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It is an unromantic fact, but one which cannot fail to be of interest at the present time, that the remarkable development of the graver’s art in England during the latter part of the eighteenth century was due, in a measure at least, to Protection. In the middle of the century our trade in engravings was still an import one, English print-sellers being obliged to pay hard cash for the prints they bought in France, since the French took none in exchange. But with the accession of George III. a better prospect dawned for the artist and engraver. The young King, unlike his immediate predecessors, desired to patronise native talent; no budding Hogarth should draw unflattering comparisons between himself and the King of Prussia as an “Encourager of the Arts.” And in spite of the gibes of Peter Pindar, in spite of the royal preference for Ramsay over Reynolds, it is probable that George III. was sincere in his desire to stimulate the growth of British art. In 1769 the long-talked-of Royal Academy was founded; while, for the benefit of the rising school of English engravers, bounties were granted on the exportation of English prints, and heavy duties imposed on the importation of French prints. Politics and patriotism were not without their influence upon the trade, many a good courtier being willing to help the cause by the purchase of an inexpensive print, though he was not yet prepared to patronise a British painter. Immense sums were cleared by John Boydell over Woollett’s engravings after West and Copley; illustrated books, more especially of travel, were eagerly bought up; illustrated magazines flooded the market; print-shops multiplied, their windows “glazed with libels” in the shape of coloured caricatures; and foreign artists, engravers, and miniaturists flocked to the English Eldorado. In 1790 it was stated in a trade pamphlet that the prints exported from England at that time, as compared with those imported from France, were in the proportion of five hundred to one!


The French Revolution, and the wars that followed, temporarily ruined our foreign trade in prints, the great fortune that Boydell had made by his judicious speculation in the talents of his countrymen, melting away under these adverse influences, and leaving him a ruined man by 1802. But as Boydell’s star sank, that of another art-publisher, presumably less dependent on foreign trade, rose above the horizon. Rudolf Ackermann (1764-1834), the son of a Saxon coachbuilder, came to London about 1775, and after ten years spent in making designs for coachbuilders, set up for himself in the Strand as an art-publisher and dealer in fancy goods. Ackermann proved himself a man of really remarkable energy and initiative, with a mind always open to the reception of new ideas, and a spirit of commercial enterprise that was based upon artistic taste and sound judgment. He was also one of the few men who have ever successfully combined business and philanthropy on a large scale. During the years that followed the Reign of Terror, he was the chief employer of the French emigres in London, finding occupation for no fewer than fifty nobles, priests, and ladies, in the manufacture of screens, card-racks, and other articles for his “fancy department.” Irrespective of his business as an art-publisher, this extraordinary man patented an invention for rendering cloth and paper waterproof, made experiments in air-balloons for the dissemination of news in war-time, designed Nelson’s funeral-car, introduced lithography for the purposes of art-illustration into this country, raised and distributed a large sum for the relief of sufferers after the battle of Leipsic, undertook the same good offices for the Prussian soldiers after Waterloo, and was a generous employer to the Spanish exiles who took refuge in England in 1815. His Wednesday evening conversazione at the Repository of Arts, 101 Strand, became quite a feature in the literary and artistic world after 1813, while he played the part of protector and adviser to the more unpractical of the authors and illustrators who were employed upon his various undertakings.

Turning to Ackermann’s numerous and valuable art-publications, we find that very early in his business career he was one of the chief employers of Rowlandson, the caricaturist, to whom he eventually became a kind of “foster-publisher,” just as Humphrey was the foster-publisher of Gillray.


Thomas Rowlandson (1756-1827) had received his artistic training partly in the Academy schools, and partly, thanks to French connections, in Parisian studios, where, in addition to a brilliant technique, he acquired a taste for gaming and all kinds of dissipation. A brief attempt to succeed as a portrait-painter was abandoned for caricature, as soon as he perceived the success that had been won in that field by his contemporaries Gillray and Bunbury, to say nothing of the easy triumphs of such minor workers in the grotesque as Collings and Woodward. The exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1784-87 of such admirable studies in social comedy as Vauxhall Gardens, The Serpentine, French Barracks, An Italian Family, and Grog on Board, speedily established his reputation, and his future seemed secure. But his temperament made havoc of his career. He threw away, not only his earnings, but more than one substantial legacy, over the dice, remaining at the tables sometimes for a day and a night together. Though he had a horror of debt, and his I.O.U. was reckoned as good as sterling coin, his losses troubled him but little. “I have played the fool,” he was accustomed to say when he came home with empty pockets, “but,” holding up his famous reed-pen, “here is my resource.” And for many years his faith in his own powers was abundantly justified. But as time passed on, his amazing rapidity of production began to spoil his market; while his facile but not profound imagination showed signs of wearying. The print-shops were flooded with his hasty sketches, and though his admirers were numerous and his patrons liberal, the demand failed to keep pace with the supply.

