Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Boydell, John

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482366Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 06 — Boydell, John1886William Cosmo Monkhouse

BOYDELL, JOHN (1719–1804), engraver, print publisher, and lord mayor, was born at Dorrington in Shropshire on 19 Jan. 1719. His father, Josiah, was a land surveyor, and his mother's maiden name was Milnes. His grandfather was the Rev. J. Boydell, D.D., vicar of Ashbourne and rector of Mapleton in Derbyshire. Boydell was brought up to his father's profession, but when about one-and-twenty he appears to have abandoned it in favour of art. He walked up to London, became a student in the St. Martin's Lane academy, and apprenticed himself to W. H. Toms, the engraver. The year of his apprenticeship is stated by himself to have been 1741, but in another place he says that he bound himself apprentice when 'within a few months of twenty-one years of age.' It is said that he was moved to do this by his admiration of a print by Toms, after Badeslade, of Hawarden Castle, but we have his own statement engraved upon his first print that he 'never saw an engraved copper-plate before he came on trial.' This first print, which was begun immediately on being bound apprentice, is a copy of an engraving by Le Bas after Teniers. He soon began to publish on his own account small landscapes, which he produced in sets of six and sold for sixpence. One of these was known as his 'Bridgebook' because there was a bridge in each view. As there were few print-shops at that time in London, he induced the sellers of toys to expose them in their windows, and his most successful shop was at the sign of the Cricket-bat in Duke's Court, St. Martin's Lane. Twelve of these small landscape plates are included in the collection of his engravings which he published in 1790, and the earliest date to be found on any of them is 1744. In the next year he appears to have commenced the publication, at the price of one shilling each, of larger views about London, Oxford, and other places in England and Wales, drawn and engraved by himself. This practice he continued with success for about ten years, by which time he had amassed a small capital. This was the foundation of his fortune. In the copy of the Collection of 1790 in the British Museum, which was presented by him to Miss Banks (daughter of the sculptor), is preserved an autograph note, in which he calls it 'The only book that had the honour of making a Lord Mayor of London.' In the 'advertisement' or preface to the volume he speaks of his master Toms as one 'who had himself never risen to any degree of perfection,' and adds, 'indeed at that period there was no engraver of any eminence in this country.' Of his own engravings he speaks with proper humility, for beyond a certain neatness of execution they have little merit. 'The engraver has now collected them,' he wrote, 'more to show the improvement of art in this country, since the period of their publication, than from any idea of their own merits.'

Though not altogether relinquishing the burin till about 1767, he had long before this commenced his career as a printseller and a publisher of the works of other engravers. After serving six years with Toms, he purchased the remainder of his term of apprenticeship, and the success of his prints, especially of a volume of views in England and Wales, published in 1751, enabled him to set up in business on his own account. The first engraving of great importance produced under his encouragement was Woollett's plate after Wilson's 'Niobe,' published in 1761. This was also (with the exception of Hogarth's prints) the first important engraving by a British engraver after a British painter. J. T. Smith, in his account of Woollett appended to 'Nollekens and his Times,' recounts the history of this plate as told him by Boydell. 'When I got a little forward in the world,' said Boydell, 'I took a whole shop, for at my commencement I kept only half a one. In the course of one year I imported numerous impressions of Vernet's celebrated "Storm," so admirably engraved by Lerpinière; for which I was obliged to pay in hard cash, as the French took none of our prints in return. Upon Mr. Woollett's expressing himself highly delighted with this print of the "Storm," I was induced, knowing his ability as an engraver, to ask him if he thought he could produce a print of the same size, which I could send over, so that in future I could avoid payment in money, and prove to the French nation that an Englishman could produce a print of equal merit; upon which he immediately declared that he should much like to try.'

The result was the print of 'Niobe,' for which Boydell agreed to pay 100l., 'an unheard of price, being considerably more than I had given for any copperplate.' He had, however, to advance the engraver more than this before the plate was finished. Very few proofs were struck off, and 5s. only was charged for the prints; but the work brought Boydell 2,000l. It was followed by the 'Phaeton,' also engraved by Woollett, after Wilson, and published by Boydell in 1763. These prints had a large sale on the continent, with which an enormous trade in English engravings was soon established. Boydell's enterprise increased with his capital, and he continued to employ the latter in encouraging English talent. In the list of engravers employed by him are the names of Woollett, M'Ardell, Hall, Earlom, Sharpe, Heath, J. Smith, Val. Green, and other Englishmen, and a large proportion of the prints he published were, from the first, after Wilson, West, Reynolds, and other English painters. His foreign trade spread the fame of English engravers and English painters abroad for the first time. The receipts from some of the plates, especially the engravings by Woollett after West's 'Death of General Wolfe,' and 'Battle of La Hogue,' were enormous. In 1790 he stated the receipts from the former amounted to 15,000l. Both were copied by the best engravers in Paris and Vienna.

