Two hundred years ago, an enterprising English artist created the first large-scale book of urban images in America. “Views of Philadelphia,” by William Birch, is considered the first coffee-table book, predating the coffee table by about a century.
In its day, the book became the definitive vision of American urban life, and historians still consult it for an accurate picture of Colonial and post-Colonial Philadelphia. Birch and the book are currently the subjects of an exhibition at The Library Company of Philadelphia.
Before Birch arrived in the United States, he’d already had a career in England that soared — and crashed. He painted highly sought-after miniature landscapes and portraits fired onto ceramics, cultivating a network of aristocratic patrons including the founder and president of the Royal Academy of Arts and Lord Mansfield, the judge whose 1772 ruling outlawed slavery in England.
When his clientele started aging out, Birch saw the writing on the wall.
“His patronage system imploded,” said librarian James Green. “It may have also had something to do with the French Revolution and the people he was associated with. He kind of left England quickly.”
In 1794, Birch arrived in Philadelphia, surprised and impressed by what he found. Rather than a backwater colony of log cabins and bear pelts — a prevailing romantic image of America — he found a bustling, urban center with classical architecture and a vibrant economy.
He saw taste and refinement, his professional wheelhouse.
He sensed possibilities, and he felt an ambition he never could realize in England.
Birch set about creating a set of 27 large, full-color plates of Philadelphia scenes. No one had even done that before.
“His attention isn’t just on the architecture. It’s about trying to show the architecture and the life that surrounds it,” said Library Company director Michael Barsanti. “It still has a Chamber of Commerce feel to it — of selling the city — but it’s selling diversity. There’s a reassuring classical stability, but there’s also a level of vitality around the buildings that make it distinctive.”
“Views of Philadelphia” includes buildings that still stand today, including the First Bank of the United States and a view of Second Street that includes the Christ Church steeple. The scenes also feature the city’s residents: the storeowners and artisans and shoppers. One image of a Lutheran Church on Fourth Street (no longer there) includes a group of Native Americans on a sightseeing tour.
Birch pulled together 156 subscribers who each received a print as it was completed. Once the set was finished, the clients could bind it into a book.
“There were a lot of merchants, Philadelphia merchants, who subscribed to the city views,” said curator of prints Sarah Weatherwax. “Thomas Jefferson kept a copy by his sofa, according to Birch, and showed it to everyone who came to the White House.”
The book was a hit. Birch’s work eventually made its way back across the Atlantic Ocean to Europe, where it would inform the world’s perspective on life in America.
Due to the success of his city views, Birch created a companion set of country views, “Country Seats,” featuring bucolic images of grand estates. That book went beyond Philadelphia to portray elegant country living in many parts of America. It paid particular attention, however, to trees, foliage, riverbanks, and houses along the Schuylkill River.
“He was the first person to understand the Schuylkill as an environment on its own,” said Green. “One of the great contributions this book has made has to do with the founding of Fairmount Park.”
Birch was trying to ramp up a landscape architecture business, using “County Seats” and a slather of purple prose to educate Americans in the nuances of refined country living.
“Here you pass from the wild romantic scene, the rugged stone with wood and water bound to expand the sight from this high lifted lawn, to view in open space the world below, the riches of the richest state; the big metropolis in the woods, the chequered country with her merchants’ seats,” he wrote. “The whole a soft and visionary scene.”
Alas, it was a flop. “Country Seats” missed the zeitgeist that “Views of Philadelphia” enjoyed, perhaps because Birch wanted to enlighten readers in English aristocratic taste, and Americans weren’t having it.
“The question is whether there was a readership that wanted to be enlightened in that way,” said Green. “The city was growing, and the idea of having a house just outside of town didn’t make sense.”
The Library Company of Philadelphia’s exhibition of William Birch continues until October.