I never buy nineteenth century engravings. Don’t even like them much. Especially those dark, dreary, ponderous reproductions of high Victorian narrative/historical/romantic paintings. My tastes in wall art are more modern, more colourful, more abstract.
You see these things all the time in low-end auctions. No-one collects them. More often than not they are left unsold, unless they happen to be in a decent frame, in which case dealers will buy them cheaply in order to eject the print and re-use the frame for a more commercial picture.
So why on earth would I come home from my local saleroom staggering under the weight of an enormous and particularly unprepossessing example of that much-despised genre? Why would I have impulsively spent around thirty of my precious pounds on a picture that looks like this?
And then why would I proudly hang it on the wall as the focal point and centrepiece of my study, like this?
There’s a reason. You see lots of these prints, but it is unusual to see them hand-signed by the artist. In this particular case, cut-out panels in the mounting below the print revealed two pencil signatures. One was easily readable as that of the artist Daniel Maclise, who was one of the biggest names in mid-Victorian British art. I knew a little about him, because I had recently been reading Claire Tomalin’s wonderful book Charles Dickens, a Life (published by Viking, 2011). In it, Maclise appears as one of Dickens’s closest friends. If you want to know more about him, there’s a thorough Wikipedia entry here, and an interesting potted biography here. But Maclise is almost completely forgotten and/or ignored today. The other pencil signature I didn’t know, but it turned out to be that of Frederick Bromley, the engraver.
When I got the print home, I looked closely at the dark and crowded image to see if I could find out what’s going on in it. It is a mediaeval scene with thirty or more figures including several children plus a dog. There’s a lot of paper, tools and machinery. The three central figures are a young regally-dressed couple watching a middle-aged balding bloke working a big machine. Soldiers and the retinue look on, while groups of workers ply their trades in the corners.
It didn’t take more than a few minutes of searching Google images to identify the picture as Caxton Showing the First Specimen of His Printing to King Edward IV at the Almonry, Westminster. The young couple are the King and his wife Elizabeth Woodville, who are accompanied by their children, Elizabeth, Edward, and Richard. The host is William Caxton, who brought moveable type printing to England. The onlookers are the royal hangers-on, including a disgruntled-looking monk. Other figures are practising the trades of printing including typesetting, bookbinding and inking. Apprentices help to work the press. The dog is watchful. The tableau is an imagined reconstruction of an event which took place in the year 1477.
Who knew? Who cares? Who’s interested in a dark print of a forgotten painting by an ignored and derided artist painting in a style which went out of fashion more than a hundred years ago and has not come back into fashion? I wasn’t when I bought the picture. But I am now.
Let us travel back in time to 1851, the year of the Great Exhibition held in the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, London. Just down the road in Piccadilly, the Royal Academy of Arts is running its annual Summer Exhibition of paintings, as it has done every year since 1768. But because this is the year that the Great Exhibition is bringing hundreds of thousands of extra visitors to central London, it’s a special year and the RA extravaganza is even more popular than usual.
The London Times of Saturday May 3rd 1851 ran a review of the RA Summer Exhibition on Page 8. It’s a mixed bag. Sir Edwin Landseer has a group of 6 paintings, five of which are Scottish and/or sporting scenes, each of “far less originality and skill” than his narrative painting of Titania and Bottom from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Oh, by the way, one of the outdoor pictures so summarily dismissed by the reviewer is Monarch of the Glen, now one of the most iconic and celebrated of all Victorian pictures, recently bought for the nation after a £4 million fundraising campaign and now on display in the National Gallery of Scotland.
In a very frank and outspoken review, one particular group of artists is singled out for the biggest slagging-off of all:
“We cannot censure at present, as amply or strongly as we desire to do, that strange disorder of the mind or the eyes which continues to rage with unabated absurdity among a class of juvenile artists who style themselves ‘P.R.B’, which being interpreted means Prae-Raphael Brethren. Their faith seems to consist in an absolute contempt for perspective and the known laws of light and shade, an aversion to beauty in every shape, and . . . seeking out every excess of sharpness and deformity. Mr [John Everett] Millais, Mr [William Holman] Hunt, Mr [Charles Allston] Collins and Mr [Ford Madox] Brown . . . have undertaken to reform the arts on these principles. The Council of the Academy, acting in a spirit of tolerance and indulgence to young artists, have now allowed these extravagances to disgrace their walls for the last three years, and though we cannot prevent men who are capable of better things, from wasting their talents on ugliness and conceit, the public may fairly require that such offensive jests may not continue to be exposed as specimens of the waywardness of those artists who have relapsed into the infancy of their profession.”