In 1790 he was elected lord mayor of London, having been elected alderman for the ward of Cheap in 1782, and served sheriff in 1785. During his career as a print publisher the course of the foreign trade in prints was turned from an import to an export one. It was stated by the Earl of Suffolk in the House of Lords that the revenue coming into this country from this branch of art at one time exceeded 200,000l. per annum. Having amassed a large fortune, Boydell in 1786 embarked upon the most important enterprise of his life, viz. the publication, by subscription, of a series of prints illustrative of Shakespeare, after pictures painted expressly for the work by English artists. For this purpose he gave commissions to all the most celebrated painters of this country for pictures, and built a gallery in Pall Mall for their exhibition. The execution of this project extended over several years. In 1789 the Shakespeare Gallery contained thirty-four pictures, in 1791 sixty-five, in 1802 one hundred and sixty-two, of which eighty-four were of large size. The total number of works executed was 170, three of which were pieces of sculpture, and the artists employed were thirty-three painters and two sculptors, Thomas Banks and the Hon. Mrs. Damer. It appears from the preface to the catalogue of 1789, and from other recorded statements of Boydell, that he wished to do for English painting what he had done for English engraving, to make it respected by foreigners, and there is independent evidence of the generous spirit in which he conducted the enterprise. Northcote, in a letter addressed to Mrs. Carey, 3 Oct. 1821, says: 'My picture of "The Death of Wat Tyler" was painted in the year 1786 for my friend and patron Alderman Boydell, who did more for the advancement of the arts in England than the whole mass of nobility put together. He paid me more nobly than any other person has done; and his memory I shall ever hold in reverence.'

Boydell's 'Shakespeare' was published in 1802, but the French revolution had stopped his foreign trade, and placed him in such serious financial difficulties that in 1804 he was obliged to apply to parliament for permission to dispose of his property by lottery. This property was very considerable. In the previous year Messrs. Boydell had published a catalogue of their stock in forty-eight volumes, which comprised no less than 4,432 plates, of which 2,293 were after English artists. In a letter read to the House of Commons Boydell wrote: 'I have laid out with my brethren, in promoting the commerce of the fine arts in this country, above 350,000l.' In his printed lottery scheme it is stated that it had been proved before both houses of parliament that the plates from which the prize prints were taken cost upwards of 300,000l., his pictures and drawings 46,266l., and the Shakespeare Gallery upwards of 30,000l. The lottery consisted of 22,000 tickets, all of which were sold. The sum received enabled Boydell to pay his debts, but he died at his house in Cheapside on 12 Dec. 1804, before the lottery was drawn.

This was done on 28 Jan. 1805, when the chief prize, which included the Shakespeare Gallery, pictures and estate, fell to Mr. Tassie, nephew of the celebrated imitator of cameos in glass, who sold the property by auction. The pictures and two bas-reliefs by the Hon. Mrs. Darner realised 6,181l. 18s. 6d. The gallery was purchased by the British Institution, and Banks's 'Apotheosis of Shakespeare' was reserved for a monument over the remains of Boydell. This piece of sculpture, however, after remaining for many years in its original position over the entrance to the gallery, has now been removed to Stratford-upon-Avon.

Although Boydell appears to have been responsible for an imposition on the public in regard to Woollett's print of 'The Death of General Wolfe,' the entire property of which fell into his hands after the engraver's death—the plate was repaired and unlettered proofs printed and sold—his career was one of well-won honour and success, until the French revolution marred his prosperity. His influence in encouraging native art in England was great, and salutary, assuming proportions of national importance. It is true that the Boydell 'Shakespeare,' taken as a whole, seems now to shed little lustre on the English school, but this was not Boydell's fault; he employed the best artists he could get—Reynolds, Stothard, Smirke, Romney, Fuseli, Opie, Barry, West, Wright of Derby, Angelica Kauffman, Westall, Hamilton, and others. It must also be remembered that this was the first great effort of the kind ever made by English artists, and its influence cannot easily be overestimated. Boydell deserves great credit for his patriotism, generosity to artists, and public spirit. To the corporation of London he presented the frescoes by Rigaud on the cupola of the common-council chamber, and many other paintings, including Reynolds's 'Lord Heathfield;' to the Stationers' Company, West's 'Alfred the Great' and Graham's 'Escape of Mary Queen of Scots.' It was his intention, before the reverse of his fortunes, to bequeath the Shakespeare gallery of paintings to the nation. In 1748 he married Elizabeth Lloyd, second daughter of Edward Lloyd of the Fords, near Oswestry, in Shropshire, by whom he had no issue. He was buried at St. Olave's, Coleman Street.

[Chalmers's Biog. Dict.; Redgrave's Dict. of Artists (1878); Bryan's Dict. (Graves, now in course of publication); Annual Reg. (1804); Gent. Mag. (1804); Hayley's Life of Romney; Nollekens and his Times; Pye's Patronage of British Art; A Collection of Views in England and Wales by J. B. (1790); Shakespeare's Dramatic Works revised by Steevens, with plates, 9 vols. (1802); A Description of several Pictures presented to the Corporation of London by J. B. (1794); Catalogues of Pictures in Shakespeare Gallery (1789-1802); Hansard's Parliamentary Debates, vol. i. 1803-4, p. 249.]

C. M.