An Unrecorded Copy of Blake’s 1809 Chaucer Prospectus
In August 1830, shortly after his visit to Oxford in the company of his friend Isaac D’Israeli, the antiquarian and collector Francis Douce made his will, directing that his extensive collection of printed books, drawings, prints, illuminated manuscripts, coins and medals should be left to the Bodleian Library.1↤ 1 [Samuel Weller Singer], “Francis Douce, Esq. F. S. A.,” The Gentlemen’s Magazine 156 (1834): 216-17. After his death in 1834 the library received one of its most valuable bequests, which included several works by Blake: The Book of Thel (I), The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (B), A Descriptive Catalogue (H), and the print Chaucer’s Canterbury Pilgrims (impression 3D).2↤ 2 G. E. Bentley, Jr., Blake Books (Oxford, 1977) 128, 134 and 298, and Robert N. Essick, The Separate Plates of William Blake: A Catalogue (Princeton, 1983) 63. Only Thel and A Descriptive Catalogue are listed in the Catalogue of the Printed Books and Manuscripts Bequeathed by Francis Douce, esq., to the Bodleian Library (Oxford, 1840) 32. Douce kept a record of his purchases in a set of three notebooks entitled “Collecta,” which show that he acquired “Blake’s marr. of heaven & hell’ in April 1821 from “Dyer”3↤ 3 Bodleian Library, MS. Douce e. 67, fol. 40v. and “Blake’s print of Canterbury pilgrimage” in November 1824 from the publishers and printsellers “Hurst [and Robinson].”4↤ 4 MS. Douce e. 68, fol. 2v. The “Collecta” do not indicate when or from whom[e] he acquired Thel or A Descriptive Catalogue. Four months later, in March 1825, Douce returned to Hurst and Robinson’s shop, recording the acquisition of “Blake’s Canterbury Pilgr.”5↤ 5 MS. Douce e. 68, fol. 3v. Joan Stemmler suggests that this is “probably a double entry” for the print of the Canterbury Pilgrims,6↤ 6 “Undisturbed above once in a Lustre’: Francis Douce, George Cumberland and William Blake at the Bodleian Library and Ashmolean Museum,” Blake 26 (1992): 18n145. but more likely it refers to the hitherto unknown second copy of Blake’s 1809 Chaucer Prospectus in the Bodleian Library. Douce pasted the prospectus onto the fly-leaf inside the back cover of his copy of the first volume of The Canterbury Tales of Chaucer (edited by Thomas Tyrwhitt and published in 1798).7↤ 7 See the Catalogue of the Printed Books and Manuscripts Bequeathed by Francis Douce, 63, and G. E. Bentley, Jr., Blake Records Supplement (Oxford, 1988) 132. Like the sole copy (A) in the British Museum Print Room recorded by G. E. Bentley, Jr., the Bodleian copy is a broadsheet approximately 18.65 × 22.7 cm., printed on the recto with the verso blank.8↤ 8 William Blake’s Writings, ed. G. E. Bentley, Jr. (Oxford, 1978) ii, 823-24 and 1692.begin page 74 |
We also have evidence that Douce’s interest in illustrations of Chaucer extended beyond Blake’s print. Facing Blake’s prospectus in Douce’s Chaucer (i.e., pasted on the inside of the back cover) is the prospectus for a rival project: Robert Hartley Cromek’s print after Stothard’s “The Procession of Chaucer’s Pilgrims to Canterbury.” This prospectus is dated “London, Feb. 10th, 1807.” Douce praised Stothard’s painting in his book Illustrations of Shakspeare, and of Ancient Manners, claiming that the “attention to accuracy of costume which it displays has never been exceeded, and but very seldom so well directed.”9↤ 9 Francis Douce, Illustrations of Shakspeare, and of Ancient Manners: with Dissertations on the Clowns and Fools of Shakspeare; on the Collection of Popular Tales Entitled Gesta Romanorum; and on the English Morris Dance (London, 1808) ii, 285 fn. In a notebook listing books received, he also records in 1809 that “Cromeck” gave him a copy of “Carey’s description of Stodart’s picture of the pilgrimage to Canterbury,”10↤ 10 MS. Douce e. 69, fol. 9v. William [Paulet] Carey, Critical Description of the Procession of Chaucer’s Pilgrims to Canterbury, Painted by Thomas Stothard, Esq. R.A. (London, 1808) 11, reprints Douce’s commendatory remarks on Stothard’s painting. Cromek circulated Carey’s essay to promote the sale of the print. See Blake Books, 777 and G. E. Bentley, Jr., Blake Books Supplement (Oxford, 1995) 431-32. but Douce apparently never purchased the print. Should he have desired a copy, Douce certainly had the means, especially after his receipt in 1827 of an estimated £50,000 as residuary legatee of the estate of his friend Joseph Nollekens. He was clearly aware of Cromek and Blake’s projects, even placing their prospectuses facing one another in a volume of Chaucer. But perhaps he concluded, on the basis of his antiquarian expertise, that Blake’s print was the more historically accurate representation and (like Charles Lamb) “preferred it greatly to Stoddart’s.”11↤ 11 G. E. Bentley, Jr., Blake Records (Oxford, 1969) 538. There is a small engraving (approximately 5.1 × 17.6 cm.)12↤ 12 This engraving was published by “W. Pickering & R. & S. Prowett London 1822.” by W. H. Worthington after Stothard’s painting pasted onto the titlepage of the same copy of Chaucer, but it is obviously not the print “3 Feet 1 Inch long, and 10 1/2 Inches high” that Cromek undertook to deliver to his subscribers. Although no definitive catalogue of the prints bequeathed by Douce to the Bodleian has been compiled, there appears to be no copy of Cromek’s print after Stothard’s painting in the present collection. Most of Douce’s print collection (as well as some of the manuscripts and drawings he owned) was transferred to the Ashmolean Museum in 1863, and more prints and drawings were added from the Bodleian holdings in 1915.13↤ 13 See Arthur Cornwallis Madan and George Rodney Scott’s rough handlist A Catalogue of the Collection of Engravings, &c. in Portfolios bequeathed by Francis Douce in 1835, 2 vols. (1913-15, 1916). Douce’s copies of Thel, The Marriage, and A Descriptive Catalogue remain in the Bodleian collection. I would like to thank Ursula Mayr-Harting of the Ashmolean Museum for her kind assistance.