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© September 2004; revised 7 August 2006 > HOME

Gallery Exhibit, Catalog Nos. 14 and 60

NOTE: A new (revised & expanded) edition of this Gallery Exhibit is forthcoming.

Print of The Frost Fair, 1684
Print titled "Great Britains Wonder: or, Londons Admiration," 1684

THIS LIVELY PRINT of London’s Frost Fair was published in February 1684, and sold by Robert Walton and John Seller for three pence.

The print documents “the Wonder of this present Age”: “a Prodigious FROST, which began about the beginning of Decemb. 1683. and continued till the Fourth Day of February following.” The frost was so severe that the River Thames froze over, such

that Men and Beasts, Coaches and Carts, went as frequently thereon, as Boats were wont to pass before. There was also a Street of Booths built from the Temple to Southwark, where were Sold all sorts of Goods imaginable, namely, Cloaths, Plate, Earthen Ware, Meat, Drink, Brandy, Tobacco, and a Hundred sorts of other Commodities not here inserted.
(from print’s subtitle)

View an enlarged 1220 x 1509 pixel GIF image (737KB)

Open a second window with the descriptive letter-press for The Frost Fair print (114 verses)

AMONG THE TRADESMEN who quickly set up shop in front of the Temple “on the RIVER now become a Stage” (l. 2) was an enterprising printer, willing to adapt his presswork to the icy conditions, and in so doing, able to take full advantage of the unique marketing situation that the Frost Fair offered. In the words of the anonymous balladeer who composed the 114 verses that gloss the line engraving of the print:

There may you also this hard Frosty Winter,
See on the Rocky Ice a Working-PRINTER,
Who hopes by his own Art to reap some gain,
Which he perchance does think he may obtain.
(ll. 31–34)

John Evelyn also noted the ice printer’s business acumen in his diary:

The frost continuing more and more severe. The Thames before London was still planted with booths in formal streets, all sorts of trades and shops furnished, and full of commodities, even to a printing press, where the people and ladies took a fancy to have their names printed ... this humour took so universally that it was estimated the printer gained £5 a day, for printing a line only, at sixpence a name, besides what he got by ballads.

Nor was our enterprising printer the only representative at the Frost Fair of England’s thriving new trade in the graphic arts. The balladeer makes multiple mention of the “Varieties of cunning Signs” (l. 88) on the frozen ice, playfully crafted for the occasion with their “merry Fancies” (l. 90) and visual “Whimsies” (l. 91) — a wealth of images and symbols designed to take advantage of what rhetoricians call “the kairic moment” (a timely, opportune moment for persuasion and belief to occur).

The inexplicable freezing of the Thames (along with other physical portents of change and instability in both natural and human worlds, such as the well-observed comets of 1664, 1665, 1680–1 and 1682) presented a unique opportunity for social and political commentary, and Walton’s print delved into the public controversy over its meaning:

Though such unusual Frosts to us are strange,
Perhaps it may predict some greater Change;
And some do fear may a fore-runner be
Of an approaching sad Mortality:
But why should we to such belief incline?
(ll. 95–99)

While playing on the fact that such abrupt defamiliarization of a taken-for-granted state presented “a great consternation to all the Spectators” (from print’s subtitle), Walton’s print reassured spectators that the known everyday world had returned, and was the true stage on which the Christian enacted a life of virtue and/or sin. The spectacle of the Frost Fair was not a calamitous event, but a natural wonder, deserving of admiration.

But if beyond our thoughts he sends us store,
With all our hearts let’s thankful be therefore.
Now let us all in Great Jehovah trust,
Who doth preserve the Righteous and the Just ....
(ll. 105–108)

By 4 February 1684, when the Frost Fair was no more, Evelyn wrote in his diary of an “ingenious” print — perhaps this one of Walton’s — that recorded for posterity the carnivalesque atmosphere of stalls, visitors, iceboats and coaches which had, for a time, transformed the Thames into “both Fair and Market too” (l. 4).

The traders’ booths, raised against a backdrop of Arundel House and The Temple, were by then “almost all taken down,” wrote Evelyn,

but there was first a map or Landskip cut in copper representing all the manner of the camp, and the several actions, sports and passe-times thereon in memory of this signal Frost.

Capitalizing on the wonders of natural and social history still unfolding, Walton issued a second print memorializing the strange phenomenon of the Frost Fair, this time in tandem with the print dealer, John Slater. This second print of Walton’s was titled

A Wonderful Fair, or a Fair of Wonders, being the newest Map representing the several things done on the Thames in the late terrible Frost

and was advertised as “cut in copper with an ingenious description of the same in meeter in a sheet of royal paper.”

