Here & There In The Library – The Drawings of James Brierley

Here & there in the Library               New Series Vol 4. 2nd Quarter

As one enters the library a set of shelves house to the right of the door contains a number of boxes of drawings by James Brierley.  If you look in them you will find a more than ninety pen and ink drawings, each enhanced by monochrome watercolour washes in shades of grey.  The pictures depict prominent buildings and street scenes of Liverpool dated between 1825 and 1830.  Thus they are a valuable record of the appearance of the town at a time when it was in a period of rapid transformation.   The eighteenth century had seen Liverpool transformed from a small, costal market town with a shipping trade mainly directed to Europe and the near Continent, though from 1665 transatlantic voyages had taken place.  By the end of the century it was a flourishing port, the main one located on the west coast and eclipsing all its rivals.  By the third decade of the new century the transformation of the town centre into a district devoted to commerce had begun

It is this transformation that Brierley records with his vivid and detailed drawings.  Of the several hundred buildings he records only one survives today in the ruined shell of St Luke’s Church and it seems that his objective was to record the areas poised for demolition and rebuilding.  For example he drew a series of illustrations recording the buildings which lined the Old Dock, just at the time when the dock basin was being filled in, to provide a site for the Custom House and the old pubs, marine stores, warehouses and eating houses were being cleared away.  When in 2007 the remains of the Old Dock were excavated and being prepared for opening to the public the Athenaeum was able to loan them this unique depiction of the area and it provided the basis for their display.


Who was James Brierley?  His name is unknown outside the two collections of his drawings – the Central Library have many of his works – he is not known in any of the standard reference books and the Walker Art gallery have no knowledge of him.  Searches in the Directories and parish records show that there were two or three families of that name in Liverpool.  Previous research seems to have conflated two of them.  I believe that Brierley was  shown as  resident in Lydia Anne Street, Cropper Street and Roscoe Street between 1796 and 1821.  His occupation is given as book-keeper until 1825 when Baines Directory lists James Brierley, Drawing Master at 4 Marquis Street. James Brierley’s work has all the precision and regularity of a man who has spent his life keeping the immaculate ledgers of a commercial house.  His is a strictly ruler and pen rendition and he often finds difficulty in drawing in perspective or getting proportions right, especially when he includes figures.  My suggestion is that on retirement he decided to use a hobby and his professional skills in penmanship as a source of income.  He did this in two ways, producing his topographical studies which he sold on commission – the Athenaeum paid 2/6 for the larger drawings and half that for smaller ones?  I n addition, he taught drawing, probably  to young ladies for whom it was a social accomplishment.

Using the minute Books and Acquisitions register of the Athenaeum it is possible to trace the story of the way in which we acquired this valuable record. In my opinion the key figure may have been John Jones, the third librarian of the Institution.  Appointed in October 1822 he seems to have instituted a policy of collecting pictures of Liverpool, in 1827 buying scenes from the ‘British Traveller’  for £3 16s 9d .  The first Brierley drawings purchased in 1830 for £2 12s 6d (twenty one drawings at 2/6d each) were a group of views of some of the profusion of churches in the town.  We still have most of those except for the depictions of the churches of St Nicholas and t Peters.  The only drawing of a secular subject was a view of Van Dries Coffee House which stood on the North Shore, Vandries St records the name of its Dutch proprietors.  The Coffee House not only selling refreshments on this popular place of resort but also had a flourishing business providing bathing machines.  In the background is the seed-crushing mill of Earles and Carter which gave its name to Oil Street.



You will notice the stout gentleman with the big hat and furled umbrella entering the Coffee House.  This is a leitmotif in many of the drawings and I suspect is intended to show Brierley himself.

Evidently the Proprietors of the Athenaeum were pleased with this first consignment as it was followed by the purchase of a further 49 pictures in September 1830 at a cost of £4 15s 0d and 24 further in December of the same year.

Brierley in his street scenes shows shop fronts, sign boards, and names with clarity and precision and by correlating the drawings and the Directories of the period a very accurate picture of the streets of Liverpool at this precise moment can be built up.   For some time I have been intrigued by Brierley and his drawings and several years ago now was commissioned by the Committee to write and edit a book on this treasure of the Athenaeum as a source of funding.  Publication has been much delayed but now I am assured by the publishers that it is imminent.  I hope this short snippet will catch the imaginations and interest of Proprietors to follow-up Brierley’s Liverpool

David Brazendale