John Boydell

History of the River Thames

1793-5

John Boydell was, perhaps, the greatest ‘patron-publisher’ of his day. Commissioning work from the famous artists of his time, promoting lesser-known artists, and upholding high standards of engraving against the tide of commercialism, he was able to produce works whose quality sets them apart from the bulk of eighteenth century reproductive engraving.

Amongst the fine colour-plate books which Boydell conceived, the History of the River Thames, published with his nephew Josiah, was one of his greatest successes with seventy-six plates by the renowned aquatint engraver Joseph Sadler after  landscapes by Joseph Farrington, RA. Farington was as a well known painter in his time but it is for these careful topographical drawings that he is best remembered. Boydell’s Thames takes us on a journey from Thames Head in Gloucestershire through Berkshire and Oxfordshire, and eventually reaching London where pastoral scenes give way to growing industry and trade as the river widens out and reaches the North Sea.

For some time Boydell himself rode the tide of a flourishing export trade in British prints, and in 1790 his publishing success was complemented by his appointment as Lord Mayor of London.  However, within a few years the troubles in France destroyed the export market and his business collapsed; Boydell fought to clear his debts and succeeded in doing so before he died. For several decades he had been the greatest patron of his age, bringing employment and wealth to countless painters, and leaving a legacy of some of the finest topographical and historical engravings of the eighteenth century of which the Thames is one of the best examples.