So much for the Pre-Raphaelites. And did they, as a result of this criticism, fade into well-deserved obscurity? Not really.
Monarch of the Glen – mediocre. Pre-Raphaelites – contemptible rubbish. And how did Maclise and his Caxton painting rate in the opinion of the savage Times critic?
He judged it the best picture in the show, of course.
“To pass at once to the most striking works of the year, we must place in the first class Mr Maclise’s great picture of ‘Caxton’s Printing-office’ as equally remarkable for vigour of treatment, ingenuity of composition, and amazing industry of detail, which contribute to render it one of the most successful pictures of the master”.
Other visitors to the exhibition formed the same opinion. The Art Journal of 1858 declared that “it is impossible to eulogise too highly its faultlessly accurate manner”. The celebrated Shakespearean actor William Macready (another crony of Dickens) wrote in his journal “Maclise’s Caxton is the picture of the year”.
No doubt about it, the picture was a big hit. But do bear in mind that what we are looking at here is not the gloomy black-and-white print, but the huge, colourful, vibrant oil-on-canvas original painting, which looks like this:
After the RA Exhibition, the painting passed into the ownership of the writer John Forster, another intimate of Dickens who later wrote Dickens’s biography. And when Forster died, it was acquired by the novelist Edward Bulwer Lytton, whose books are almost as forgotten today as are the paintings of Daniel Maclise. It was hung in Lytton’s palatial house at Knebworth in Hertfordshire, and you can still see it there today should you wish to do so.
It’s an interesting sidelight to look at the web of connections between Lytton and the painting and the group of close friends who revolved around Dickens. In 1849 Lytton had published a novel called “The Caxtons” in which the fictional title characters were distant descendants of William Caxton. In 1850 he had hosted at Knebworth three performances of Ben Jonson’s Every Man in His Humour played by an amateur theatrical company led by Dickens and John Forster, who was to become the painting’s first owner. Maclise had been invited by Dickens to join the cast but had refused.
It’s hardly surprising that Lytton later came to own the painting. He also wrote about it, giving a detailed description of the monk “with his scowl that is fixed upon the Book-diffuser”, the “sombre, musing face of Richard Duke of Gloucester”, the “troubled gleam in the eyes of the artisan”, “King Edward, handsome . . . delighted in the surprise of a child with a new toy”, and “Caxton himself, calm, serene, untroubled, intent solely upon the manifestation of his discovery”.
In 1851, as today, a good review for something new would mean that lots of people would want to see it. This was do-able if you lived within reach of the Royal Academy in central London, or if you happened to be in the locality during the run of the exhibition. But after the exhibition closed and the painting passed into a private collection, how, in these days before photographic reproduction was widely available, was it possible to satisfy public demand to view the image? Answer: by the production of an engraving.
It wasn’t a simple, quick or cheap process. Making an engraving would occupy weeks or months of the engraver’s time, usually in close co-operation with the original artist. Then it had to be printed, advertised, sold and distributed. Often in order to raise the funds, a subscription scheme was used, where subscribers paid in advance for their copy of the print, in the hope that it would be completed and delivered sooner rather than later.
The engraving of Maclise’s Caxton painting was finally published in 1858, seven years after the original painting was exhibited. I don’t know the reasons for the delay, or how the publication was funded, or how it was advertised, or how and why Maclise chose Frederick Bromley as the engraver and Henry Graves as the publisher. I’m certain that more detailed research could discover the answers to these questions, but for the purposes of this blog piece I don’t have the time or energy to dig any deeper. I wish I had.
The print is 1038mm wide and 683mm high. Below the image it is lettered with the title of the painting, a dedication to the owner of the original John Forster Esq, and ‘Painted by D. Maclise R.A. // Engraved by Fredk Bromley’. There’s a publication date of 1858 and the publisher’s name Henry Graves & Co. You can’t see this inscription in my copy because it’s covered by the mounting card, but I know about it from the description of a copy which the British Museum acquired as recently as 2010. My copy also has the pencil signatures of both Maclise and Bromley – which the British Museum copy doesn’t have.
Frederick Bromley the engraver (active 1832-1870) was from the third generation of a large and respected family of engravers. Unfortunately, that’s pretty much all that I can find out about him. The British Museum print collection has 70 of his prints, including portraits after Joshua Reynolds, highland and sporting scenes and historical subjects.
