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Book of the Month

March 2005

A voyage round Great Britain

William Daniell & Richard Ayton

London: 1814-1825
Sp Coll f53-f56

The March 2005 Book of the Month is William Daniell and Richard Ayton's A voyage round Great Britain. A celebration of the rural coastline of Britain, this eight volume collection of 308 aquatint engravings with accompanying commentary details the sublime and picturesque coastline in the final decades preceding the age of photography. Daniell's aquatint engravings, particularly those of the Scottish Highlands, are widely acknowledged as some of the finest ever produced; we are therefore very fortunate to have a complete copy of the work, most having been "broken up" by collectors and art dealers.

The rope bridge near Holyhead lighthouse, 80 feet in length, "few people, on a first trial, would feel themselves dancing along this elastic path without some little quickening of the pulse."

William Daniell (1769-1837) was one of the foremost landscape artists of the early Nineteenth Century. He acquired his scholarship in art, and specifically aquatint engraving, whilst apprentice to his uncle, Thomas Daniell (1749-1840), a renowned artist in his own right and pioneer in the development of the aquatint process in Britain. William accompanied his uncle on a journey round India from 1785-1794 and helped produce the seminal Oriental Scenery (1795-1808), widely regarded by those interested in India as the quintessential artistic depiction of the subcontinent in the Eighteenth Century. Although departing on the tour as master and apprentice, by their return the Daniells were ostensibly partners, William having spent the years abroad receiving tuition and honing his artistic skills.


Upon returning, William struck out on his own. He set up shop independently, relatively financially secure from the proceeds of the Indian success. Completing several smaller projects and exhibiting his work in no less than the Royal Academy itself, he gradually augmented his flourishing reputation until, in early 1813, he conceived the plans for what would become his magnum opus. A voyage round Great Britain was to commence from Land's End in Cornwall with the aim of detailing the entire British coastline: "not merely to give plans and outlines of its well-known towns, ports, and havens, but to illustrate the grandeur of its natural scenery, the manners and employment of people, and modes of life, in its wildest parts".

"Liverpool ... such a grove of masts extended before it as could be seen, perhaps, London excepted, in no other port in the world."

Daniell, realising the scale of the task he had set himself, determined to take a companion on the tour with him. Consequently he approached Richard Ayton (1786-1823), an intelligent young playwright, freelance author and sailing enthusiast and charged him with the task of writing the accompanying text. Ayton was an ideal partner for the venture: exceptionally well read, having studied the Classics before training as a solicitor in Manchester, he settled on the Sussex coast at the young age of 21 to pursue his freelance writing career, indulge his passion for academic reading and pass the time sailing his small skiff. As Daniell's plan was to navigate the coastline using open boats and sailing vessels,  Ayton's passion for seamanship coupled with his writing skills made him the perfect companion.

The tour took place in stages over twelve years, travelling only in the more clement summer months before returning to the city. During each tour Daniell would take only pencil, paper and small camera obscura: a mirrored, cloth-shielded box allowing him to trace the outline of a scene and proportion it correctly. During the winter months he would produce aquatints from these sketches. The engraving of aquatint plates was a complicated process, but one at which Daniell was said to have become so skilled he was capable of producing a plate in a single day. 

First a copper plate would have to be evenly coated in wax and onto the surface a reduced and reversed outline of the sketch drawn. Areas to remain blank were then "stopped out" with an acid resistant mix and the remainder of the plate covered with particles of powdered resin which would settle into the wax. The plate would subsequently be immersed in acid which would "bite into" or "etch out" certain areas where the acid reacted with the metal. The process would be repeated many times to create a copper plate with multitude minute holes to which different paint washes could then be applied in preparation for the print run.  The prints would have been produced in just one or two colours with all further detail and colouring added by hand thereafter.

The process of aquatinting was not only laborious but also very expensive; hence the completed work was affordable only by the wealthy. The eight volume set retailed at 60 when completed in 1825, but was also sold by volume at 7 12s 6d each. Each volume comprised many "parts" detailing different sections of the coast. The prohibitive price, and consequently exclusive target audience, soon led to complications in the production of the work. The resulting disagreements between the contributors precipitated Ayton's departure, leaving Daniell to complete the tour on his own.

A close up detail from the plate depicting the Clyde Estuary at Dumbarton illustrates the minute dots which comprise an aquatint image.

The quarrel between the two contributors stemmed from a contrasting outlook on the direction of the work. Daniell, ever the businessman and pragmatist, realised that poor sales figures for the first two volumes of the work, covering Cornwall, Wales and the West coast of England could be attributed to two factors. Firstly, a surfeit of text with under-representation of engravings and secondly, the rather political nature of Ayton's text. A very gifted and creative narrator, Ayton was also a man of diverse interests: history, technology, architecture, music and politics.

