This is Frederick Crace (1779-1859) – a man who deserves to be remembered for his cultural contribution to the history of London. Between 1820 and 1860 Crace collected and collated a visual record of London every bit as vital as that which has been described by Charles Dickens in the pages of his iconic novels – i.e an aura of ‘Olde’ London at a time when it was quickly (and quietly) vanishing beneath the relentless march of Victorian ‘modernisation’. The era when Crace operated saw stagecoach transportation gave way to steam locomotion, clearance of slums and construction of elegant new town squares – extending London’s boundaries far beyond their traditional limits. Ports, churches, thoroughfares and dockyards were rebuilt as industrialisation changed the face and spread of London almost beyond recognition even for those who witnessed it.
Bedford Square c.1850 (Crace Collection)
For all his efforts, it is particularly sad that Frederick Crace doesn’t seem to have a permanent London memorial. He doesn’t have a blue plaque, and even his graveyard memorial in West Norwood Cemetery has long since been destroyed. For a man who did so much to record London in the era before photography, we really ought to celebrate and commemorate him better. So I am going to begin here by giving a brief outline of Crace’s professional career, and then follow up with a series of posts examining the the many London scenes he commissioned for his unique collection. If you want a taster why not start with my recent blog about London’s coaching inns – which uses images entirely drawn from Crace’s collection.
Crace’s appointment as Commissioner of Sewers in 1818 may have literally been ‘a crap job’, but it did stimulate his interest in the history of the streets of London because he began to collect maps and views of the city from that point right up until his death in 1859. What Crace was unable to procure from collectors, he commissioned via renowned artists, in particular Thomas Hosmer Shepherd. A very large collection of maps and pictures was assembled under his care. Crace had some of Shepherd’s paintings collated and published as ‘Views of London’. But many of the scenes recorded were ordered by Crace upon a whim, or at the drop of a hat, whenever he saw anything important to record for posterity.
St Mary’s Aldermanbury by T.H. Shepherd c.1850
Thanks to Crace we have a significant record of early Victorian transformation of the old Georgian landscape – because his vast collection now resides to the British Museum, having been purchased from Crace’s son in 1879. More joyously still, we now have access to hundreds of beautiful London street scenes (such as the one above) via their excellent online search engine. The true beauty of Crace’s collection is that the traditional tourist panoramas, such as St Paul’s Cathedral or the Tower of London, play a very minor role in the whole ensemble – because Crace concentrated on what was leaving the landscape, rather then what endured. We therefore have a wonderful myriad of London back-streets, shops, inns, churches and housing – perhaps too idyllically depicted – nonetheless vital to grasping an essence of life in London almost two centuries ago.
Frederick Crace, was one of a dynasty of interior designers that graced British homes and palaces between 1750 and 1899. Originally founded as a decorating company by Edward Crace (1725-99), 4 subsequent generations of Craces, in various partnerships and guises, transformed the business into what the Victoria and Albert Museum have described as ‘the most important family of interior decorations in 19th Century Britain’.
A lot has been written about the Crace family, not least Frederick who is chiefly remembered for the chinoiserie interiors of the Brighton Pavilion. Just recently London Street Views have written a very informative blog about their business base at 14 Wigmore Street. The family firm was created around 1750 by Edward Crace (1725-99) and quickly established themselves as favoured contractors to George III. Edward was not just a paint-splosher, and his services were more akin to interior design, earning him extensive commissions both at Buckingham House and Windsor. Edward’s talents were far-reaching, for in 1770 he authored an influential book upon designs for coach panels (his own father had been a coach-maker), and not long afterwards he became Keeper of the Royal Collection of Paintings, which involved both cataloguing and maintaining the King’s art collection. This was a job Edward kept right up until his death.
The Music Room, Brighton Pavilion – Frederick Crace c.1820
Edward’s eldest son John was equally proficient and renowned for his decorating skills, though he set up in practice separately from his father due to a dispute about his choice of bride. John Crace (1754 – 1819) set up on his own in 1776 and by the end of the century was employing his very highly-rated son Frederick. Their clients included leading architects such as Henry Holland and many of the late Georgian housebuilders. John was as favoured in Royal circles as his estranged father – and he was used extensively by the Prince of Wales (later Prince Regent) – working at Carlton House and the Royal Pavilion in Brighton. When in 1788 John was commissioned to source and supply a collection of Chinese art to the Royal Pavilion, he could not have known that this was to lay the groundwork for his own son’s most famous and enduring project.
Brighton Pavilion – the Prince Regent’s playground
It is said that young Frederick first came to the attention of the Prince of Wales whilst he was at work gilding a staircase at Windsor Castle. The Prince was so enamoured with the artistry on show that he asked Frederick to decorate the Royal Pavilion in a style to match the Chinese art housed therein – hence Frederick designed and installed the exotic Chinese-inspired décor of the Music Room and later, when the Prince Regent became George IV, he decorated the King’s private apartments at Windsor Castle. Other significant projects attributable to Frederick included designing the St James’s Theatre (1835)
St James’ Theatre (1835) designed by Frederick Crace & Son
Frederick died peacefully at his home in Hammersmith on 18th September 1859. The Morning Post eulogised upon his professional talents and achievements but went on to add
Mr Crace has always taken a great interest in the history and topography of London, but for the last 30 years of his life he has devoted himself with untiring energy and industry in perfecting a very valuable and extensive collection of maps, plans, and views of every part of the metropolis from a very early period to the present time
Frederick’s collection was left to his son John, who further added to it, catalogued it and eventually put it in a free exhibition at South Kensington Museum in December 1878. The Morning Post enthused called ‘a most honourable monument’ to Frederick’s patriarchal and archaeological skills:
To historians and antiquarians it will prove of great value as describing the marvellous changes enacted by the lapse of time, not alone in the architecture of London, but also in the manners, fashions, and social usages of its inhabitants.
Within two years (around 1880) John Crace sold the entire collection to the British Museum, where it remains today every bit as important as the Morning Post described it 140 years ago. I am not sure what the Museum paid for the privilege of owning this collection, but I hope and suspect that the Crace family would have been more anxious to preserve the collection than to maximise profit by this transaction.
In my next post I will introduce Thomas Hosmer Shepherd and talk about his life, and in subsequent posts will collate some of Shepherd’s images into themed headings and try to provide more background upon each London scene. I hope you will be able to join me as I try to add historical notes to the images selected, to help breath life back into Crace’s London.
In conclusion, I am irresistibly drawn to make a comparison between Frederick Crace and the modern-day work of Mr Paul Talling, who I believe is undertaking an equally commendable and worthy task of recording derelict and forgotten London before it too disappears from our consciousness. Whereas Frederick relied upon artists such as Shepherd, Paul is able to utilise his own camera to capture equally historic scenes which are already being acknowledged as culturally vital – Its good to know that the feelings which motivated Frederick Crace remain alive today with modern historians of London life.
For further information on the Crace family, may I recommend and cite as sources of reference
- London Street Views – page on the Crace business premises
- Victoria and Albert Museum Archive of Art and Design catalogue of items relating to Frederick Crace
- Carlton Hobbs’ excellent images and details about the Crace family
- Cooper Hewitt’s list of Crace items at the Smithsonian Museum
- A visit to the Brighton Pavilion to see Frederick’s Crace’s masterpiece of the Music Room as well as his portrait
If you are interested in the lost history and traditions of London, you make like my series of blogs on the Epping Hunt, or the history of Royal Ascot. Or for another forgotten and under-appreciated genius why not check out William Wellesley-Pole – the man who gave us the splendid shilling – which is fast approaching its bicentenary of creation.