There was at least one other print issued in 1683/4 that provided contemporary viewers with a topographical record:

An exact and lively Map, Or Representation of the Booths and Varieties of Shows and Humours upon the Ice on the River of Thames by London, during that Memorable Frost in the 35th Year of the Reign of ... Charles the Second.

This print was sold by W. Warter at the Talbot over against Fetter Lane in Fleet Street, and testifies to the intensity of contemporary interest in a frozen Thames, in all its cultural manifestations.

BY THE FINAL QUARTER of the 17th century, maps and prints such as Walton’s Great Britains Wonder had become a well-established format for popularizing social phenomena. This was in large part due to the craft and business savvy of such stationers in the graphic arts as Robert Walton, who first emerged as a bookseller and print dealer during the late 1640s. (Among the engravers Walton worked with in these early years was John Goddard, who sculpted the Ferrar maps of 1651 and 1653.)

As advertised with his imprint on the woodcut of Great Britains Wonder, Walton stocked an array of line engravings (some of which dealt in social commentary), including “all sorts and sizes of Maps, Coppy-Books, and Prints, not only English, but Italian, French, and Dutch.” Leona Rostenberg describes Walton as “an intelligent and alert dealer, who through his ready perception not only sustained himself but doubtless heightened English interest in the world of graphic arts.” (Rostenberg 1963, p. 50)

The career of Robert Walton indicates the development of certain artistic trends during the Restoration. His stock of material for “Goldsmiths, Jewellers, Chafers, Gravers, Painters, Carvers, Drawers, Needle-Women and all Handicrafts” indicates his awareness of the applied arts and his apparent attempt to establish a school of home crafts. His cognizance of social phenomena is apparent in his circulation of prints popularizing the “Baths in Bath” and the “Frost Fair.” His importation of prints by foreign masters widened the English knowledge of continental art and his publication of art manuals and engravings in the new “mizzo.tinto” reflects his awareness of current artistic innovations.
(Rostenberg 1963, p. 50)

Walton issued his Great Britains Wonder in collaboration with another specialist dealer, John Seller of Exchange Alley, Cornhill, who himself stocked maps and charts, scientific instruments and maritime treatises, atlases, almanacs, playing cards, and prints relating to nautical and military strategy (e.g., plans delineating an enemy’s fortifications, lines and marches).

John Seller, the Elder, was the most prominent nautical-instrument maker in London during the latter half of the 17th century. In 1686, he obtained jointly with James Lydell a contract for supplying compasses to the British Navy, which contract was taken over by his widow, Elizabeth Seller, in 1698. Gradually, Seller widened his activities to become a writer and teacher on the arts of navigation and gunnery, as well as an almanack-maker, hydrographer, surveyor and chart-maker. In addition to his distinctive compasses and stock of maritime items, Seller also made surveying and other land instruments, instruments for gunners’ use and dials, and drawing instruments. Of note, he was the first tradesman in England to publish a detailed list of all the instruments he made and sold, proudly advertising in his catalog that he could personally teach the use of each and every instrument listed.

Over the course of his career, John Seller authored 35 texts, including atlases, geographies and almanacs, several of which ran through numerous editions, all of which helped position him as a nautical authority. By 1667, Seller was sufficiently well-known as an expert for Robert Hooke to seek his answers to a set of “Magnetical Queries,” which were published in the scientific review, The Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. Upon his publication of the first English books of Pilot Charts and general Maritime Atlases (designed to supersede the Dutch “Waggoners”), Seller was appointed “Hydrographer to His Majesty” (an honour he shared with Joseph Moxon), and he retained the title through three reigns.

The Seller brand has by now been scrutinized by historians, who point out that Seller’s claim to nautical authority relied more on information piracy than anything else. As described by Leona Rostenberg,

Although Seller, Senior, was a prolific author, his position as a nautical authority has been regarded with some reservation. Not unlike many of his business colleagues, Seller was an adept expert in literary piracy and suffered few moral qualms not merely in substituting title and imprint, but also in filching entire texts for home consumption. For the most part, he revamped Dutch treatises on navigation, pirated Dutch plates and maps, suppressed an original caption with an appropriate English substitute and the Dutch imprint with his own “published by John Seller at the Sign of the Mariners Compass at Wapping, London.”

