Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Dibdin, Thomas Frognall

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DIBDIN, THOMAS FROGNALL (1776–1847), bibliographer, son of Thomas Dibdin, elder brother of Charles Dibdin the song-writer [q. v.], was born in India in 1776. His mother's maiden name was Elizabeth Compton. His father, a captain in the navy, died in 1780 on his way to England; his mother soon afterwards at Middelburg in Zeeland. Brought up by his uncle, William Compton, the boy was educated first at Reading, at a small school kept by a Mr. John Man, then at a school at Stockwell, and afterwards at a school near Brentford, kept by Mr. Greenlaw. From this he went to St. John's College, Oxford, and passed his examination for his degree in 1797, though he did not take it till March 1801. He proceeded M.A. on 28 April 1825, and B.D. and D.D. on 9 July 1825. He at first chose the bar as his profession, and studied under Basil Montagu. He married early in life, and went to reside at Worcester, intending to establish himself as a provincial counsel. He, however, soon abandoned all thoughts of the law, and determined to take holy orders. He was ordained deacon in 1804, and priest in 1805 by Bishop North of Winchester, to a curacy at Kensington, where he spent all the earlier portion of his life.

While quite a young man he became an author; after some scattered essays in the ‘European Magazine,’ and in a periodical called ‘The Quiz,’ put forth by Sir R. K. Porter and his sisters, which came to an untimely end in 1798, he published a small volume of poems in 1797, and two tracts on legal subjects. He began his career as a bibliographer in 1802 by an ‘Introduction to the Knowledge of rare and valuable editions of the Greek and Latin Classics,’ which was published in a thin volume at Gloucester. It is chiefly founded on Edward Harwood's ‘View’ of the classics (1790); but it was the means of introducing him to Lord Spencer, who even then was known as the possessor of one of the most valuable private libraries in the country. Lord Spencer proved his patron through life, made him at one time his librarian, obtained church patronage for him, and made the Althorp library the wonderful collection it since became, very much under his direction. The ‘Introduction to the Classics’ was reprinted in 1804, 1808, and 1827, each time with great enlargements, but its intrinsic value is very small. In 1809 appeared the first edition of the ‘Bibliomania,’ which caught the taste of the time, and the second edition of which in 1811 had considerable influence in exciting the interest for rare books and early editions, which rose to such a height at the Roxburghe sale in 1812. Soon afterwards he undertook a new edition of Ames's and Herbert's ‘Typographical Antiquities.’ The first volume, which is confined to Caxton, appeared in 1810; the fourth, which goes down to Thomas Hacket, in 1819; the work was never finished.

At the Roxburghe sale the edition of Boccaccio printed by Valdarfer sold for the enormous sum of 2,260l., and to commemorate this Dibdin proposed that several of the leading bibliophiles should dine together on the day. Eighteen met at the St. Alban's Tavern, in St. Alban's Street (now Waterloo Place), on 17 June 1812, with Lord Spencer as president, and Dibdin as vice-president. This was the beginning of the existence of the Roxburghe Club. The number of members was ultimately increased to thirty-one, and each member was expected to produce a reprint of some rare volume of English literature. In spite of the worthless character of some of the early publications (of which it was said that when they were unique there was already one copy too many in existence), and of the ridicule thrown on the club by the publication of Haslewood's ‘Roxburghe Revels,’ this was the parent of the publishing societies established in this country, which have done so much for English history and antiquities, to say nothing of other branches of literature; and Dibdin must be credited with being the originator of the proposal.

