1885: Brewer & Wyllie – Bird’s Eye View of Liverpool, as seen from a baloon

What a dramatic scene! This is a bird’s eye view of Liverpool, the Mersey, and Wirral. We can see out to Liverpool Bay and the Irish Sea too. It’s similar to Ackermann’s Panoramic View of Liverpool (1847), but compared to that neat scene, this is a maelstrom of activity.

Perhaps the first thing that catches the eye is the busy river. There are ships with sails, ships with funnels, and ships with both! There are tiny Mersey ferries crossing the river and huge vessels heading out to the rest of the world. There are boats entering and leaving the dozens of docks, and that goes for the Birkenhead side too. In contrast to Ackermann, there aren’t forest of masts in the docks. Rather, the ships are more haphazardly – and, to my mind, more realistically – depicted.

Interestingly, the artist has chosen to vary how much you can see across the vista. Other bird’s-eye views simply show everything laid out before our eyes. But Brewer & Wylie’s engraving shades Wirral, to fade it into the distance, and depicts clouds, sunshine and showers across the city of Liverpool itself. In between the weather there are tiny pillars of smoke from individuals buildings.

Liverpool in focus

I wonder whether this weather positioning was deliberate. Was it an attempt to accurately depict the weather as seen from the balloon? Or was the eye of the beholder meant to be directed to the right places?

I think the latter is more likely. Some of the things we’d call the highlights of Liverpool’s landscape are clear of smoke and murk: St. George’s Hall is in full sunshine. Lime Street Station is the same, and heaven knows there was plenty of smoke there! The Municipal Buildings and the Pier Head are both also easy to see in detail.

The area south of the Customs House and Sailors’ Home, by contrast, is a morass of dark clouds, more evocative of Mordor than Victorian grandeur. We can see from the Ordnance Survey maps of the period that this area, which includes Seel Street and Wolstenholme Square, was indeed industrial. There are foundries, carriage works, mills as well as countless terraced houses.

Maybe the engravers didn’t care to depict it in detail, or perhaps this roiling cloud of dirt was a thing of impressive beauty to their intended audience. Liverpool: the sunny civic uplands and the hard-working, sweating, grimy workshops of power, working together to power the British Empire.