Henry Graves the publisher (1806-1892) was the most successful and respectable print publisher and seller in Victorian London. His shop was at No 6 Pall Mall, and we know exactly what his shop looked like because it was painted in 1862 by the Scottish artist William Macduff. The scene shows a shoeshine boy and a street urchin looking at a print portrait of Lord Shaftesbury in Graves’s shop window. You can see the painting and an interesting blog about London printshops at: https://www.museumoflondon.org.uk/discover/windows-world-londons-print-shops.
An indication of the costs of producing prints is provided in the records of the Central Criminal Courts for 1837. Henry Graves appeared as a witness in the trial of one James Walton, who was accused of stealing from Graves’s shop nine copper and one steel plate engravings of portraits by Joshua Reynolds. The trial report doesn’t name the engraver, but it’s possible that one or more of the plates were by Bromley, who was one of about 16 engravers contributing to the luxury 3-volume set of Reynolds portraits later published by Graves. Walton was found guilty and sentenced to be transported for 15 years.
During the trial, Graves told the court that the ten plates “would cost upwards of one hundred guineas to replace”. So they cost about ten guineas each. Since there were 200 plates in the Reynolds publication, there’s an investment of more than £2,000 in merely producing the plates. Add on the printing, binding and distribution costs, and you can see that publishing prints was a very costly undertaking. All the more so where there was a living artist to whom royalties must be paid for use of the original image: Graves was the principal publisher of prints of Edwin Landseer’s paintings, and over the course of his career paid more than £50,000 to Landseer for copyrights.
It’s clear from this that the publication of the large, detailed and extremely complex print of Maclise’s Caxton picture must have been a big financial deal for all concerned. It was engraved on a steel plate, and is usually described as a mezzotint, although technically it’s classed as a “mixed method” print, in which Bromley combined two or more techniques from the range available to him, which included engraving, drypoint, mezzotint, etching, aquatint and stipple engraving:
“Engravers of large Victorian prints performed technical gymnastics, often combining engraving, etching, mezzotint and aquatint on the same plate. This term is most commonly applied to those mid-nineteenth century engravers.”
When ready, the print was published and sold. I don’t yet know how many copies were printed or what the selling price was, but one unattributed source says the print run was 475 copies, and another says the price was four guineas. If these figures are correct, then the sale of the whole edition would generate revenue of almost £2,000 (plus framing charges). This was big business in 1858.
In practice, prints were often reproduced on a range of different types of paper, with differential prices for proofs and other luxury versions. I assume that my copy, signed individually by the artist and engraver, is from a premium edition, printed early on before the printing plate began to deteriorate through repeated use and the quality of the image began to degrade. Naturally I have no idea who was its first owner, but I wonder what type of person would buy a picture like this? The subject of print-collecting in the Victorian age has been extensively researched, but I haven’t been able to find out much about the distribution of Maclise’s Caxton – except that there’s an intriguing reference to a copy being exhibited in the Ballarat Mechanics’ Institute in Victoria, Australia, as early as 1863.
These days there’s an extra buzz of publicity generated when a well-received novel is followed by the production of the film-of-the-book; and again a little later when the film is re-issued on DVD or made available on Netflix or Sky. It was the same in the mid-19th century when a painting was succeeded by its print version: the critics went to work again and reviewed the print in the press. The Art Journal of October 1860 is fulsome in its praise of the new print of Maclise’s picture:
“It was a worthy theme for the artist, it is to his honour that he selected it, and it was well to engrave it, so that many can possess a copy . . . It is a fine print from a fine picture, and ought to be popular . . .”.
And what happened between then and now? You might think, as I suggested early on in this piece, that as a forgotten picture by an outmoded artist, Maclise’s Caxton would slip into unfashionable obscurity like so many others of its genre, and never be heard of again. But that’s not quite true. The image has had a continuing life and, surprisingly, has popped up at intervals ever since. First I’ll give some examples of the picture’s refusal to lie down and die, and then I’ll try to come up with an explanation.
One of the big London events of the summer of 1877 was a huge exhibition, held in South Kensington, to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the first book printed by William Caxton at Westminster. To accompany the exhibition, it was necessary to show a picture of this first book coming off the press.
“Maclise’s celebrated painting of Caxton showing the first specimen of his printing to Edward IV had been painted twenty years earlier, and when it was engraved in 1858 it was in the possession of John Forster (d. 1876). In 1877 it was on loan from its new owner, Lord Lytton, to the South Kensington Museum. The central part of the engraving was reissued in April 1877, as a contribution to the festivities. Reproductions were available at reduced prices to readers of Young Folks and Young Folk’s Weekly Budget. As the original copies of the steel engraving had cost 4 guineas and upwards, the special offer price of a shilling plus vouchers from the magazines was a considerable bargain”.