Dunollie castle near Oban.  "Nothing can be more wild and beautiful than the situation of Donolly.  The ruins are situated upon a bold and precipitous promontory overhanging Loch Etive, and distant about a mile from the village and port of Oban."

Tobermory, Mull. "There are certainly many pretty women in Tobermory, and their appearance ... is much improved, by the glow of health which habitual cleanliness never fails to promote."

He was a man of profound morality and had a great concern for the degree of poverty encountered on his journey. Accordingly, he used the text as an opportunity to put forward an agenda for social reform - in doing so alienating the very people to whom the book was being marketed. It was unsurprising, perhaps, that Daniell became frustrated by his partner and decided that the only course of action was to proceed alone: " meet the general wishes of the subscribers, it has been determined to effect an alteration in the present work, by condensing and abridging the narrative, in order to make room for a greater portion of engravings. In consequence.Mr Ayton's account of the voyage is to be considered as terminating at the close of the preceding volume."

From Dumfries and Galloway onwards Daniell produced both text and engravings. Most modern critics think this regrettable, for despite Daniell's engravings providing the work with renown, the importance of Ayton's contribution both to the work and the wider debate on social reform should not be underestimated. His most important contribution to the latter are his comments on the role of woman and children working in coalmines made during a description of his visit down Whitehaven coalmine, one of the most advanced in the country:

Whitehaven in Cumbria.  The mine workings are visible in the distance on the left.

"A dreariness pervaded the place which struck upon the heart - one felt as if beyond the bounds allotted to man or any living being, and transported to some hideous region unblest by every charm that cheers and adorns the habitable world. . Occasionally a light appeared in the distance before us, which did not dispel the darkness so as to discover by whom it was borne, but advanced like a meteor through the gloom, accompanied by a loud rumbling noise, the cause of which was not explained to the eye till we were called upon to make way for a horse, which passed by with its long line of baskets, and driven by a young girl covered with filth, debased and profligate, and uttering some obscenity as she hurried by us. . All the people we met were distinguished by an extraordinary wretchedness; immoderate labour and a noxious atmosphere had marked their countenances with the signs of disease and decay; they were mostly half-naked, blackened all over with dirt, and altogether so miserably disfigured and abused, that they looked like a race fallen from the common rank of men, and doomed, as in a kind of purgatory, to wear away their lives in this dismal shade.  . On their first introduction to the mine the poor little victims struggle and scream with terror at the darkness, but there are found people brutal enough to force their compliance, and after a few trials they become tame and spiritless . Surely the savages who murder children which they cannot support are merciful compared with those who devote them to a life like this".

An early steam boat sailing in the Clyde Estuary with Dumbarton Rock in the background.

It was not until Lord Shaftebury's 1842 Mines and Collieries Act that the practices Ayton lambastes were finally outlawed. Considering the potential readership of the volume, perhaps this was not the most effective forum on which he might have aired his opinions.

Volumes three to six, dealing with Scotland are regarded as the most important sections of  A  voyage.. It may be true to say that Daniell's prose is turgid and superficial in comparison to Ayton's, but the wealth of stunning engravings included from volume three onwards provides the work with the impressive legacy it enjoys today.

Daniell proceeded northwards along the west coast of Scotland depicting beautiful landscapes and technological advancements en route. He sketched not only scenic castles and craggy mountains but also numerous lighthouses, piers and even the first ever illustration of a steam boat: "The stream of smoke from the tall cast-iron chimney generally takes a horizontal direction in consequence of the movement of the vessel, forming a pendant of extraordinary length and singular appearance".

Fingal's Cave, Staffa.  "The position from which this drawing was taken seems to be that in which the wonder and admiration of visitants are most strongly excited, and of which the recollection is present to their minds when they attempt to find language to record their feelings."

His preoccupation with both natural landscape, and technology, may seem a strange combination but was in fact no more than a reflection of the concerns and interests of the general public of the time. The beginnings of the industrial revolution led to rapid technological advance and the concomitant benefit of cheaper and easier travel for all. These volumes perhaps heralded the age of tourism, where normal middle class families could afford to travel the countryside for pleasure. The days when travel consisted solely of wealthy young men journeying round the capital cities of Europe on a Grand Tour of cultural and historical enlightenment were passing away.   

