Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Pickering, William (1796-1854)

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PICKERING, WILLIAM (1796–1854), publisher, born on 2 April 1796, was in 1810 apprenticed to John and Arthur Arch, quaker publishers and booksellers of Cornhill. In 1820 he set up for himself in a small shop at 31 Lincoln's Inn Fields, and made the acquaintance of Basil Montagu and of Thomas Rodd, who encouraged in him a natural aptitude for the study of literature. His original intention was to devote himself to the sale of rare manuscripts and old books. But publishing had greater attractions for him, and he made a first venture as a publisher by issuing between 1821 and 1831 reprints of classical authors in a series of miniature volumes in 48mo or 32mo. The series was known as the ‘Diamond Classics.’ The twenty-four volumes included the works of Shakespeare (9 vols.), Horace, Virgil, Terence, Catullus, Cicero (‘De Officiis’), Dante, Tasso, Petrarch, Walton (‘Lives’ and ‘Compleat Angler’), and Milton's ‘Paradise Lost.’ Pickering also added in a beautiful Greek text—the first specimen of a diamond Greek type—the Greek Testament, and the works of Homer. The typographical delicacy of the volumes caused them to be highly prized. Those that appeared before 1829 were printed by Charles Whittingham the elder at the Chiswick Press. In 1829 Pickering began a long intimacy with the elder Whittingham's nephew Charles, who had in the previous year started business on his own account in Took's Court, Chancery Lane. Henceforth the younger Whittingham was the chief printer employed by Pickering; in 1838 he succeeded his uncle as proprietor of the Chiswick Press.

In 1824 Pickering had removed to larger premises at 57 Chancery Lane. In 1825 he first began to bind his books in boards, covered with cotton cloth dyed various colours, instead of with paper. In 1834 he issued an interesting catalogue of manuscripts and of rare and curious books on sale at his shop. The entries numbered 4326. Meanwhile his growing publishing business was solely devoted to the highest branches of literature, of which his personal knowledge and appreciation were alike extensive and sound. About 1830 he had adopted the familiar trademark of the famous Aldine press (an anchor entwined with a dolphin), and the legend ‘Aldi Discip. Anglvs.’ The taste he displayed in his publications proved him a worthy disciple of the great Italian master. Another device occasionally employed by him was the punning one of a pike and ring. Among the authors whose works were entrusted to him were Coleridge, Joseph Ritson, Alexander Dyce (editions of Greene, Peele, and Webster), J. M. Kemble, Henry Shaw (the historian of art), Charles Richardson (the author of the English dictionary), Sir Harris Nicolas, and Joseph Hunter. In 1844 he issued reprints of the various versions of the Book of Common Prayer between 1549 and 1662 (6 vols. folio). These volumes are among the finest known specimens of typography. Other liturgical works followed. Pickering also strengthened his reputation by his Aldine edition of the English poets in fifty-three volumes; all were carefully edited by competent scholars. Two series projected by him were entitled respectively ‘Christian Classics’ (12 vols.) and ‘Oxford Classics;’ the latter included the works of Hume and Smollett, Gibbon, Robertson, and Dr. Johnson. Basil Montagu's edition of Bacon, Bailey's ‘Festus,’ the ‘Bridgewater Treatises,’ and Walton's ‘Angler,’ illustrated by Inskipp and Stothard, were among the most ambitious of his later efforts, independent of his serial ventures, and are remarkable for the delicate type and the admirable arrangement of the text on the page.

Pickering removed in 1842 to 177 Piccadilly, where he set up a dolphin and anchor as his sign, and there he remained till his death. His last days were troubled by illness and by pecuniary embarrassments due to the failure of a friend for whom he had stood security. He died at Turnham Green on 27 April 1854, and was buried at Kensal Green. The sale of his stock, which fetched high prices, enabled his representatives to pay his creditors 20s. in the pound. James Toovey took over the business in Piccadilly. He married in 1819 Mary Ann Gubbins (1796–1849), by whom he had five daughters and one son.

The only son, Basil Montagu Pickering (1836–1878), a godson of Basil Montagu, was employed as a youth by James Toovey, and in 1858 began business as publisher and dealer in rare books at 196 Piccadilly. He sought to continue his father's traditions in both branches of his business, but his publishing ventures were few. His chief publications were: Mr. Swinburne's ‘Queen Mother’ and ‘Rosamund’ (1860), Locker's ‘London Lyrics’ (1862), John Hookham Frere's ‘Works’ (1872), Cardinal Newman's ‘Miscellaneous Writings’ (1875–7), and a facsimile reprint of Milton's ‘Paradise Lost’ (1st edit.), collated by himself. He died on 8 Feb. 1878, when the firm became extinct. A wife and two children—all his family—predeceased him in 1876.

[Gent. Mag. 1854, pt. ii. pp. 88, 272; Bookseller, 1878, p. 210; information most kindly furnished by Arthur Warren, esq.]

S. L.