Malton still magic 231 years on

A rare bound series of James Malton’s hand-coloured views of Dublin from 1791 features in the latest catalogue by de Burca Rare Books.

A Picturesque and Descriptive View of the City of Dublin by James Malton in black and white is a rare enough book. “We have had two or three black and white editions, but in the 41 years of bookselling this is the first time we have the privilege to offer the hand-coloured book for sale,” says Eamonn de Burca of the antiquarian bookshop.

Dating from 1791, all the plates in the book which he published himself are inscribed James Malton del. et fecit. His views are considered the most important engravings of Dublin, with most of the principal buildings represented that record the city as its zenith in the late 18th century.

Malton, an architectural draughtsman, arrived in Ireland with his father Thomas Malton, and for three years was employed as a draughtsman in the office of James Gandon, the architect who designed the Custom House, the Four Courts and the Kings Inns.

After frequent breaches of confidence and irregularities he was dismissed by Gandon. Malton retaliated by writing a letter to the Irish parliament criticising Gandon’s designs for Dublin’s public buildings. This was considered by some to be the result of long-standing professional jealousy as his father had also been the suggested author of a pamphlet criticising Gandon’s designs for the Royal Exchange competition.


After his dismissal he began to paint and his detailed watercolours were exhibited at the Royal Academy in the last decade of the 1700s. Twenty-five of his views were engraved and issued in single plates.

“The fact that they were issued individually means we really have no idea to the number of books produced, but they are very very rare. The only one I ever saw for sale was years ago at a Sotheby’s sale in Amsterdam where it fetched about £50,000,” says de Burca.

Martin Hardie in his authoritative work English Coloured Books writes that this “is one of the earliest and best of books with coloured aquatints... Malton as a topographical draughtsman had few equals, and the plates... have a distinction of their own in addition to their value as an architectural record”.

Malton engraved his own plates, and was one of the first artists to use the aquatint process. “Like the Cuala Press colour prints they would have been done by hand – by the Yeats sisters or even Jack himself – so Malton too would have used artists to hand-colour the plates,” says de Burca.

The bound version of 25 plates also features maps of Dublin, the arms of Dublin and a historical commentary for each plate.

The preface states that “the author, who, being experienced in the drawing of architecture and perspective, has delineated every object with the utmost accuracy”.

While there is no doubt as to his accuracy of architectural detail, his depictions of a genteel society, as noted in Malton’s View of Dublin, by Trevor White, suggests that he largely ignored the reality of life on the streets at the time, when rioting, kidnapping and begging was commonplace.

Elizabeth Birdthistle

Elizabeth Birdthistle

Elizabeth Birdthistle, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about property, fine arts, antiques and collectables