Despite his manifest indifference to business ethics, Seller was certainly sufficiently conversant with practical navigation, seamanship and hydrography to have been able to draft a variety of maps and to compose numerous texts which were not entirely refurbished foreign originals.
(Rostenberg 1963, pp. 63–4)

Given his prominent interests in hydrography, and matters of maritime and military strategy, Seller’s willingness to join with Walton in bringing out a print on the Frost Fair is not surprising. The scientific and political questions raised by a frozen river Thames would have appealed not only to Seller, but to his customer base, as well.

The timely printing of “a True Representation” (from print’s subtitle) of natural and cultural topography, artistically rendered and persuasively packaged, was by then the stock-in-trade of the map dealer of the period:

The contributions of the map dealers, Seller, Morden and Berry are manifold. Through the publication of atlases and cartographies, military and maritime literature, mercantile tables and cards of “Fancies” and “Tales,” they presented to the public the breadth and width of the known world as well as the widening horizons of their own realm expanding overseas into lands of unexplored terrains, rivers and heights. They advertised to the English public the facilities of the nation: its market days, the seats of its nobility, its lakes and parks, its towns and villages. They brought to the attention of the business man the roads he might follow, the posts he might seek. Their maps bespoke the marching and encamping of troops along the Moselle and the Rhine, the smashing forces of the Ottoman horde driving its opponents across the broad fertile plains of Styria and Moldavia. For the collector they stimulated the acquisition of fine cartographical prints enhanced through new techniques and artistic application. The masters of the Mariner’s Compass, the Atlas and the Globe encouraged through their own talents and curiosity a preoccupation with scientific geographical inquiry. Abreast of their times, they employed skillful surveyors to produce the maps and specifications which bear their names. They piqued public interest and were rewarded by a continued demand for new maps and drafts bearing the names of John Seller, the Elder, Robert Morden and William Berry.
(Rostenberg 1963, pp. 74–5)

My colleague, Karel van der Waarde, has pointed out that installing a 17th-century printing press on “the Rocky Ice” (l. 32) was an amazing feat in itself. “It would have been very difficult to stabilize the press — which was usually done against the ceiling,” writes Karel (private e-mail, dated 2 September 2004).
Portrait of Thomas Howard
Earl of Arundel (1585/6–1646)
By Peter Paul Rubens.
Original art in brush and brown
and black ink, brown and gray
wash heightened with white,
with touches of red.

View an enlarged 990 x 1263
pixel JPG image

“Arundel House,” as called out in the top left of the print’s line engraving, refers to the London property of the Earls of Arundel, situated on the south side of the Strand, west of Milford Lane and St. Clement Danes Church. A “miscellany of buildings of various periods,” with “fine gardens running down to the Thames,” Arundel House became the temporary home of the Royal Society after the Great Fire of London in September 1666 (in order that Gresham College could be used as a temporary Royal Exchange). The Royal Society had its first meeting at the duke of Norfolk’s Arundel House in the Strand on 9 January 1667, and continued to meet there through the year 1674. When Margaret Cavendish attended a meeting of the Royal Society on 30 May 1667, she was conducted to Arundel House, with its splendid collection of statues, busts and marbles assembled by Thomas Howard (d. 1646), 2nd earl of Arundel, who had toured Italy with the famous architect, Inigo Jones.


“The Temple,” as called out in the top middle of the print’s line engraving, refers to a walled and gated district of the city of London, extending from the south side of Fleet street to the Thames, which encompassed the two Inns of Court and the Temple Church. Originally owned by the order of the Knights of Templars (which was dissolved in 1313), during the 17th century, the Temple district was owned and governed by the Benchers of the Middle and Inner Temple.

Related Links

• a GALLERY exhibit on another pictorial record of contemporary events: “An Emblem of ye Athenian Society. 1692.” The exhibit includes discussion of a popular 17th-century icon for the Baroque art of printing (“Stampa,” from Pierce Tempest’s 1709 English edition of Ripa’s Iconologia).

• a GALLERY exhibit on the Ferrar maps of 1651 and 1653, engraved by John Goddard, whose engraving of The Tree of Man’s Life by Richard Day was also issued by Robert Walton

• further discussion of the earl of Arundel, celebrated patron of fine arts & sciences and collector of the Arundel marbles and other treasures of antiquity, in the IN BRIEF biographies of Wenceslaus Hollar and William Harvey

• external link to Karel van der Waarde’s web site documenting the “development, shape and use of typefounders’ moulds” by printers during the early modern period



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