|Bell's Milton volumes|
Bell’s Edition – The Poets of Great Britain Complete, from Chaucer to Churchill.
In September 2016 we published a post on what we’d discovered about this set of 109 miniature volumes (12.5cm by 8cm), and promised more of their story: their provenance and what the volumes tell us about their making.
As a result of subsequent exploration we prepared an exhibition, which can now be seen at the University of Tasmania Library in Newnham.
What follows are images and text from that exhibition, and further information kindly supplied by Professor Thomas Bonnell. It was his 2008 authoritative text, The Most Disreputable Trade: Publishing the Classics of English Poetry 1765-1810 (OUP), that informed the earlier post.
First, a little more on their acquisition. No early Account Book of the Launceston Mechanics’ Institute survives, but there is a summary of expenditures up to July 1844 published in the Launceston Examiner (Aug 7, 1844, p.2). It shows £10 being ‘forwarded to England for books and periodicals’ in the March of 1843 and of 1844. These, and some purchases from local sources, were to supplement the donations to the library by a number of the founding LMI members, including Breton, Aikenhead, Henty, Kenworthy, Oakden, Sherwin and Gleadow, as well as by benefactors such as their Patron Sir John Franklin and Lady Franklin. The Annual Report for 1844 shows that Bell’s Poets was among the purchases made in 1843.
Every tiny volume, apart from two, has its LMI bookplate. These are usually annotated with the LMI librarian’s catalogue numbers, of which there are up to four between 1845 and 1880 as the collection was progressively re-organised according to changing systems. However we noticed that these were pasted over an earlier bookplate, and in the two instance that were missed, the underlying plate was revealed.
Joseph William Wright, from a wealthy Ulster family whose crest appears on the bookplate, was a successful Dublin solicitor, born in 1754 in County Antrim. Later in his career he appears to have taken up a senior government position and moved to London. Although he died in Dublin (in 1825), we are presuming that this complete set of Bell’s Poets was sold in London by a bookseller to an agent buying books for the LMI. Whether there were owners before or after Wright up to 1843 is still a mystery.
The little volumes were very well produced, with paper, printing and bindings of which John Bell was justifiably proud.
From these we can learn that the volumes are octodecimo, that is, each printed sheet was folded into 18 before being stitched and bound into the volume, and that the London papermaker Hugh Bennett produced it.
The volumes were printed in Edinburgh by one of the finest printers in Britain: Gilbert Martin and Sons at the Apollo Press. Apart from remoteness from London and delays in transport caused by French privateers plying the Channel, the Apollo Press disastrously burnt down in July 1778, and many sheets printed for Bell were destroyed. Bell’s promise of publishing a volume a week fell well behind schedule, but such was his resilience and energy that 109 volumes appeared in approximately six years despite these many setbacks.
Each volume carried a fine engraving on its opening pages that illustrates a scene in the poetry to follow. These are highly stylised by modern standards, but some were arrestingly dramatic, or evoked the period of the poet, like this one for Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.
They were devised by leading artists of the period and engraved by the best craftsmen Bell could employ. These included Edwards, Mortimer, Grignion, Stothard and Heath. (A full list is given in Bonnell’s Most Disreputable Trade.)
This one, of Dryden, was representative of the way Bell attempted to associate his series with was most prestigious in the literary and artistic world.
The fine binding of these volumes, ornamented in gold leaf, is characteristic of the period. This set’s covering is known as ‘tree-calf’ because of its distinctive pattern. The gold design, a vase with four circles framing it, was individually hand stamped on the leather, as was the running number in the sequence of 109 volumes. On the volume illustrated here there is evidence of the numbers and the decoration not being stamped squarely. Perhaps the work of an apprentice?
On the red leather squares the lettering is more even; these were block stamped separately, then pasted onto the spine. Gold leaf lines between designs and around the cover were applied by patterned wheels. Gold leaf was even scored diagonally into the edges of the covers.
Purchasers paid extra for marbled endpapers (coloured sheets inside the covers). These attractive patterns are made by stirring patches of paint on a liquid ‘size’, then placing the endpaper sheets on it to pick up a pattern unique to that volume. The original owner, Joseph William Wright, pasted his bookplate on the opening endpaper, and the LMI pasted one over it.
The publication of the whole series was spread out over a period from April 1777 to May 1783, by which time Bell was already bringing out second editions to replace sold-out stock. He continued reprinting his very successful series until he sold the business in 1795.
Typically, sets of Bell’s Poets include a mixture of editions. The LMI library’s set includes first, second and later editions, the latest volume being dated 1788. At this stage Bell was still in control of maintaining the range and quality of his editions. Below are the title page and half-title for Dryden’s works, showing that it is the second edition of 1784 (with the LMI stamp obscuring other publication details), while the half-title remains as the original purchaser saw it.
This book also pays tribute to numbers of other British publishers who participated in an upsurge of national spirit in the re-evaluation of English poetry as rivalling the Classics of antiquity.
Professor Bonnell has also confirmed in private correspondence that this LMI set is bound by Bell’s own binder, and gave valuable information about the printing of Bell’s Poets from a friend, Professor David Vander Muelen of the University of Virginia.
Post contributed by Mike McCausland