At the beginning of the nineteenth century, publishers struggled to produce large editions of books with color illustrations. Existing technologies were expensive, complicated, and time consuming. The London print seller and publisher Rudolf Ackermann built a successful business issuing books with black-and-white aquatint illustrations (aquatint is a variant of etching). He then painted each aquatint by hand in a variety of colors, to arresting effect.
Two of Ackermann's most celebrated color plate books were his A History of The Oxford University (1814) and the companion volume A History of The University of Cambridge (1815), copies of which are preserved in the library.
The text of each work chronicles the development of its respective university up to 1814, with special emphasis on the founding and development of individual colleges, halls, and public buildings. Attention is also given to important historical figures and to the hierarchical arrangements of the colleges. However, the histories are more remarkable for their illustrations, which number nearly 200.
Ackermann employed well-regarded artists of the period to execute the illustrations of the two preeminent universities. Among the contributing artists: William Westall, who had served as an official artist on a Royal Navy expedition to Australia and was renowned for his landscapes, and Auguste Charles Pugin, who was known for his architectural renderings, particularly his depictions of Gothic architecture.