Thomas Holme’s “Portraiture” of Philadelphia: A landmark in American urban planning

Thomas Holme, A Portraiture of the City of Philadelphia in the Province of PENNSYLVANIA in America by Thomas Holme Surveyor General. Sold By Andrew Sowle in Shoreditch London. [London, 1683, but Philadelphia, 1812.]
Engraving on wove paper, 11 ½”h x 17 5/8”w at neat line plus margins, uncolored. Minor soiling and a few mended edge tears. About very good.

Thomas Holme’s landmark 1683 Portraiture of the City of Philadelphia, here in an American printing from 1812. When originally issued this was “the first [printed map] to depict an English colonial North American town” and hence a map “of considerable importance” (Burden).

The future site of Philadelphia was surveyed and its plan laid out by Thomas Holme (1624-1695) whose background was as a military surveyor and engineer in the English army. He had been appointed in April 1682 by Pennsylvania proprietor William Penn and arrived in the colony in June of the same year. Taking advantage of the terrain, Holme laid out the city on a rectangular, 1280-acre site flanked east and west by the Delaware and Schuykill Rivers respectively. He provided a rectangular street grid with the main north-south and east-west avenues 100 feet wide and all others 50 feet wide, relieved by a large central square and four flanking squares. Holme not only laid down a design for the settled part of the city but also provided a framework for its future growth, to promote orderly development rather than the ramshackle layout of Old World cities such as London and New World cities such as Boston. And indeed, though Philadelphia did not develop exactly as envisioned by Holme and his patron, the plan was hugely influential and is very much in evidence today.

Though Holme is credited with the plan for the city, Penn’s contribution should not be underestimated. Penn had had previous experience with planning the settlements at Burlington and Perth-Amboy, New Jersey, and his instructions for Philadelphia were quite clear about his wish for “a regular street pattern and uniform spacing of buildings.” (Reps, 160) Further, he arrived in Philadelphia in October, 1682, while Holme’s work was still in progress, and Reps suggests that it was Penn who insisted on extending the plan all the way to the Schuykill River, to accommodate future growth.

Perhaps more interesting still is the question of influences: To what extent was the Holme-Penn plan original, or was it derivative of other models? Though reluctant to identify definitely any specific influence on Holme’s and Penn’s thinking, Reps points out that gridiron plans had previously been introduced in America as far afield as New Haven, Connecticut and the Spanish towns of the Southwest; and that Penn had spent time at Lincoln’s Inn in London, adjacent to the “regular residential square” of Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Above all, he observes that following London’s Great Fire of 1666, most of the reconstruction plans used a gridiron model, with much emphasis on “symmetrical distribution of open spaces” and that one—by Richard Newcourt, featured five squares arranged in a manner very similar to those of Philadelphia. (Reps, 163)

Publication history
Holme completed his work in 1683 and sent the plan back to England, where it was engraved and published in Penn’s promotional tract, A letter from William Penn, proprietary and governour of Pennsylvania in America, to the Committee of the Free Society of Traders of that province residing in London containing a general description of the said province, its soil, air, water, seasons, and produce. The plan illustrated a section penned by Holme titled “A short Advertisement Upon the Scituation and Extent of the City of Philadelphia and the ensuing plat-form thereof. By the Surveyor General.” It was the first of three maps by Holme that defined the early Pennsylvania colony for an English audience, the others being the wall map A Map of the improved part of Pennsilvania (1687), published by Robert Greene and John Thornton, and a single-sheet reduction of same by Philip Lea.

The first recorded state of the plan appeared with the joint imprint of engraver-publisher John Thornton and printer Andrew Sowle, a Quaker and personal friend of William Penn. Sowle is perhaps better known as master and subsequently father-in-law of William Bradford (I), whom Sowle established in business in Philadelphia, where he found fame as the first great printer in the middle English colonies, successively appointed Printer to King William and Queen Mary, then King William, Queen Anne and then King George I. Although Thornton was a well-known map and engraver, this map is not engraved to the usual standard of quality associated with his publications. The engraving is rather crude, and corrections to the plate remained partially visible rather than being fully burnished away. These features suggest that the plate was engraved in a hurry, presumably reflecting the urgency of Penn’s vision for the new city.

This is the third and final recorded state of the plan, with the sole imprint of Andrew Sowle, substituted in about 1683. It may be that the plate was originally intended to be sold separately, with Thornton distributing the map through his shop in the Minories, near the Tower of London, and, once the original rush of sales passed, Thornton withdrew and the plate reverted to the sole ownership of Andrew Sowle, and the imprint revised accordingly. In any event the plate was substantially refurbished at that time (Burden, op. cit., originally identified four states of the plate, but revised his conclusion to three states in a subsequent addenda note.)

The subsequent history of the plate is unclear, but somehow it made it to Philadelphia, where this example was printed in 1812 for use as an illustration in John Cole Lowber’s Ordinances of the Corporation of the City of Philadelphia (Philadelphia: Moses Thomas, 1812). It is indistinguishable from the 1683 printing, except that it is on wove paper rather than the laid paper used for the earlier impressions.

The preface to the Ordinances notes that “For the “Portraiture of the City,” in the Appendix, the editor is indebted to Dr. George Logan, of Stenton, who is in possession of the original plate, from which the impression was taken.” Logan (1753-1821) was a Quaker, the grandson of James Logan, William Penn’s Secretary in Philadelphia, the family very important figures in the public life of the colony. That the plate came into Logan’s hands is surprising, as long- established trade practice was to melt down printing plates once their useful working life was over. The most plausible explanation is that the plate passed down through the generations of the Logan family, but it may have been preserved in London and then acquired by Logan, who studied medicine at Edinburgh University in 1779. The plate now resides in the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, with the Logan family papers, deposited there by his widow.

Early London printings of Holme’s Portraiture are extremely rare and priced accordingly. The 1812 printing offered here is an opportunity to obtain one of the most important early American city plans at a fraction of the price.

Burden, Mapping of North America, II, 557 and especially the addenda for the states. Reps, The Making of Urban America, pp. 160-167 (illus. p. 162) Snyder, City Of Independence, 1B (fig.1) & p. 17.