Rudolph Ackermann will be a familiar name to all those acquainted with the history of the late-Georgian satirical print. This Leipzig born entrepreneur published the much revered Doctor Syntax series, a pioneering comic story told in verse and caricature and an early entry in what would become the hugely successful miseries genre (for more on the latter see Brian Maidment’s excellent Comedy, caricature and the social order, 1820-1850 (Manchester University Press, 2013)). Naval historians will know Ackermann for very different reasons. Rudolph trained as a coach maker in Basle, and from his Repository of Arts on first 96 and second 101 Strand, London, he designed and built some of the finest coaches in England: his most memorable commission the carriage used to carry the body of Admiral Nelson during his funeral procession.
As one might expect of an entrepreneur of his stature, Ackermann made his transactions through a bank. And not any bank. From 1811 Rudolph banked with Thomas Coutts, his near neighbour on the Strand, and to this day the various guises of Ackermann’s have continued this tradition.
On 25 April I visited Coutts to take a look at the Ackermann ledgers between 1811 and 1822 (my thanks to Tracey Earl from Coutts for hosting me and arranging the visit, and Francis Jeffcock from Arthur Ackermann Ltd for permission to examine the records). The ledgers are vast, attesting to a business of some stature, and as a result I could only glimpse at the stories they contained and have only just began to process them at any meaningful level. Nevertheless some narratives leap from the page, offering a way into the dense lines of data.
The first (referring to this table) is the tight margins Ackermann worked with, this despite the prodigious turnover of his business. In every full year Ackermann banked with Coutts up to 1821-1822, in excess of £26,000 came into his account. On eight occasions this figure exceeded £29,000, and in 1812-1813 thirty-seven thousand six-hundred and one pounds, five shillings and two pence came in. And yet this bumper year was one of two where Ackermann found his account in debit at the end of the financial year. Why was this? One explanation was that Ackermann’s was no business account as we might think of it, but an account for both personal and business affairs. Indeed the idea of a business account was all but non-existent in the early-nineteenth century: a man was his business, his personal fortunes irrevocably linked to the success (or otherwise) of his business (this exposure to the sin of debt was one reason female business ownership was frowned upon). Thus alongside payments out to ‘Him’, ergo Ackermann, the ledgers include numerous outgoing payments to family members and for personal causes. In 1812-1813 Ackermann paid out £514 to ‘German Sufferers’, charitable giving toward the relief of his fellow countrymen in distress as a consequence of Napoleon’s continental exploits. This same year huge sums were paid out to London’s foremost newspapers. As the size and volume of these payments are not repeated in other years, it is clear these were not typical payments for advertisements but perhaps rather for advertisements highlighting the suffering of Ackermann’s fellow Germans (this line of enquiry would reward further research).
The second narrative contained within the ledgers is Ackermann’s embeddedness in the world of metropolitan business. Quite apart from his payments to newspapers, the ledgers contain bills to taverns, to vessels of the postage system, to stationers (for example the Cheapside based Vallance & Sons) and to copper merchants (notably the influential Pontifex’s of Shoe Lane). The richness of these interconnections will need some work to establish, but I expect will return significant reward: the mysterious and posthumous inward payment from Robert Dundas on 18 January 1812, for example, portends to much.
The third is the relative infrequency of names associated with caricature. Granted by 1811 the trade in single-sheet satirical prints was at a point of transition and Ackermann himself had taken a notable step back from this arena, and yet his ledgers suggest that graphic satire formed a small part of his business and that his ‘caricature’ circle was relatively small. Ackermann’s penchant for exercising close editorial control over his satirical output has been noted and perhaps a small circle ensured the potentially provocative messages his caricatures communicated followed an editorial line (for example, few – if any – Ackermann published works belittled Scots, perhaps a nod towards his close working relationship with Thomas Coutts). In total the only names directly associated with satirical printing within the ledgers (at least that I could ascertain at first glance) are Thomas Rowlandson, Richard Reeve (a sometime print publisher), Thomas Palser, the architectural draughtsman Augustus Pugin and various Heath’s – one of whom could well be the satirical artist William Heath (1795–1840). I’d welcome input on this from anyone willing to scour the ledgers at length (for how to do so, skip to the end).
The fourth and final story I want to highlight is the relationship between Ackermann and William Combe as revealed by the data. In 1811 Combe was 69 years old, in 1822, a year before his death, he turned 80. Combe was a hack writer who lived, as did so many London scribblers, from one commission to the next. In 1812 money flowed from Ackermann to Combe for, presumably, his work on the first Doctor Syntax book: £23 23s in May 1812, and a further £94 before the year’s end. Thereafter the payments to Combe become piecemeal: £10 10s in March 1813, £20 and £10 in July and December 1814 respectively, seven payments of £20 in 1815, and a smattering through 1816-1818. In 1819 the payments become more regular, and by 12 April 1820 had reached a monthly fixed value of £33 6s 8d which continued (with a few alterations) until 18 March 1822. This is I expect Combe’s payment or salary for his work on the second and third Doctor Syntax books, a not inconsiderable sum and one commiserate with the significance and commercial potential of the work. Intriguingly neither a comparable pattern nor financial outlay is evident for Syntax’s illustrator, Thomas Rowlandson, indicating – unless an ‘off the books’ deal between Ackermann and Rowlandson had been struck – that the key partner in the work was Combe. Once more the role of graphic satire in the commercial landscape of early-nineteenth century London fades from view.
As hinted at above, photographs from the archive are available for anyone who wishes to use them
on Dropbox (please report to me any problems accessing the files) [link removed 18/07/13, see here for more details]. They are not perfect (readers will notice that halfway through I changed how I captured the pages in order to try and overcome early problems with focusing on a whole page with my phone camera) but I hope they prove usable. I’ve shared them under a CC-BY licence and ask readers to use and reuse them within the terms of this open licence. But above all look forward to hearing more about the narratives I’ve missed. Who thought ledgers could be so intriguing…
And if anyone is interested in joining forces to transcribe the ledgers for release under an open licence, get in touch.