Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Constable, Archibald

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CONSTABLE, ARCHIBALD (1774–1827), Scottish publisher, son of Thomas Constable, land steward to the Earl of Kellie, was born at Carnbee, Fifeshire, 24 Feb. 1774. He received his education at the parish school of Carnbee. The attractions of a stationer's shop at Pittenweem having incited his desire to enter that trade, he was in February 1778 apprenticed to Peter Hill of Edinburgh, the friend and correspondent of Burns, who after being assistant to Creech had opened a shop of his own in the Parliament Close. As Constable was frequently employed by Hill in collecting books at auctions and elsewhere, he had an early opportunity of acquiring a knowledge of this branch of the trade. After remaining six years with Hill, he, in January 1795, set up in business on his own account in a small shop on the north side of the High Street, having previously married Mary Willison, daughter of David Willison, printer. A few weeks after his marriage he went to London to obtain introductions to the principal publishers and inform himself of ‘the state of bookselling in the metropolis.’ He inscribed over his door ‘Scarce Old Books,’ and as in London and during an excursion to Fifeshire and Perth he had purchased a considerable number of valuable works, his shop soon ‘became a place of daily resort for the book collectors of Edinburgh.’ The acquaintance he thus formed was of great value in assisting him to establish himself as a publisher. His earliest publications were theological and political pamphlets, the expenses of which were paid by the authors. The first sum paid by him, amounting to 20l., was in 1798 to John Graham Dalyell for editing ‘Fragments of Scottish History,’ and his first purchase of a copyright was a volume of sermons by Dr. Erskine. In 1800 he commenced the ‘Farmer's Magazine,’ a quarterly publication, and the following year he made an important advance, by becoming proprietor of the ‘Scots Magazine.’

It is, however, with the publication of the ‘Edinburgh Review,’ the first number of which appeared in October 1802, that Constable came into prominence as one of the principal publishers of his time. To the success of that periodical his business sagacity and wide and liberal views contributed almost as much as did the smart and truculent method of writing adopted by its original projectors. Soon after its commencement he raised the average remuneration to twenty or twenty-five guineas a sheet, a rate up to this time without precedent. It was the union of bold liberality with an extraordinary sagacity in predicting the chances of success or failure in any given variety of publication that enabled Constable virtually to transform the business of publishing. ‘Abandoning,’ says Lord Cockburn, ‘the timid and grudging system, he stood out as general patron and payer of all promising publications, and confounded not merely his rivals in trade, but his very authors by his unheard-of prices’ (Memorials, p. 168). The same year in which the ‘Edinburgh Review’ was started saw the beginning of his connection with Scott, his name appearing in the title-page of the ‘Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border,’ to a share in the copyright of which he was admitted by Messrs. Longman & Rees. In 1804 he admitted as partner Alexander Gibson Hunter, upon which the firm assumed the title of Archibald Constable & Co. He had a share with Messrs. Longman & Co. in the publication of the ‘Lay of the Last Minstrel’ in 1805, and published for Scott the ‘Memoirs of Sir Henry Slingsby’ in 1806. Possibly with the view, as Lockhart suggests, ‘of outstripping the calculations of more established dealers,’ Constable, in 1807, offered Scott for ‘Marmion’ a thousand guineas in advance, a sum which Constable's biographer states ‘startled the literary world,’ and in 1808 he offered him 1,500l. for an edition of the ‘Life and Works of Jonathan Swift.’ In the latter year, however, serious differences arose between Scott and Constable, which Lockhart ascribes chiefly to the intemperate language of Constable's partner, Alexander Gibson Hunter, and to the suggestions of James Ballantyne [q.v.] , with whom, and his brother John, Scott now determined to set up a new publishing business under the name of John Ballantyne & Co.