Loch Coruisk, Cullins, Skye.  "The approach to this point, towards which the rock and perpendicular shores appear to converge, is awfully magnificent and sublime ... What might be the impression produced by such a scene on the mind of a solitary wonderer, it would perhaps be painful to conjecture."

Anyone familiar with the Isle of Raasay will, perhaps, recognise Daniell's perceptive description!  "Even at this period, in the sultry month of July, 1818, the sky was frequently overcast, and afforded but faint hopes of a single day without rain."

Stornaway, Lewis.  "The Isle of Lewis may vie with Ireland in the distinction of being totally destitute of venomous reptiles; and it is further remarkable, as never having harboured a toad, a frog or even a sparrow.  Some years ago a magpie appeared, and was considered by some ... as a bird of ill omen."

Suilven towering above Wester Ross.  Daniell has obviously exaggerated the vertical scale of the mountain, perhaps to help convey the sublime nature of the scene.

The upsurge of interest in the rural stemmed from several sources: a reaction to urban industrialisation, nostalgia for a simpler past,  increased patriotism in the face of Napoleonic Europe but perhaps most importantly a sea change in public perception of the natural world. This change arguably initiated with Dublin born academic Edmund Burke's 1759  Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful.

Burke's text dealt with The Sublime: the acute emotion attached to feelings of astonishment, terror and awe inspired by the natural world.  The writings of the Romantic poets and authors helped cement these concepts in the public imagination, with novels such as Walter Scott's Waverly ensuring the Highlands of Scotland were the vogue destination for all would-be tourists.

Over the following years Daniell conducted further legs of his tour, finally arriving back in Cornwall on September 14th 1823 having made memorable engravings of Brighton, Holy Island, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Sutherland and Skye en route. His reputation had been so enhanced by this mammoth undertaking, he was elected full member of the Royal Academy in 1822. 

Prince's Street, Edinburgh from Calton Hill.  The recently completed Felon's Jail appears in the foreground on the left  having been built on the site of the Tollbooth.  So much new construction work had recently occurred in this part of Edinburgh that Daniell was moved to write, "a native recently returning after an absence of some years, would feel himself almost in the predicament of a stranger."

Regent's Square, Brighton.  "The great point of attraction on the South Coast and decidedly  the most fashionable watering-place in the Kingdom.  It owes this distinction to the constant patronage of his present Majesty... [George IV]."

Close up detail from the Brighton plate details the inhabitants, in their Regency sartorial finery, promenading along the sea-front.

Berrydale in Caithness.  Land owned by the Marquess of Stafford, one of the prime offenders during the Highland Clearances.  The crofters were cleared from the farmland, often forcibly, to make way for the more profitable sheep farming.

Interestingly Daniell passed through the Highlands of Scotland during the very years that the Highland Clearances were at their peak. He lauded the infamous Marquess of Stafford (later Duke of Sutherland), one of the primary offenders during the Clearances, for his extensive programme of road building yet fails to mention, criticise or comment on the mass forced evictions of thousands of crofters. As impressive as this multi volume work is, one can't help but feel that it may have been a far more important document had Ayton been allowed the opportunity to finish writing his contributions. 


As a depiction of the British Coastline in the first half of the Nineteenth Century, this work remains without peer. The aquatint engravings are world renowned for their quality and unparalleled in their popularity. With so few complete sets of this work extant, we are privileged to care for this significant document to early Nineteenth Century British life.

Also of interest:

Other works by Daniell held in the library: Oriental scenery. One hundred and fifty views of the architecture, antiquities, and landscape scenery of Hindoostan. (with Thomas Daniell) London : 1816 Sp Coll f464; Illustrations of the island of Staffa, in a series of views, accompanied by topographical and geological descriptions. (culled from A voyage...) London : 1818 Sp Coll Hepburn q52 ; A voyage round the North and North West coast of Scotland, and the adjacent islands. (culled from A voyage...) London : [1820] Sp Coll f37 ; Zoography; or, the beauties of nature displayed. In select descriptions from the animal, and vegetable, with additions from the mineral kingdom. Systematically arranged. (Text by William Wood) London : 1807 Sp Coll BD5-b.17-19.

The following were useful in compiling this article:

Glendening, John. The high road : romantic tourism, Scotland, and literature, 1720-1820 Basingstoke : 1997 English E858.T8 GLE

MacLeod, Innes Fraser.  Sailing on horseback : William Daniell and Richard Ayton in Cumbria and Dumfries and Galloway Dumfries : 1998 History DT660 MACLE

Sutton, Thomas.  The Daniells : artists and travellers London : 1954 Fine Arts CA1215 SUT




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Robert MacLean March 2005