The British Architect

From the private collection of Bill Reese sold at Christie’s, Swan’s, The British Architect: or the Builders Treasury of Stair-cases. Philadelphia, 1775: R. Bell for John Norman 1775. The first architecture book printed in America, a reprint of Abraham Swan’s influential design book.

“This copy with two prospectus leaves, for John Norman and John Folwell’s The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker’s Assistant, dated June 20th 1775; and for Abraham Swan’s A Collection of Designs in Architecture, dated June 26th 1775. Because of the war, the former work was never published. Norman, an Englishman, first arrived in Philadelphia in 1774, and in the same year he submitted a proposal to publish the present work, “a handsome reprint of Abraham Swan’s The British Architect” 

Abraham Swan’s “The British Architect: or the Builders Treasury of Stair-Cases”, first printed in London in 1745, was exceedingly influential with builders and consumers in the American colonies in the third quarter of the 18th century. It was so popular in Philadelphia that funds were raised to print an American edition. It was available in June 1775, published by Robert Bell, the city’s leading printer and bookseller. Perhaps less than a half dozen copies of the American edition survive, one is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This copy was presented to the Franklin Institute in 1841. They later sold this rare Philadelphia bit of history. Bill knew its importance and kept it for his private collection. Years – or decades ago now – I heard the story of the Franklin Institute selling this rare design book. Actually there were several stories floating around including that the book was put out in the trash though that is hard to believe. Bill Reese knew the real story, does anyone else? This time around the Philadelphia printing of “The British Architect” sold for $107,100.


Two plates in Swan depict console trusses from which the design of the trusses in the dining room at Mount Pleasant are derived. The same carvers who worked at Mount Pleasant (see previous post) produced console trusses for the parlor at Cliveden in Germantown the following year. The trusses at Cliveden are slightly more faithful to the drawing in that they include flowers and leaves at the bottom of the truss design. 

Plate 50, “The British Architect”

On the left, console bracket in the dining room at Mount Pleasant, right detail of plate 50, “The British Architect.” I’ve wondered whether the carpenters installed the brackets flipped from the carvers intended orientation.

4 thoughts on “The British Architect

  1. Thank you for posting this exciting event and for the trip down memory lane. Speaking of memory lane, recalling the good old days when you were doing your woodworking magic in Mount Pleasant’s drawing room. All the best from a Park House Guide at the PMA.

    • Jay, thank you for this. Sadly Mitchell did not leave “The British Architect” to the American Philosophical Society to which he had been elected, in which case It would still be available for examination here.

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