In December of the same year Constable and his partner joined Charles Hunter and John Park in establishing a bookselling business in London under the name of Constable, Hunter, Park, & Hunter, which was continued till 1811. On the separation of Alexander Gibson Hunter from the Edinburgh firm in 1811, Robert Cathcart and Robert Cadell were admitted partners, and on the death of Cathcart in 1812 Cadell remained the sole partner with Constable. Early in 1812 the firm purchased the copyright and stock of the ‘Encyclopædia Britannica’ for between 13,000l. and 14,000l.; and as the issue of the fifth edition was already begun, Constable, to make good its deficiencies, resolved to prepare a supplement, consisting of extended ‘Dissertations’ on the more important subjects, Professor Dugald Stewart being paid for his 'Dissertations' what was then regarded as the enormous sum of 1,600l. In 1813 Scott, on account of the embarrassments of the firm of John Ballantyne & Co., was forced to open negotiations with Constable, who, Lockhart states, 'did a great deal more than prudence would have warranted in taking on himself the results of unhappy adventures, and by his sagacious advice enabled the partners to procure similar assistance at the hands of others.' In 1814 the opening chapters of 'Waverley' were shown to Constable, who at once detected the author, and arranged to publish it by dividing the profits with Scott. By the advice of John Ballantyne, Scott afterwards occasionally deserted Constable for other publishers, but this led to no open breach in their friendly relations. On the failure in 1820 of Hurst, Robinson, & Co., the London agents of Constable & Co., the latter firm became insolvent, as did also that of James Ballantyne & Co., printers. Sir Walter Scott being involved in the failure of the two latter firms to the amount of 120,000l. Possibly the business of Constable & Co. might again have recovered had not a breach occurred between the partners. On their separation Scott continued his connection with Cadell on the ground, according to Lockhart, that Constable 'had acted in such a manner by him, especially in urging him to borrow large sums of money for his support after all chance of recovery was over, that he had more than forfeited all claims on his confidence.' Scott's judgment was probably more severe than the facts warranted. In any case, he admitted in reference to Constable's house that 'never did there exist so intelligent and so liberal an establishment.' Previous to his bankruptcy Constable had been meditating a series of cheap original publications by authors of repute issued monthly, which in a glowing interview with Scott he affirmed 'must and shall sell not by thousands or tens of thousands, but by hundreds of thousands — aye by millions.' This scheme his bankruptcy prevented him carrying out on the gigantic scale on which it was originally planned, but a modification of the original project was at once commenced by him in 1827, under the title of 'Constable's Miscellany of Original and Selected Works in Literature, Art, and Science.' Already, however, the dropsical symptoms with which he had been threatened for some time developed with alarming rapidity, and the 'portly man became wasted and feeble ' (Archibald Constable and his Correspondents, iii. 447). 'Constable's spirit,' says Lockhart in his 'Life of Scott,' 'had been effectually broken by his downfall. To stoop from being primus absque secundo among the Edinburgh booksellers, to be the occupant of an obscure closet of a shop, without capital, without credit, all his mighty undertakings abandoned or gone into other hands, except, indeed, his "Miscellany," which he had no resources for pushing on in the fashion he once contemplated, this reverse was too much for that proud heart. He no longer opposed a determined mind to the ailments of the body, and sunk on the 21st of this month [July 1827], having, as I am told, looked, long ere he took to bed, at least ten years older than he was. He died in his fifty-fourth year; but into that space he had crowded vastly more than the usual average of zeal and energy, of hilarity and triumph, and perhaps of anxiety and misery.' His first wife having died in 1814, Constable in 1818 married Miss Charlotte Neale. He had several children by both wives. His portrait was painted by Sir Henry Raeburn. He edited in 1810 the 'Chronicle of Fife, being the diary of John Lamont of Newton from 1649 to 1672,' and was the author of a 'Memoir of George Heriot, Jeweller to King James, containing an Account of the Hospital founded by him at Edinburgh.'

[Archibald Constable and his Literary Correspondents, 3 vols. 1873; Lockhart's Life of Scott; Lord Cockburn's Memorials; ib. Life of Lord Jeffrey.]

T. F. H.