December 12

In his eighty-sixth year, John Boydell—engraver, publisher, and former Lord Mayor of London—died on December 12, 1804, having spent a good deal of his life in the service of the arts and leaving as a lasting memorial a magnificent edition of the works of William Shakespeare.

As a youth Boydell had learned surveying, but when he was twenty he had by chance seen an engraving of a castle by W.H. Toms, which so excited him that he walked to London, looked up the engraver and apprenticed himself in that exacting craft at an age long past the usual age for beginning indentures. After six years he had become a finer engraver than his master. He thereupon purchased his freedom and went into business for himself, soon opening, in addition, a small print-dealing business. At this time there was no market for English engravings, although the sales of prints produced on the Continent were extremely successful. Boydell set himself the task of popularizing English artists. In this endeavor he was so successful that by 1786 the export of English engravings was valued at £200,00 per year, as against £100 for imports.

In 1786 Boydell allied himself with a group of artists and printers which proposed a national edition of the work of William Shakespeare, to be illustrated by British artists and to be printed in a manner fitting to the subject. At this period English printing was in a poor state, so the problem of finding a suitable printer was serious. George Nicol, the King’s bookseller, was a member of the group. Since he was knowledgeable about printing, he was charged with securing the printer. In the meantime the commissioning of the painting went on apace, along with the selection of the engravers who were to reproduce them.

In the Advertisement of A Catalogue of the Pictures, published in 1790, Nicol wrote: ‘The Printing is at present under the direction of a Gentleman who had already contributed much to the improvement of his profession, and who will now have the opportunity of showing the World that we can print as well in England, it is hoped, as they do in Parma, Paris or Madrid.”

The printer selected was William Bulmer from Newcastle-upon-Tyne, then just twenty-nine years old. Nicol established him in London as W. Bulmer & Co., the Shakspare Printing Office. Allied with Bulmer to cut the type for the project was another young man,William Martin, whose brother had been employed by John Baskerville. Nicol set Martin to work cutting “sets of type after approved models in imitation of the sharp and fine letters used by the French and Italian printers.” The Martin letters do resemble such originals but they also retain a softness not present in the types of Bodoni or Didot, being somewhat closer in spirit to the letters of Baskerville.

Boydell must receive the initial credit for making it possible for Bulmer and Martin to combine their talents in a printing office which stands as one of the finest in the long history of English printing. The first volume of Shakespeare came from the press in 1791, and the final part emerged in 1804, representing a magnificent contribution to the art of typography in England. The bibliophile Dibdin wrote of the presswork, “there is scarcely one perceptible shade of variation, from the first page to the last, in the colour of the ink, the hue of the paper, and the clearness and sharpness of the types.”

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