Before photography offered a new way to record venerable buildings in historic cities — think of Eugene Atget’s photos of ancient Paris or Berenice Abbott’s 20th-century shots of vanishing old New York — painters and engravers had this occupation all to themselves.
William Russell Birch (1755–1843) had already made a name for himself as an enamel painter and engraver in England when he emigrated to Philadelphia, then the nation’s capital, in 1794. Here, he quickly established himself as the preeminent portraitist of the city’s notable architecture with his book of 27 engravings, The City of Philadelphia as it Appeared in the Year 1800 — also known as Birch’s Views of Philadelphia.
In 1808, he followed that with another popular book, The Country Seats of the United States.
Not all of Birch’s architectural subjects were especially longstanding when he drew them. At least one, Robert Morris’ mansion on Chestnut Street, arrived on the scene the same time Birch did. But only a small number of those buildings have survived, making Birch’s scenes of Philadelphia the best visual record of the city from the time.
Now, with an exhibit at the Library Company of Philadelphia, Birch is getting the same purposeful attention paid to him that he applied to his own artistic projects.
Comprehensive and charming, “William Birch, Ingenious Artist” looks not only at Birch’s familiar renderings of Philadelphia, but also at his first major series of engravings, Delices de la Grande Bretagne. That series depicts ancient houses in Norwich, England, and was published as a book in 1791.
Also here are his meticulously painted miniature enamel portraits, his watercolors and preparatory sketches for engravings, a porcelain platter and vases ornamented with views from Country Seats, a copy of his circa-1825 autobiography (one of several iterations), and his paintbox and brushes.
There is also a painting of Birch in 1824 by the American artist John Neagle, a silhouette Birch had made of himself at the long-gone Peale’s Philadelphia Museum, and much more.
Taking it all in, I learned — among other things — that Birch apparently made numerous enamel-on-copper portraits of George Washington based on Gilbert Stuart’s portrait that was key to the first president’s initial recognition by the American public.
I also learned that he was a shrewd businessman and socializer. Birch would not have been out of place in the hypercharged contemporary art world of the 1980s.
At the same time, Birch was capable of surprising tenderness, evidenced by his watercolors of Springland, his country place in Bucks County, and of nearby Andalusia. The past has never looked better.
Through Oct. 19 at the Library Company of Philadelphia, 1314 Locust St., 9 a.m.-4:45 p.m. Monday through Friday, 215-546-3181, librarycompany.org.
A Free Library treat
If you’ve yet to visit the Rare Book Department at the Free Library of Philadelphia, now’s the time — especially if you’ll have nature-minded kids in tow.
“In Our Nature: Flora and Fauna of the Americas” is one of those jaw-dropping exhibitions that Philadelphia’s great collecting institutions are able to cull mainly from their own holdings. When artworks usually protected in vaults and flat files are displayed for an exhibition such as this, visitors are in for a treat.
Among the standouts are Robert Lawson’s 1936 preparatory drawings for Munro Leaf’s treasured children’s book The Story of Ferdinand. Photographer Imogen Cunningham’s gelatin silver print “Magnolia Blossom” also caught my eye.
Another great work that’s not to be missed is John James Audubon’s terrifying print “Mocking Bird” from his series Birds of America. In it, a snake attacks a mockingbird nest, and the parents put up a heroic fight.
Through Sept. 15 at the Parkway Central Library’s Rare Book Department, 1901 Vine St., 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 215-814-3509, freelibrary.org/rarebooks.