Bankside Theatres

In many early modern maps depicting London from the south, Southwark and the theatres of Bankside serve as the foreground to the image and thus are exposed to a greater level of scrutiny. The Merian View of London (1638) is part of a long lineage of London maps from the period highlighting the expansion of the city beyond its medieval bounds and vividly bringing to life Tudor London. The subsequent discussion of the Merian view and its predecessors will focus on the inaccuracies contained within the panorama to demonstrate that early modern maps were more than simply a mirror of the city. Rather, Merian’s presentation of London’s Bankside shows that the lasting value of maps lies in their role as an iterative object that can only be understood by consideration of the wider context in which it was produced.

Long associated with London’s low life, brothels and the Stews, as depicted in Wyngaerde’s panorama from 1543, Bankside on the south of the River Thames, serves as a fascinating site to investigate the connections between various images of London and trace the origins of Merian’s View of London (1638). During the reign of Elizabeth I, Bankside developed into the main area of amusement for Londoners who crossed the river in large numbers to seek entertainment, escape the overcrowding of the rapidly expanding city and the hostility within the city’s walls to such amusements.[1] As a consequence, the area quickly developed over the next 60 years, playing host to a variety of sporting events such as bull and bear baiting, the most popular of English-cultivated sports from the medieval period.[2] Maps such as the Agas Map (1560), and Braun and Hogenberg (1572) depict these “Bear Baiting” and “Bull Baiting” amphitheaters and their prominent location on Bankside.[3] Therefore, having already established itself as a site of popular entertainment, Bankside became a natural site for London’s theatres beyond the jurisdiction of the City.[4] 

 The first depiction of Bankside’s theatres appears in Norden’s 1593 map of London which was later updated for inclusion in Norden’s panorama of London, 1600. The updated map was revised to present both the Swan and the Globe theatres and aligns with current historical evidence regarding the location of each theatre at the time.[5] Norden’s map depicts the Rose, built 1588, the Swan, built 1595 and the most famous of all, the Globe, built 1599, and highlights the rapid development of Bankside as the heart of London’s theatres, particularly in contrast to earlier maps. (image 4) 

The ‘Merian’ View and Bankside

The ‘Merian’ view (1638) is unique in its depiction of Southwark and can be distinguished from other similar panoramas by the presence of four polygonal theatres on Bankside.[6] Merian labels the Swan (no. 39) to the west, and the Bear Garden (no. 38), the Globe (no. 37) and an unnamed fourth theatre to the east. It is assumed that the unnamed fourth, placed between the Bear Garden and the Globe, is the Rose Theatre. This is perhaps a surprising addition as it is a clear deviation from the Visscher Panorama (1616), upon which Merian’s view is believed to have been based. Unfortunately for Merian, the Rose was pulled down in 1606 and therefore, could not have been standing as depicted in the panorama; however, such a mistake is an indication that Merian was using a second source, alongside Visscher’s Panorama, as evidence when constructing his work.[7]

Despite this discrepancy in the presentation of the theatres, there is no doubt that the Visscher Panorama was Merian’s primary source of inspiration, with remarkable similarity across both works. Merian copies several of Visscher’s mistakes such as the erroneous labelling of a church-spire near the river as ‘St Hellen’ and the misspelling of ‘St Dunston in the Cast’ (mistaking an e for a c).[8] Similarly, both straighten the numerous bends in the Thames, presumably to aid the detail afforded to Whitehall along the river. Such similarities are extensive and warrant further enquiry than can be fully justified here. Instead, a focus on Visscher and Merian’s presentation of Bankside will establish not only the maps’ topographical accuracy, but also reveal their intimate relationship.

The accuracy of Visscher’s portrayal of the Bankside theatres has been cast into doubt by historians who point to discrepancies from existing evidence. Shapiro argues that the independent authority of Visscher’s work is undermined by the mislabeling of the Rose Theater as the Globe and omission of the Globe entirely.[9] Believed to have been based off John Norden’s Civitas Londini (1600), this mistake is perhaps forgivable as the Globe sits ambiguously amongst dense trees and thus is easy to miss if working quickly or carelessly. Such an error is characteristic of the work of a foreign engraver who had never himself visited London and was working from secondary materials.[10] Therefore, it is apparent that Merian’s inclusion of a fourth theatre and the corrected labelling of the Globe was guided by information form another source.