Soon after this he undertook an elaborate catalogue of the chief rarities of Lord Spencer's library, and here his lamentable ignorance and unfitness for such a work are sadly conspicuous. He could not even read the characters of the Greek books he describes; and his descriptions are so full of errors that it may be doubted if a single one is really accurate. On the other hand, the descriptions were taken bonâ fide from the books themselves, and thus the errors are not such as those of many of his predecessors in bibliography, who copied the accounts of others, and wrote at second hand without having seen the books. The ‘Bibliotheca Spenceriana,’ which is a very fine specimen of the printing of the time, has had the effect of making Lord Spencer's library better known out of England than any other library, and certainly led many scholars to make a study of its rarities. In 1817 appeared the most amusing and the most successful (from a pecuniary point of view) of his works, the ‘Bibliographical Decameron,’ on which a great sum was spent for engravings and woodcuts. The reader will find a great deal of gossip about books and printers, about book collectors and sales by auction; but for accurate information of any kind he will seek in vain. In 1818 Dibdin spent some time in France and Germany, and in his ‘Bibliographical, Antiquarian, and Picturesque Tour,’ a very costly work from its engravings, which appeared in 1821, he gives an amusing account of his travels, with descriptions of the contents of several of the chief libraries of Europe. But the style is flippant, and at times childish, and the book abounds with follies and errors. It would have been (it has been said) ‘a capital volume, if there had been no letterpress.’ In 1824 appeared his ‘Library Companion,’ the only one of his works which was fully (and very severely) reviewed at the time of its publication. In 1836 he published his ‘Reminiscences of a Literary Life,’ which gives a full account of his previous publications, and the amount spent on them for engravings and woodcuts; and in 1838 his ‘Bibliographical, Antiquarian, and Picturesque Tour in the Northern Counties of England and Scotland,’ amusing, as all his books are, but full of verbiage and follies, and abounding with errors. Some time before this he had projected a ‘History of the University of Oxford’ on a large scale (three folio volumes), with especially elaborate illustrations; but this never was carried out, those who would have been inclined to patronise it knowing how unfit he was for such an undertaking. It must be confessed that Mr. Dyce's words afford only a too just character of Dibdin: ‘an ignorant pretender, without the learning of a schoolboy, who published a quantity of books swarming with errors of every description.’ He is said to have been of pleasant manners and good-tempered, and had a fund of anecdote. His preferments were the preachership of Archbishop Tenison's chapel in Swallow Street, the evening lectureship of Brompton Chapel, preacherships at Quebec and Fitzroy chapels, the vicarage of Exning, near Newmarket (1823), the rectory of St. Mary's, Bryanston Square (1824), and a royal chaplaincy (1831 till death). He was unsuccessful candidate for the librarianship of the Royal Institution in 1804, and for one of the secretaryships of the Society of Antiquaries in 1806. His two sons died before him; a daughter survived him. His own death took place on 18 Nov. 1847.

