PETER PEREZ BURDETT FRSA
Maps and Memorabilia
Peter Burdett was an important but much neglected figure of the Midlands Enlightenment and, like his friends Joseph Wright and the architect Joseph Pickford, was on the periphery of the Lunar Society. He was unmatched as a surveyor, cartographer and topographical illustrator, and was the inventor of a process of aquatinting which he subsequently sold to Paul Sandby.
Son of William Burdett and Elizabeth, the daughter and heiress of Peter Perez, vicar of Eastwood, Essex.Peter appears to have had no connection with the Burdett baronets of Foremark in Derbyshire, although he was accepted into the grandest homes without question and had himself and his second wife painted by Wright standing amidst the tumbled ruins of Knowle Hill, a Burdett property on the edge of the Foremark estate.
It is not known where Burdett learned his skills but in the 1750s he was in Manchester, married and with a family, later teaching perspective at the new Warrington Academy. Exactly where he learnt these skills is far from clear. Suggestions that he was briefly commissioned into the arms might account for it, but the timescale of his early life is against it. Someone, perhaps in Manchester, must have taken him under his wing and taught him, presupposing a formidable talent, that some kind patron managed to spot.
His ability to move easily in the upper echelons of society paid off handsomely when in 1760 he was taken up by Washington Shirley, 5th Earl Ferrers FRS (one of Joseph Wright’s early patrons), with whom he lodged at Staunton Harold. He assisted Ferrers with various astronomical experiments, notably their observation of the Transit of Venus, which James Ferguson FRS published on their behalf in the Royal Society’s Journal Book for 10th December 1761. Ferrers, as Grand Master of the English Freemasons, also seems to have introduced Burdett to Masonry.
By 1765 he was also re-married, although we have no idea what happened to his first wife, mother of their three children. Burdett had by then moved into a house in Derby’s Full Street, extravagantly re-fronted for him in Gothick (at the unwitting expense of Wright, using the fee paid by Ferrers for A Philosopher Lecturing upon an Orrery) by the architect Joseph Pickford. Regrtettably, it was demolished in 1933.
An accomplished ’cellist, in Derby he played with Wright and their friends at meetings of the newly established Derby Society of Musicians. It was from here, too, that he surveyed his pioneering 1 inch to 1 mile map of Derbyshire for the Society of Arts, but a year after its publication in 1767, he was forced to flee Derby, pursued by creditors. Although he continued to owe Wright over 100 guineas, they remained friends for many years, and Burdett continued to offer Wright advice in his frequent letters.
Burdett settled in Liverpool, where he surveyed maps of Cheshire and Lancashire, developed a process of printing views onto ceramic bodies (which he failed to sell to Wedgwood) and prepared a series of magnificent topographical drawings of Liverpool, eight of which were handsomely engraved by Edward Rooker for William Enfield’s Essay Towards the History of Liverpool (1773, 1774). He was also first president of the Liverpool Society of Artists.
He travelled the Continent and may have been instrumental in arranging for Catherine the Great to buy ormolu work from Matthew Boulton and Black Basalt wares from Wedgwood. Even by the later 1760s, he seems to have become a Strict Observance Freemason, being visited in Derby by two leading luminaries: HH Prince Viktor Friederich von Anhalt-Bernberg and Louis IX of Hesse-Darmstadt (travelling with the trans-gender spy, the Chevalier d’Eon).
Indeed, it was another Princely follower of the cult, the Margrave (later Grand Duke) Karl Friederich of Baden who came to his rescue when creditors again closed in on him at Liverpool in 1774, appointing him Surveyor General of the Principality with the rank of Major. He married a third time, but died on 9th September 1793 leaving a daughter who later married Count Franz-Anton v. Nostitz in 1787, the year he drew up plans for rebuilding the Market Square in Karlsrühe.
An unfinished study, probably for an engraving never executed, was painted by him c. 1766, showing his house (just beyond the almshouses in Full Street. Before it was offered for sale at Mellors & Kirk in 2002, it was only known from a copy by George Bailey, published as a postcard by Richard Keene, junior, c. 1905. It sold for £400, a price which may well be a reasonable guide for sketches made by him for Rooker to engrave of Liverpool, should any turn up. The finished originals have never been seen and may have been sacrificed to the engraver or discarded by him.
In the 1980s, his surveyor’s waywiser, by his friend John Whitehurst, was offered for sale at around £2,500, which the museum missed, although Derby Museum does have his compass (also by Whitehurst) and his telescope, both technically priceless. Such personalia are unlikely to turn up at sales, but what does turn up at sales are his beautifully surveyed maps.
His first edition Derbyshire map is scarce, and came in a slipcase or on a mahogany library roll. I managed to buy one of the latter at a sale in Derby in 1994 for £120, although in 2007 Bonhams sold one in a slip-case (in much better condition) for £2,520 which is much neawrer the mark, although the 1791 second edition is likely to be less demanding on the pocket, being less scarce. Prior to the latter, though, there appeared a reduced (28 x 20in) and ‘improved’ version by John Andrews, printed for R. Wilkinson London and published 7 September 1786, although, as it shows the line of the Cromford Canal, finished 1792, the date printed might have been aspirational. One recently sold for £525 retail.
The inset map of Derby on Burdett’s map was re-engraved by Joseph Pickford’s former carver, George Moneypenny for Hutton’s History of Derby (1791) and as a framed ‘breaker’ is pretty inexpensive, being £30-40 at auction, less if not catalogued properly. His Map of Cheshire 1777 is almost as rare as Derbyshire and concomitantly expensive, as is his Map of Lancashire and Liverpool. All were inexpensively reproduced in the 20th century, though.
Finally the engravings for Enfield’s History of Liverpool are of wonderful quality, and can be got for tens rather than hundreds of pounds at auction, although the book itself went for £410 at a London auction recently and ten of the engravings for £250. The British Museum has a number of aquatints (a process he introduced into this country) and etchings by him; there may be others out there. If so, they will be worth finding!