At this juncture it became apparent to the keen eye of Rudolf Ackermann that some effort must be made to turn this fine talent into new channels, and to organise its output. He had noted the popularity of such connected series of comic designs as Woodward’s Eccentric Excursion and Bunbury’s Academy for Grown Horsemen, and it occurred to him that humorous works illustrated with coloured etchings by Rowlandson, and issued in monthly parts, or in volume form at a moderate price, would have more chance of success than a multitude of detached plates. The Loyal Volunteers, published in 1799, seems to have been the earliest result of the connection between artist and publisher, and this was followed by a series of popular productions, including the well-known Miseries of Human Life. But the most sensational success was made with The Tour of Dr. Syntax in Search of the Picturesque, which appeared in the Poetical Magazine in 1810 and in book-form in 1812. The idea of a series of designs representing the adventures and misadventure of a ridiculous old pedagogue during a tour among the Lakes, appears to have been suggested to Rowlandson by his friend John Bannister, the comedian, but the subject was versified by William Combe, then an inmate of the King’s Bench. Combe has described how every month “an etching or drawing was sent to me, and I composed a certain proportion of pages in verse, in which, of course, the subject of the design was included; the rest depended on what would be the subject of the second, and in this manner the artist continued designing, and I continued writing, till a volume containing nearly ten thousand words was produced.” A contemporary states that Combe used to pin up the sketch against the screen of his room, and reel off his verses as the printer wanted them; but, owing to his dilatory habits, only one etching was sent to him at a time.

The success of this not very promising system of collaboration astonished the authors and delighted the publisher. The fortune of the Poetical Magazine was made, new editions being called for so rapidly that the old plates were worn out and new ones had to be etched. Dr. Syntax hats, coats, and wigs became fashionable, while the old schoolmaster, his scolding wife and his ancient steed, were among the most popular of public characters. The many inferior imitations to which this success gave rise induced Ackermann to commission sequels from the same collaborators, and these appeared under the titles of Dr. Syntax in Search of Consolation (the hero having lost his wife), Dr. Syntax in Search of a Wife, and Johnny Quae Genus, between 1820 and 1823. The popularity of these works was doubtless mainly due to Rowlandson’s designs, in which British breadth of humour was combined with French lightness of touch; but Combe’s versified account of the adventures of the long-suffering Doctor, though it has lost much of its savour for the present age, seems to have been completely to the taste of his own generation.


William Combe (1741-1823) was a literary “bravo” of a type that was common enough in the eighteenth century. If he had not the truculence of John Churchill or the coarseness of Peter Pindar, he was little less unscrupulous in his use of the pen. The son of a Bristol merchant, he was educated at Eton and Oxford, and after making the grand tour he was called to the Bar. But “Duke” Combe, as his friends nicknamed him, was too fine a gentleman to work at his profession. He set up an expensive establishment, kept a retinue of servants and several horses, and, thanks to his good looks and attractive manners, obtained an entrance into the most “exclusive circles.” At the end of two or three years, having squandered a small fortune left him by his godfather, Combe disappeared from his fashionable haunts, and, if tradition may be believed, underwent strange vicissitudes of fate. He is said to have enlisted as a private, first in the English and afterwards in the French army, and to have figured as a teacher of elocution, a waiter in a restaurant, and a cook at Douai College, where he made such excellent soup that the monks tried to persuade him to join their order. In 1772 he returned to England, and was induced to marry the chère amie of an English nobleman by the promise of a handsome annuity. The annuity not being forthcoming, he wrote a versified satire called The Diaboliad (1776), dedicated to the Worst Man in His Majesty’s dominions, who has been variously identified as Lord Irnham and Lord Beauchamp. The satire having a succès de scandale, was followed by The Diablo-lady, and other lampoons in the same style. Combe now settled down to literary work of a kind and produced the spurious Letters of the late Lord Lyttelton (which deceived many of the elect), and the equally spurious Letters of Sterne to Eliza. He had made the acquaintance of Sterne during his travels in Italy, and used to boast that he had supplanted the sentimental divine in the good graces of Eliza. In 1789, Combe took service under Pitt as a political pamphleteer, with a pension of L200 a year. This salary ceased when Addington came into office in 1803, but he then obtained a post on the staff of the Times. Crabb Robinson, who met him in the Times office, said that he had known few men to be compared with Combe, and states that he was chiefly employed in consultation, important questions being brought to him to decide in Walter’s absence.