The following, it is believed, is a complete list of his publications, in chronological order; those enclosed in brackets were issued privately, from twenty-four to fifty copies only of each being printed: 1. Essays in the ‘European Magazine,’ and contributions to the ‘Quiz’ (Nos. 20, 33), 1797. 2. ‘Poems,’ 1797. 3. ‘Chart of an Analysis of Blackstone on the Rights of Persons,’ 1797. 4. ‘The Law of the Poor Rate,’ 1798. 5. ‘Introduction to the Knowledge of the Editions of the Greek and Latin Classics,’ 1802; 2nd edition, 1804; 3rd edition, 1808; 4th edition, 1827. 6. ‘History of Cheltenham,’ 1803. 7. Translation of ‘Fénelon's Treatise on the Education of Daughters,’ 1805. 8. ‘The Director,’ a periodical which extends to 2 vols. Of this he wrote, perhaps, two-thirds, the ‘Bibliographiana’ and ‘British Gallery,’ 1807. 9. Quarles's ‘Judgment and Mercy for Afflicted Souls,’ 1807, edited under the name of Reginald Wolfe. 10. [‘Account of the first printed Psalter at Mentz, and the Mentz Bible of 1450–5’ reprinted from Dr. Aikin's ‘Athenæum’ and the ‘Classical Journal’], 1807–11. 11. ‘More's Utopia,’ translated by R. Robinson, 1808, reprinted, Boston, 1878. 12. [‘Specimen Bibliothecæ Britannicæ’], 1808. 13. ‘Bibliomania,’ 1809; 2nd edition, 1811; 3rd edition, 1842, with a supplement giving a key to the characters in the dialogue; 4th edition, 1876. 14. [‘Specimen of an English De Bure’], 1810. 15. ‘The Typographical Antiquities of Great Britain,’ 1810, 1812, 1816, 1819. 16. ‘Rastell's Chronicle,’ 1811. 17. [‘The Lincolne Nosegay’], 1811. 18. [‘Book Rarities in Lord Spencer's Library,’ consisting chiefly of an account of the Dantes and Petrarchs at Spencer House], 1811. 19. [‘Bibliography, a Poem’], 1812. 20. ‘Bibliotheca Spenceriana,’ 1814–15. 21. ‘Bibliographical Decameron,’ 1817. 22. [Feylde's ‘Complaynt of a Lover's Life. Controversy between a Lover and a Jaye,’ for the Roxburghe Club], 1818. 23. ‘Sermons preached in Brompton, Quebec, and Fitzroy Chapels,’ 1820. 24. ‘Bibliographical, Antiquarian, and Picturesque Tour in France and Germany,’ 1821. A second edition, in a smaller form and with fewer, but some additional, illustrations, appeared in 1829. It was translated into French in 1825 by Licquet and Crapelet. 25. There appeared also at Paris in 1821, ‘Letter 9me relative à la Bibliothèque publique de Rouen,’ with notes by Licquet, and ‘Lettre 30me concernant l'Imprimerie et la Librairie de Paris,’ with notes by Crapelet. 26. [‘Roland for an Oliver,’ an answer to Crapelet's notes on the 30th letter of the ‘Tour’], 1821. 27. ‘Ædes Althorpianæ,’ 1822, with a supplement to the ‘Bibliotheca Spenceriana.’ 28. Contributions to a periodical called ‘The Museum,’ 1822–5. 29. ‘Catalogue of the Cassano Library,’ with a general index to the Spencer Catalogue, 1823. 30. [‘La Belle Marianne’], 1824. 31. ‘Library Companion,’ 1824; 2nd edition, 1825. 32. [A Reply to the Critiques on this in various reviews], 1824. 33. ‘Sermons preached in St. Mary's, Bryanston Square,’ 1825. 34. Payne's Translation of Three Books of the De Imitatione Christi, ascribed to T. à Kempis, with an introduction on the author, the editions, and the character of the work, 1828. 35. ‘A Sermon on the Visitation of Archdeacon Cambridge,’ 1831. 36. ‘A Pastor's Advice to his Flock in Time of Trouble,’ 1831. 37. ‘Sunday Library,’ 1831. 38. ‘Bibliophobia,’ 1832. 39. ‘Lent Lectures preached in St. Mary's, Bryanston Square,’ 1833. 40. Holbein's ‘Icones Biblicæ,’ with an introduction, 1834; 2nd edition (in Bohn's Illustrated Library), 1858. 41. ‘Reminiscences of a Literary Life,’ 1836. 42. ‘Bibliographical, Antiquarian, and Picturesque Tour in the Northern Counties of England and Scotland,’ 1838. 43. ‘Cranmer, a Novel,’ 1839; 2nd edition, 1843. This is utterly worthless, but it mentions the price given by Lord Spencer for the ‘Stuttgart Virgils,’ which is studiously concealed in the ‘Tour,’ where the account of the transaction is told at length. 44. Sermons, 1843. 45. Three letters to the Bishop of Llandaff, 1843. 46. ‘The Old Paths,’ 1844. Among his contemplated publications was a ‘History of Dover,’ of which one sheet was printed and some of the engravings finished, and he wrote a small portion of a ‘Bibliographical Tour in Belgium.’ He published also a few single sermons, and a preface to a guide to Reading: these may be seen in a volume in the British Museum marked C. 28 i., formerly belonging to Dr. Bliss. It contains also several prospectuses of his literary undertakings, and many autograph letters written to Dr. Bliss, which give a sad picture of the poverty and illness by which his latter days were harassed.

[Dibdin's Reminiscences of a Literary Life, Lond. 1836; Haslewood's Roxburghe Revels, privately printed, Edinb. 1837; Gent. Mag. vol. xxix. new ser. pp. 87–92, 338, January 1848; Lowndes's Bibl. Man. (Bohn), pp. 639–42; Jordan's Men I have Known, Lond. 1866, pp. 169–77.]

H. R. L.