Then, in 1909, the picture was re-printed facing page 64 of Volume 2 of the King’s Edition of Cassell’s History of England to illustrate the section on “The Invention of Printing”.
And so it continues. In 2009, it appeared as a full-page illustration in The English Cult of Literature: Devoted Readers, 1774-1880, by William R. McKelvy, published by the University of Virginia Press.
In 2010, the British Museum acquired its copy of the 1858 print among a large collection purchased from the collection of the Honourable Christopher Lennox-Boyd.
In 2013, David McKitterick, Fellow and Librarian of Trinity College, Cambridge, chose it for the cover illustration of his book Old Books, New Technologies, published by Cambridge University Press.
In 2018, right now, an image of the colour painting is used as an illustration for the Wikipedia entry about William Caxton.
So why has the image survived? My explanation is quite a simple one. What took place in the Almonry, Westminster in 1477 was an important historic event – the printing of the first book in England. Arguably, the act of making printed books widely available led eventually to the spread of literacy beyond the church and aristocracy, to the Reformation, to democracy, to Enlightenment, to modernity. It was a bigger deal than the internet and Google.
But in 1477 there was no-one in the room drawing the scene from life, no press photographers, no TV cameras, no phones for taking selfies, and so no visual record of the event. By the 19th century, the prevailing romantic sensibility – stimulated by novelists from Sir Walter Scott onwards – sought not merely a description in words but an actual visual image of a historical event. Thus was created a demand which was met by Victorian artists who researched their chosen subjects and went out of their way to paint authentic re-creations of the events.
In the Art Journal, the reviewer wrote of Maclise’s Caxton painting that:
“It is impossible to eulogise too highly its faultlessly accurate manner. The drawing and painting of the material are fastidiously careful; . . . the types, the press, the work and tools of the artists . . . are so exquisitely realised”
The inevitable consequence was that the event itself and the 400-years-later imagined image of the event became entangled and identified with each other, so that from the point of view of the consumer of historical narrative (the book reader or the gallery visitor), the picture was an authentic and actual depiction of the event. At the same time, the publisher and exhibitor had a handy image available to reprint or display alongside the text narrative: this is what happened when Caxton printed his first book in England, and here’s a picture of it as it happened.
There’s a certain irony to this explanation, because, as was pointed out as early as 1877, Maclise’s great work was full of technical inaccuracies. The official Guide to the Caxton exhibition observes that:
“No-one seems to have noticed that the scene being laid in 1474 [sic] the wood could not have been pine, the chase could not have been cast iron, the bottles could not have had ground glass stoppers, the compositors could not have used steel composing sticks, the first edition of the Chess-book being at press could not have had the woodcuts of 1482 . . .”
And so on. Then, if we look at the figures, they hardly look as if they come from the fifteenth century, do they? All of them, without exception, have had a bath and a hair-wash this morning; the clean-cut bookbinder has a neat Victorian moustache; Queen Elizabeth bears a striking resemblance to contemporary images of Queen Victoria.
So the image is a useful one as a proxy for a photo of the real event, satisfying and profitable for producers and consumers alike. But none of us, even from the moment that Maclise’s Caxton first went on display in 1858, can really have supposed that the painting was anything other than a pastiche.
But now, here we are in 2018 and we still don’t have a photo of Caxton printing his book, and neither will we ever have. So I daresay that Maclise’s detailed, studious, inaccurate and really rather ridiculous picture will continue to crop up now and again whenever there’s a need to illustrate this important historical event.
 The Times, 3rd May 1851
 Quoted in The English Cult of Literature: Devoted Readers, 1774-1880, by William R. McKelvy, University of Virginia Press, Charlottesville, 2006
 The Journal of William Charles Macready, 1832-1851, edited by J. C. Trewin, p. 296, SIU Press, Carbondale, 2009
 Quoted in the Art Journal, 1860, P. 255
 Central Criminal Court, Great Britain, Minutes of Evidence, Second Session 1837, by Henry Buckler, Page 219
 The Art Journal, October 1860, page 255
 Old Books, New Technologies by David McKitterick, Cambridge University Press, 2013, pages 170-71.
 The Art Journal, June 1851, page 154
 Quoted in W. R McKelvy, op. cit. page 266-267