Combe’s connection with Ackermann began when he was about sixty years of age, and it is remarkable that his greatest successes should have been won when he was nearing seventy. That he was able to produce so much popular work at his advanced age, was probably partly due to the fact that, unlike most of his contemporaries, he was a confirmed water-drinker, and that his life within the Rules was free from anxiety and responsibility. The Rules were jokingly said to extend as far as the East Indies, and it is certain that they extended as far as Ackermann’s hospitable table in the Strand. Combe stoutly refused to allow his friends to make any arrangement with his creditors, and no formal contract regulated his dealings with his publisher. “Send me a twenty-pounder,” or “Send me a thirty-pounder,” he wrote when funds were low, and his employer knew his value too well to neglect his demands. Besides contributing numerous articles to Ackermann’s monthly, The Repository of Arts, Literature, Fashions, and Manufactures (1809-28), Combe wrote the descriptive letterpress for several of the large illustrated books published by the same firm, The History of the Thames, The History of Westminster Abbey, and the third volume of the splendid Microcosm of London, illustrated by Rowlandson and Augustus Pugin (1762-1832), the former being responsible for the figures, the latter for the architecture. The first and second volumes were written by W. H. Pyne, author of Wine and Walnuts, who is perhaps better known by his pseudonym of “Ephraim Hardcastle.” Combe is seen to most advantage, however, in The English Dance of Death, which was published in 1815, with illustrations by Rowlandson, and followed the succeeding year by The Dance of Life.

“The Infamous Combe,” as Walpole unkindly dubbed him, was the author of over a hundred books; but as he only put his name to one, there is considerable doubt about the identity of his literary offspring. Though nominally confined in a debtors’ prison, Combe, on the death of his first wife in 1814, married a sister of Mrs. Cosway’s, but this union was no happier than the first, and the couple were soon separated. In his old age he appears to have amused himself with a platonic love-affair with a young girl, and in the composition of his autobiography. If this was a truthful record of his career, it must have been a more exciting document than all his other books put together; but, unfortunately, in a fit of resentment at the marriage of his adopted son, he burned the manuscript leaf by leaf.

Before quitting the subject of the triple alliance between Ackermann, Rowlandson, and Combe, a word is due to the method in which the delicately-tinted illustrations to their joint-productions were executed. According to Delaborde, the copperplate engravings printed in colour at the close of the eighteenth century, were usually printed from one plate, done in stipple, and the various tints were rubbed in by the printer, who used a sort of stump for this purpose instead of the ordinary dabbing-brush. This was a lengthy process, and not always satisfactory, since so much depended on the discretion of the printer. A more common method was to print broadly with three tints of printing ink, and afterwards to complete the colouring by hand with water-colours. Mr. Grego has described in some detail the manner in which the etchings of Rowlandson were produced by the conscientious Ackermann. The artist would saunter round to the Repository from his lodgings in the Adelphi, and call for reed-pens, drawing-paper, and saucers of vermilion and Indian ink, which last he proceeded to combine in his own inimitable fashion. “For the book-illustrations a finished drawing was first made, and then Rowlandson etched the outline firmly and sharply on the copperplate, an impression from the bitten-in outline was printed upon drawing-paper, and the artist put in his shadows, modelling of forms and sketchy distance in the most delicate handling possible. The shadows were then copied in acqua-tint on the outlined plate, sometimes by the designer, but in most cases by an engraver. Rowlandson next completed the colouring of his own Indian-ink shaded impression in delicate tints harmoniously selected. This tinted impression served as a copy for Ackermann’s famous staff of colourists, who, having worked under his supervision for many years, attained a degree of perfection and neatness never arrived at before, and almost beyond belief in the present day.” The result of this elaborate care may perhaps best be seen in The Microcosm of London, The Dance of Death, and the charming edition of The Vicar of Wakefield, published in 1817.