‘Britannia Illustrata’, the publication in which this print originally appeared, was one of the most important topographical works of the 18th century. It was first published in 1707 and included 80 topographical views of large country estates.
Among the precedents for such a publication, known to artist Leonard Knyff, were Abraham Slezer’s ‘Theatrum Scotiae’ of 1697 and a number of French examples, including Jean Marot’s ‘Grand Marot’ of around 1670. On the whole Knyff’s views in ‘Britannia Illustrata’ are topographically accurate, though some include parts of buildings which were yet to be completed. The popularity of engravings of country houses in the early 18th century reflected the contemporary boom in building and developing of estates.
Esher Place in Surrey was the subject of Plate 72 of ‘Britannia Illustrata’. The old house shown here was the gatehouse of a palace that had been built for Bishop Waynflete of Winchester in the late 15th century. When this image was published, the estate was the seat of Sir Thomas Cotton. Later, in 1729, it was purchased by Henry Pelham (Prime Minister from 1743 to 1754), who employed architect and designer William Kent to renovate the house and gardens.
Leendert Knijff, better known as Leonard Knyff, was born in Haarlem in 1650 and followed his brother Jacob (also an artist) to London at some point after 1676. In 1694, Knyff was made a British citizen. He began his career painting still lifes but became better-known in Britain for his views of gardens and country houses. The birds-eye view format, which was popularised in the UK by Knyff, is thought to have first been introduced to the British landscape tradition by his brother, Jacob.
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