William Russell Birch. “Library and Surgeon’s Hall, in Fifth Street Philadelphia.” [original medical school of the University of Pennsylvania]. From The City of Philadelphia.
Philadelphia: William Birch, 1799. First edition. 8 1/2 x 11 (image). Engraving on laid paper. Full hand color. Print has been mounted to a one ply archival board. Else, very good condition. A/A
When issued in 1800, William Birch’s prints of Philadelphia formed the first series of views of any American city. As the first comprehensive picture of an American city, illustrating its buildings and street life, this work is of great historical importance. The superior quality of the work is evidenced in its scope of conception, the artistic excellence of the prints, and their fine execution. The prints provide a unique visual record of Philadelphia at a time when it was the most important and sophisticated city in the western hemisphere, and for a time was the capital of the newly formed United States. Each print shows a scene of the vibrant city, with the buildings providing a stately backdrop for the bustling activity that characterized Philadelphia, thus presenting both a physical picture of the city and a feel for its texture and vitality.
The project of producing this series was carried out entirely in Philadelphia, and while many other individuals had a role, including Birch’s son Thomas who provided many of the original drawings, the prints were mostly the product of the efforts of William Birch. Not only did he conceive and plan the project, but he also drew many of the scenes and did much of the engraving and publishing. The first edition, published in 1800, included 27 plates, and it was a great success. The subscription list numbered 156, including Thomas Jefferson.
The imprint text clearly states that it is a first edition being done in 1799 and the publisher is “R. Campbell.” The library building housed the Library Company of Philadelphia that was founded by Benjamin Franklin and a circle of friends in 1731. Dr. William Thornton was the architect besides being a physician. Lazzarini’s full length, marble statue of Franklin graces the niche above the door In the background and to the right is Surgeon’s Hall which was used in 1792 to 1807 as the medical school of the University of Pennsylvania. The cupola allowed light into the interior rooms. A fine statement on two Philadelphia institutions.