The Advantages of Whalebone

3D front cover of Philosophical Observations on the Senses of Vision and Hearing by John ElliottOn 9 July 1787, Mary Boydell, aged 40, was walking in Prince’s Street, Soho, London, with her fiancé George Nicol when she was shot at close range by John Elliot, a rejected suitor. ‘Providentially,’ said the British Mercury,  ‘though they were so close as to set fire to the lady’s cloack, yet by the balls glancing on her stays, she received only a slight contusion under the shoulder.’

Mary Boydell had been brought up by her uncle, John Boydell, the man who almost single-handedly created the British trade in ‘prints’ – engraved and printed versions of popular paintings. It is claimed that, having been trained for the trade of land surveyor in Harwarden in Wales, he was one day shown an engraving of Harwarden Castle, and was so struck by it that he set off for London to learn the craft. After two years as a journeyman, he married his sweetheart Elizabeth Jones back in Wales in 1748, and spent his honeymoon sketching in Snowdonia. But it was as a publisher of other people’s prints that he became famous.

In his early days, he sold his prints by going from one print-seller’s shop to another with his wares in a portfolio. However he had big ambitions, and in 1751 joined the Stationers’ Company and opened his own print-shop, on the corner of Queen Street and Cheapside. Perceiving that prints of foreign paintings were more in demand that the native product, he taught himself French with the aid of a dictionary, a French novel and attendance at services in the French chapel at St James’s, thus giving himself an advantage over his more insular competitors.

Boydell encouraged British engravers to work on French paintings, and brought several experienced French engravers over to London. He set up subscriptions for collections of prints, and George III and other members of the royal family frequently headed the list. His business flourished to the extent that he could afford to buy paintings direct from the most famous artists of the day – Reynolds, Wright of Derby, Zoffany – confident that he could earn back his expenditure by creating and selling prints. His showroom became a gathering place for high society and a stop on the tourist trail round London. He was also a very active member of the Stationers’ Company, and took part in City politics, becoming a common councillor for the ward of Cheap in 1758, and an alderman in 1782: from this time, he was known to all as ‘Alderman Boydell’.

Meanwhile, in January 1781, his wife died, and the childless widower handed the management of his home over to his niece Mary. (Her brother Josiah became John’s business partner in 1786.) Mary was a noted beauty, whose face ‘beamed with the benevolence which formed the distinguishing feature of her character’ according to the Gentleman’s Magazine four years after her death. She was sketched by the miniaturist Ozias Humphry, who was apparently in love with her: I was trying to find this image online, when I came across a blog from the Old Library at Trinity Hall in Cambridge, which by coincidence holds Mary’s own almanac for the year 1787.

Mary apparently rejected Humphry because of his increasingly bizarre and irascible behaviour, but her next suitor was even worse. John Elliot (or Elliott: one of his title pages has one ‘t’, another two) was an apothecary (originally in Cheapside) and physiologist. Contemporary science held that vibrations of the air were directly communicated to the optic and auditory nerves, while Elliot proposed, through experimentation upon himself, the existence of sensory receptors, each tuned to only a limited part of the spectrum of physical frequencies, an insight which led him to postulate the existence of what we now know to be ultraviolet and infrared radiation. We are also reissuing Elliot’s Account of the Nature and Medicinal Virtues of the Principal Mineral Waters of Great Britain and Ireland, And Those Most in Repute on the Continent, in its second, posthumous, edition of 1789.

Like Humphry, Elliot was showing signs of odd behaviour. Mary had turned her attention to the up-and-coming bookseller George Nicol, who had been doing business with her uncle, and they had become engaged. On the fatal 9 July, Elliot loaded a brace of pistols, one with shot and the other with a blank. His defending attorney claimed that he had intended to fire the blank at Mary and shoot himself with the other pistol, but it was undeniable that she had been shot – and Nicol had seized him before he could do anything with the other weapon.

At Elliot’s trial at the Old Bailey on 16 July, the jury determined that he was not guilty of attempted murder, but the judge sent him on remand to Newgate, to be tried in due course for assault. He died in the prison on 22 July – he had been refusing to eat, but it seems likely that he was a victim of gaol fever – or, as the Daily Universal Register suggested, ‘what is commonly stiled a broken heart’.

On the morning of 8 September, Mary married George Nicol.  The honeymoon was spent in Paris, and one assumes that business as much as pleasure dictated the venue – Boydell, her ‘honoured uncle and parent’ accompanied the happy couple. Nicol of Scottish origin, had prospered as a bookseller in London, originally in partnership with his uncle. He stole a march on his rivals in 1773 by buying the superb collection of Caxton works originally amassed by James West on behalf of the king: he became ‘royal bookseller’ in 1781.

Nicol acted as printer, publisher, advisor on libraries, cataloguer and auctioneer: he assembled the books and wrote the catalogue for the legendary Roxburghe sale in 1812. He was involved with John Boydell’s eventually unsuccessful Great Shakespeare Project, which began as the proposed publication of a set of prints but mushroomed into series of texts, edited by George Steevens and illustrated by engravings from paintings commissioned from the great artists of the day. While the edition was in progress, the paintings would be displayed in a new gallery in Pall Mall, thus providing plenty of advance publicity.

The exhibition opened in 1789, and was a great success. Partly on the strength of it, Boydell became Lord Mayor of London for 1790–1, and Mary acted as his Lady Mayoress. It must have been at about this time that Boydell, meeting Edward Pugh at the gallery, suggested that he take on the tour in Wales which resulted in Cambria Depicta, published, sadly, only after both men were dead.

But the Shakespeare edition, when it came out in 1792, was a financial disaster – Boydell had fallen out with some of the painters over their fees, and the engravings were seen to be crude and badly printed. The painters blamed Boydell for using young and inexperienced engravers for the sake of economy and speed, while some critics said that the paintings themselves lacked verve and originality. The blame was mostly imputed to Josiah rather than to his uncle, but many of the subscribers dropped out, and the family finances were further strained by the economic crisis of the years of the French Revolutionary Wars. The Continental Blockade prevented the export of prints to Europe, and the market for luxury goods at home shrank dramatically.

The family got Parliamentary permission to raise money by a sale of lottery tickets for the Shakespeare Gallery pictures, and this saved them from bankruptcy, but before the lottery could take place, John Boydell had died, on 12 December 1804. Mary died in 1820, and George survived her by another eight years, time mostly spent in litigation with the Roxburghe family about money owed from the sale… More on this, on William Bulmer (Newcastle man and friend of Thomas Bewick) and the ‘Shakspeare Press’, the fake Bodoni typeface, and the birth of the Roxburghe Club very soon!


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8 Responses to The Advantages of Whalebone

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