The likely second source is John Norden’s panorama of London, Civitas Londini (1600). Like Merian, Norden’s panorama presents four theatres on Bankside, and both also include a turreted square tower in the south-eastern forefront (not present in the Visscher Panorama), identified as “Holland’s Leaguer”, thus indicating its influence on Merian’s later view.[11] Why Merian decided to include detail from an earlier presentation of London is uncertain, but according to Shapiro, Merian supplemented Visscher’s view in areas where it was lacking in foreground detail, such as the Globe.[12] It is somewhat unsurprising that Visscher overlooked the Globe, hidden amongst the trees in Norden’s panorama and thus, is easy to miss if working quickly or carelessly. Such an error is characteristic of the work of a foreign engraver who had never himself visited London and was working from secondary materials.[13]

Of the panoramas of London showing the Bankside theatres, Norden’s Civitas Londini is the only to depict all four theatres in their correct approximate position, and consequently when placed in conversation with other evidence, is topographically useful in illuminating life in Elizabethan London and establishing the location of the theatres which has been subject to intense historical debate.[14]  Norden was an experienced English surveyor and cartographer, extensively familiar with London, and thus much of its value lies in its accuracy. [15] In contrast, although somewhat modified from the original, the Merian view copies several of Visscher’s inaccuracies and thus its value as an independent topographic object is diminished. Although perhaps not reliable as evidence of the location of the Bankside theatres, the Merian panorama still remains of significant value as a cartographic object, as will be subsequently discussed. 

It is important here to note that Merian was not a surveyor, nor was he an Englishman. In fact, it is likely that neither he, nor Visscher upon who he relied for evidence, had ever visited London and therefore, were forced to work from pre-existing print maps such as Civitas Londini to construct their views.[16] As a consequence, Merian’s work is largely iterative, building off and altering older works, rather than independently constructed. Therefore, its value lies not in its independent topographical accuracy, which has already been questioned, but instead as jigsaw in the larger lineage of London city views. The exact conditions under which the Merian view was produced are unknown, but what is certain is that it highlights the beauty and elegance of Elizabethan London, brought to life by Merian’s skills as an engraver.[17] The remarkable panorama was influenced by and built upon its predecessors, and undoubtedly had a significant influence on successive iterations; this is where its true value lies.

Not only does this brief investigation highlight how the various views of Elizabethan London display the development of Bankside as a hotbed of London’s entertainment, but also demonstrates that the worth of these views lies far beyond its topographical accuracy. No map, particularly those of Tudor London, can be understood without consideration of the broader lineage with which it is associated. In this brief investigation into the Bankside theatres, the ties between the various chorographies of London have become apparent, yet it also leaves many more unexplored. For more a comprehensive account of such interconnections, I recommend G.E. Mitton’s Maps of Old London (1908), Howgego and Darlington’s Printed Maps of London (1964), and the London and Middlesex Archaeological Society’s series The Early Maps of London (1916-1919) amongst many others.[18]  

[1] by] Felix Barker and Peter Jackson, London: 2,000 Years of a City and Its People, [1st American ed.] (New York, Macmillan [1974], 1974), 94–95, https://find.library.duke.edu/catalog/DUKE000101572.

[2] Joseph Quincy Adams, Shakespearean Playhouses: A History of English Theatres from the Beginnings to the Restoration (Project Gutenberg, 2007), http://www.gutenberg.org/files/22397/22397-h/22397-h.htm.

[3] Adams.

[4] by E. K. Chambers, The Elizabethan Stage (Oxford: The Clarendon press, 1923), 357, https://find.library.duke.edu/catalog/DUKE001438553.

[5] I. A. Shapiro, “The Bankside Theatres: Early Engravings,” in Shakespeare Survey: Volume 1: Shakespeare and His Stage, ed. Allardyce Nicoll, vol. 1, Shakespeare Survey (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1948), 25–37, https://doi.org/10.1017/CCOL0521064147.004.

[6] WM MARTIN, “The Early Maps of London: I,” London and Middlesex Archaeological Society, Transactions 3 (January 1, 1916): 277.

[7] Adams, Shakespearean Playhouses: A History of English Theatres from the Beginnings to the Restoration.

[8] Shapiro, “The Bankside Theatres,” 30.

[9] Shapiro, “The Bankside Theatres.”

[10] Shapiro, 30.

[11] Shapiro, “The Bankside Theatres.”

[12] Shapiro, 29.

[13] Shapiro, “The Bankside Theatres.”

[14] The Site of the Globe Playhouse, Southwark : With an Appendix by the Architect to the Council on the Architecture of the Building., Publications / London County Council ; No. 2107 ([London : Printed by Odhams press ltd., 1921], 1921), https://find.library.duke.edu/catalog/DUKE001464633; Shapiro, “The Bankside Theatres.”

[15] Shapiro, “The Bankside Theatres,” 27; Frank Kitchen, “John Norden (c. 1547-1625): Estate Surveyor, Topographer, County Mapmaker and Devotional Writer,” Imago Mundi 49 (1997): 43–61.

[16] Shapiro, “The Bankside Theatres.”

[17] Lippmann Martin, 1875-1952 Friedrich, 1839-1903Lehrs, Max, 1855-1938Hardie and Start this Book, Engraving and Etching; a Handbook for the Use of Students and Print Collectors, 1245, Internet Archive identifier: engravingetching00lipp_0 https://archive.org/download/engravingetching00lipp_0/engravingetching00lipp_0.pdf, accessed March 11, 2021, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Engraving_and_etching;_a_handbook_for_the_use_of_students_and_print_collectors_(IA_engravingetching00lipp_0).pdf.

[18] Shapiro; Shapiro, 27.