Everything Curious

Fountains Abbey by S.H. Grimm (British Library)The British Library Manuscript Department is a Mecca for many a local historian. Its unrivalled collections of private papers and topographical drawings shed light on every corner of Britain. For some though London may be a long journey away. The British Library's Online Gallery is good news for them. This exciting initiative aims to make 100,000 images and sounds from the British Library available online.

Among its pleasures is the astonishing assemblage of drawings by Samuel Hieronymous Grimm. He was a Swiss artist who started his career with dramatic Alpine scenes, sketched his way through France and then settled in England in 1768. Here he found keen antiquarians in need of his services. After Grose's Antiquities of England and Wales was published in 1773 with Grimm's illustrations, he was much in demand as a topographical artist.

Procession of the Schoolchildren, Kirkby in Ashfield Church 1786, by S.H. Grimm (British Library)His greatest patron was Dr Richard Kaye, an able cleric who rose from country parson to Dean of Lincoln. Each step up the ladder meant a new part of the country to explore, with Grimm at his side, quiet and unobtrusive, making sketch after sketch in Indian ink. In pursuit of 'everything curious', the scholarly Dr. Kaye amassed over two and a half thousand drawings by Grimm, the bulk of which he bequeathed to the British Museum. They are now in the British Library, together with some nine hundred scenes of Sussex drawn by Grimm for the lawyer and antiquarian Sir William Burrell. When Grimm died in 1794, he left images of at least thirty-five English shires and every county in Wales.

Grimm's drawings have a realism and immediacy so often missing from the stiff engravings and posed portraits of the period. Ordinary people wander across his sketches. He captures a cricket match, or sedan chairmen celebrating an election. When Kaye was the Rector of Kirkby in Ashfield, Grimm recorded the boys and girls of Kirkby going in neat procession to church. Venerable churches figure often in his sketchbooks, but his eye could also be caught by a building only half-up. We see Georgian elegance fresh out of the scaffolding. Grimm gives us a view of Georgian life like no other. He is the observer of the everyday.

Painswick Town Hall 1790 by S.H. Grimm (British Library) Hampstead and Highgate from Devonshire Street by S.H. Grimm 1793 (British Library)Grimm records a lost landscape. What were in his day villages around London are now part of the spreading metropolis. Grimm's views of a rural Hampstead, Highgate or Marylebone seem a world away. Buildings long gone emerge from Grimm's sketchbooks in fascinating detail. Notice the stocks in front of the old town hall at Painswick.

The collection has long been a treasure trove for researchers. Now anyone with access to the Internet will have a Grimm's-eye peephole into the past.

Further reading