’s metropolis.

Views of Visscher

Robin Reynolds’s revelatory revisiting of Visscher’s iconic London view, marked its 400th anniversary by drawing a dazzling new version (1) and in doing so prompts thoughts on the status of the original image, and how attitudes to it have changed.

Today ‘Visscher’ (only the one word is needed) is one of the best known and certainly most frequently reproduced depictions of late medieval London. It is an image, an almost unconscious or subliminal one, carried in the minds of all London historians, and those interested in the past of the City. But it was only in the later twentieth century that it reached this status and managed to shake free of its earlier more equivocal position. It was a work purporting to depict London, but originating entirely from a desk in Amsterdam. With no clear evidence of a ‘research trip’, or any obvious stylistic references being traceable to contemporary published works, its status has understandably caused suspicion.

Early historians of London ignored Visscher’s view. This is not surprising since they ignored all graphic works in favour of the supposed authority of the document. Later, especially in the nineteenth century, when graphic works slowly enter the literature of London history, Visscher makes isolated appearances. This is normally accompanied by awed references to its rarity but with little or no analysis of content. Bernard Adams (2) cites a prominent example in Robert Wilkinson’s successful Londina Illustrata of 1816 where the plates consist of ‘uncritically presented and topographically useless details enlarged from the long views of Visscher and Hollar’.

The evidential usefulness of the panorama was, at much the same time, recognised and utilised by J.T. Smith – but he was an historian with an unusually open mind to evidence, especially graphic evidence. For others, the panorama was to be held at arm’s length as an appealing novelty, tolerable for its attractiveness. Writing in The London Topographical Record in 1904 T. Fairman Ordish, in what is probably the first text concentrating on the panorama (the occasion being the publication of the LTS’s four-sheet facsimile in 1883-5) commented as follows: “The Visscher panorama is so attractive as a picture that we feel no surprise when we find that it was frequently reprinted”.

He refers of course to the multiple copies and re-engravings of Visscher’s panorama which quickly followed its first publication and included a version published in Venice in 1629. Ordish will also have been aware of the Victorian facsimile editions of the view, without a word of commentary and seemingly produced with little intention of satisfying the historian, but of providing decoration for many an office or tavern wall in the City. (3)

The responsibility for the rehabilitation of Visscher’s view is largely down to William Shakespeare – or at least indirectly. Controversy about the precise positioning of a plaque in Southwark to mark the site that would have been occupied by the Globe Theatre caused officials of the London County Council (LCC) to take up serious archival research. A number of publications followed including that by W.W. Braine’s The Site of the Globe Playhouse published in association with the LCC in 1924. This and other texts provided close contextual reading of Visscher’s view, the fulfilment of their work, in a way, being John Orrell’s The Quest for Shakespeare’s Globe in which Visscher is presented as one of the most significant documentary sources for the topography of ‘Shakespearean’ Bankside – and in a sense for the outstandingly popular townscape that so many people enjoy there today.

Visscher, by the mid-twentieth century, had, at last, proved himself useful to historians, and was then carried forward in the wave of popular, very well-illustrated London history books that proliferated in the 1970s and 80s (4); and again by the massive tide of historical television documentary of the past two decades.

Jeremy Smith

The conservation of the Visscher Panorama 

The copy of the Visscher panorama which was the subject of the conservation project (ref. LMA SC/PD/XX/01/04) is by far the better impression. The panorama is made of four panels of handmade paper measuring 535 x 422 mm. The quality of the etching is very good, the black printing ink lines are very sharp and the chiaro/scuro areas are well defined.

The Condition of the print before treatment

Although the overall condition of the print was generally good, inappropriate storage and extensive handling in the past had caused damage to the paper which now presented ingrained surface dirt and long tears along the folds. The panels had been repaired extensively in the past and lined on the back with heavy white handmade paper cut to the size of the print. The backing paper of one panel had larger margins and therefore made the entire panel bigger than the other three. The panels were stiff and discoloured along the repairs probably due to the deterioration of the adhesive used. Some tears had been mended, but the edges were not aligned accurately. Other tears had not being joined, only stabilised leaving a gap between the edges. Other losses around the print were present especially along the edges. The infill repairs had been made with western handmade paper that had caused distortion and fraction of the original paper. Some repairs had been retouched to complete the missing etching. Other infills were made with paper that replicated the original print.

In this state the panels could not be accessed and displayed without the risk of increasing the distortion and tears.

Conservation treatments

LMA’s paper conservator Hilary Ordman was in charge of the conservation treatment of this print. All four panels were thoroughly dry cleaned by means of a soft brush on the printed side and a vulcanised latex sponge on the edges and on the back of the print. All the different media were tested against fugitivity with distilled water. As all the inks proved to be stable it was, therefore, possible to wash the print to remove all the soluble acidity and the stains. The print was washed in three consecutive cold water baths until the water was clean.

While the panels were still wet the paper lining of the back was removed. It was decided to remove also the old repairs that were causing fractures on the print. All the other repairs that were stable and made using a paper similar to the original print, and the infills where hand drawing had been made to replicate the missing images, were kept. The panels were left to dry under lightweight between thick blotting paper.

The paper repairs and infills were done first on the back of the print using Japanese paper of the appropriate thickness and wheat starch paste. The missing areas on the front of the print were then repaired using Japanese paper toned with watercolours to match the colour of the original paper. All four panels were interleaved with acid-free tissue and housed in an archival four flap folder.

Following conservation, the panorama has been digitised and made available on LMA’s Collage – The London Picture Archive alongside the other copy.

Hilary very much enjoyed working on this project not only owing to its aesthetic value, but also because it allowed her to discover and discuss details of the history of the print with curatorial staff in the Graphic Collections team.

LMA is grateful to the LTS for its generous support of this project.

Caroline De Stefani


1. Shown at an exhibition Visscher Redrawn, at Guildhall Art Gallery, March to November 2016.

2. In London Illustrated (1983)

3. See Irene Scouloudi’s 1953 thesis Panoramic Views of London or A.Hind’s: Engraving in England (volume 2, 1955)

4. Few were without an illustration of Visscher, quite often on the cover: works such as London 2000 years of a City and Its People (1974), a model of its genre by Felix Barker and (former LTS Chairman) Peter Jackson