Anecdotes Of Early Printing
( Originally Published Late 1800's )
Having noticed lately in the public papers some auction sales of celebrated libraries, stating the extraordinary high prices certain old books produced, permit me, through the medium of your interesting magazine, to make a few observations and anecdotes on early and subsequent printing.
The sums given at these sales evince that the passion for obtaining early printed books is rather increased than abated. The Latin Bible, printed between 1450 and 1455, sold at Hibbert's sale in June last for three hundred guineas, whereas the rare Latin Bible printed from blocks, and the first edition, sold at Willett's sale in 1813 for only £257 5s. The keen desire of possessing these curious ancient relics creates an interesting competition, and we can hardly calculate what still more antiquated articles might obtain if offered to the public. I do not recollect any of Laurence John Coster's* wooden block and wooden type books being brought to market ; these I reckon would have been esteemed precious morsels for spirited col-lectors to have contended for. Laurence printed many books, and some embellished with cuts, both on vellum and paper, among others, " Horarium, Speculum Salutis, Speculum Belgicum," and two editions of "Donatus," which were all printed between 1430 and 1440 , in which year he died, and his son-in-law, Thomas Peter, succeeded him, and continued printing books with separate wooden types for several years.* About 1444 came into use the metal or fusile types, typi mobiles, which was a considerable advance in the art of printing; though the improvements since have not been so surprising as many imagine; for a few days since I very minutely examined a fine copy of the rare and splendid edition of Cęsar's Commentaries, printed by Nicholas Jenson at Venice, 1471; it is in Roman pica, or somewhat larger; the type is a fair round letter, and little inferior to the letter of our modern Bibles ; several of the Roman capitals are so finely executed that they would have been no discredit to a letter foundry of the present day.
The invention of printing appears to have been long known before it was practised in England, and it is to be traced many ages back. The Chinese performed printing at a very remote period, and the Romans were not ignorant of the art ; the Roman sigillum, with which they stamped their earthen vessels when the clay was soft, is not uncommon, and is a species of printing. These implements were sometimes made with letters hollow by incision, and also in relievo; that in the Duke of Richmond's collection is a brass instrument, with raised letters and border, having a ring-handle on the back to hold and impress the letters on paper or vellum ; the words it impresses are "Caius Julius Caecilius Hermias," a private person.
In Morel's " Thesaurus Numism." [vol. ii., p. 24] an account is given under the reign of Claudius of a medal of large brass, with many lines in Roman capitals, which the artist might have accommodated to the purposes of printing on vellum and paper with little difficulty if he pleased. The lines are,
S. P. Q. R.
Aquas Claudiam ex fontibus qui vocabantur, Caeruleus et Curtius a milliario xxxxv, et item anienem novam a milliario lxii, sua impensa in urbem perducendas curavit cos. v.
In Cicero's "De Naturā Deorurn," there is a passage that has a reference to printing, where he directs the types to be made of metal, and calls them formę literarum.
The discovery of copper-plate printing by the rolling press occurred about 1450, and the earliest that is dated is 1461 ; and the engravers since have been very numerous ; which are amply recorded by Strutt and Bryant : though very few of the engravings of the old masters now produce much in commerce, except those by Albert Durer, Mark Antonio, Pass, Rembrandt, Hollar, Marshall, Faithorne, White, and three or four more. Copper plates have served the purposes of exhibiting accurate representations of paintings, drawings, and autography; but the most popular and important use has been to illustrate biography with portraits, and this branch has been carried to a greater extent than any other part. Such an immense profusion have been engraved of these, that all of the British denomination were arranged into a complete system in the year 1793, by Bromley, regulated into periods, classes, divisions, and subdivisions, embracing all, from the prince to the humblest character in society, omitting none whose portrait could be found, either cut in wood or engraved in copper, from the earliest that could be traced, to the time of George III. ; but another work of the kind is now much wanted. I cannot discover any English portrait that is engraved in copper-plate till the year* 1559, when one of Queen Elizabeth appeared by Geminie, in folio, with ornaments ; it is a most wretched specimen of copper-plate engraving, and was undoubtedly intended for Queen Mary; but she dying in 1558, with a little alteration the artist made it pass for her sister Elizabeth. The rage for English portraits appears to have risen to its highest pitch in the year 1800, when a warm competition was manifested at the sale of Sir William Musgrave's collection, which lasted thirty-one days, and the sale produced £4,987 7s. ; and it seems the mania for old heads did not subside for several years ; for we find eight years after, at the auction of Sir James Winter Lake's collection in 18o8, that, although many of the inferior class of portraits had decreased in value, others had advanced, and sold higher than was ever witnessed before in England; the Duke of Norfolk sold for £32 I IS. ; James I., by Elstrack, £47 5s. ; Oliver Cromwell, by Faithorne, £34 13s.; and Sir Francis Englefield, by Faithorne, £73 10s. ; this last portrait perhaps fetched the largest sum that any single engraved portrait had ever produced before ; a wide alteration of times and prices since the year 1745, when Dr. Fothergill purchased John Nichols's (the Quaker) choice collection of two thousand portraits, including also his collection of rare tracts, for eighty guineas.
Had no other mode of printing but the copper-plate been devised to the present day, it is very evident we should not have been destitute of printed books; for many superior and beautiful works have been published in this and other countries, in which not a single word or letter of wood or metal types has been introduced; for instance, Sturt's Common Prayer and devotional books, Pine's Horace and Virgil, etc. ; for necessity and invention would soon have overcome its present slow process, as progressive improvements of despatch would have naturally and consequently followed.