Boydell, John

, a liberal patron of the arts, and an honour to his country, was born at Stanton in Shropshire, Jan. 19, 1719. His grandfather was the rev. John Boydell, D. D. vicar of Ashbourne, and rector of Mapleton in Derbyshire,*


See some verses by this gentleman, published ay the Alderman in 1793, —Gent. Mag. 1808, vol. LXXVIII. p. 771.

whose son Josiah married Mary Milnes, eldest daughter of Samuel Milnes, esq. of Ash-house near Turnditch, Derbyshire, Jan. 22, 1718. Dr. Boydell was an excellent scholar, and for some time superintended the | education of his grandson, intending him for the church, but dying in 1731, the youth was brought up by hisfatlver, a land-surveyor, who very naturally intended him for his own profession, and as a taste for drawing generally discovers itself very early, he might probably foresee great advantages from his son’s possessing this talent. Fortunately, however, for young Boydell, and for the arts, a trifling accident gave a more decided direction to his mind, and led him to aim at higher efforts in the art than the mere mechanism of ground-plans and outlines. This was no other than the sight of a print by Toms, a very indifferent artist, of sir John Glynne’s seat and the old castle attached to it, in “Baddeley’s Views of different Country Seats.” An exact delineation of a building that he had so often contemplated, afforded him pleasure, and excited some reflections which gave a new turn to his ambition. Considering it as an engraving, and from the copper of which might be taken an almost indefinite number of impressions, he determined to quit the pen, and take up the graver, as an instrument which would enable him to disseminate whatever work he could produce, in so much wider a circle. This resolution was no sooner made, than it was put in execution; for, with that spirit and perseverance which he manifested in every succeeding scene of life, he, at twenty-one years of age, walked up to the metropolis, and bound himself apprentice for seven years to Mr. Toms, the engraver of the print which had so forcibly attracted his attention. These, and accidents equally trifling, sometimes attract men of strong minds into the path that leads direct to fame, and have been generally considered as proving that they were born with some peculiar genius for some peculiar study. Sir J. Reynolds had the first fondness for his art excited by the perusal of “Richardson’s Treatise on Painting” and Mr. Boydell was induced to learn the art of engraving, by a coarse print of a coarse artist, representing a mis-shapen gothic castle.

This step, however, gave his father no little uneasiness, and every argument and remonstrance of himself and his friends were employed to divert him from a pursuit which they considered as likely to be very unprofitable. But this producing no effect, his father took into business with him a younger son, Thomas, who succeeded him, and who died a few years before the subject of the present | article, at Trevallyn Hall, Denbighshire, where his father had lived before him, but did not live long enough to witness the success of his son John, in the pursuit he so much disapproved.

His conduct during his apprenticeship was eminently assiduous. Eager to attain all possible knowledge of an art on which his mind was bent, and of every thing that could be useful to him, and^impelled by an industry that seemed inherent in his nature, he, whenever he could, attended the academy in St. Martin’s-lane to perfect himself in drawing; his leisure hours in the evening were devoted to the study of perspective, and to the learning of French without the aid of a master. After very steadily pursuing his business for six years, and finding himself a better artist than his teacher, he bought from Mr. Toms the last year of his apprenticeship, and became his own master. In 1745 or 1746 he published six small landscapes, designed and engraved by himself. This publication, from his having in most of the views chosen a situation in which a bridge formed part of the scenery, was entitled “The Bridge book,” and sold for a shilling. Small as this sum was, he sometimes spoke with apparent pleasure of a silversmith in Duke’s-court, St. Martin’s lane, having sold so many, that when he settled his annual account, he thought it would be civil to take a silver pint mug in part of payment, and this mug he retained until his dying day. He afterwards designed and engraved many other views, generally of places in and about London, and published the greater part of them at the low price of one shilling each. But even at this early period he was so much alive to fame, that after having passed several months in copying an historical sketch of Coriolanus by Sebastian Concha, he so much disliked his own engraving, that he cut the plate to pieces. Besides these, he engraved many prints from Brocking, Berchem, Salvator ilosa, &c. The manner in which many of them are executed, is highly respectable; and, being done at a time when the artist had much other business to attend to, displays an industry rarely to be paralleled, and proves that had he devoted all his time to engraving, he wcmld have ranked high in the profession. His facility of execution, and unconquerable perseverance, having thus enabled him to complete one hundred and fifty-two prints, tie collected the whole in one port-folio, and published it | at fi,ve guineas. He modestly allowed that he himself had not at that time arrived at any eminence in the art of engraving, and that those prints are now chiefly valuable from a comparison of them with the improved state of the art within the last fifty years. In fact, there were at that time no eminent engravers in England, and Mr. Boydell saw the necessity of forcing the art by stimulating men of genius with suitable rewards. With the profits of the folio volume of prints above-mentioned, he‘ was enabled to pay very liberally the best artists of his time, and thus presented the world with English engravings from the works of the greatest masters. The encouragement that he experienced from the public was equal to the spirit and patriotism of his undertaking, and soon laid the foundation of an ample fortune. He used to observe, that he believed the book we have alluded to was the first that had ever made a lord mayor of London; and that when the smallness of the work was compared with what had followed, it would impress all young men with the truth of what he had often held out to them, “that industry, patience, and perseverance, if united to moderate talents, are certain to surmount all difficulties.” Mr. Boydell, though he never himself made any great progress as an engraver, was certainly the greatest encourager of the art that this country ever knew. The arts were at the time he began, at a very low ebb in this country. Wotton’s portraits of hounds ^nd horses, grooms and squires, with a distant view of the dog-kennel and stable; and Hudson’s portraits of gentlemen in great coats and jockey caps, were in high repute. Inferior prints from poor originals were almost the only works our English artists were thought capable of performing; and, mortifying as it must be to acknowledge it, yet it must be admitted, that (with the exception of the inimitable Hogarth, and two or three others) the generality of them were not qualified for much better things. The powers of the artists were, however, equal to the taste of a great majority of their customers; and the few people of the higher order who had a relish for better productions, indulged it in the purchase of Italian and Flemish pictures and French prints; for which, even at th?t time, the empire was drained of immense sums of money. To check this destructive fashion, Mr. Boydell sought for an English engraver who could equal, it not excel them; and jn Woollett he found one. The Temple | of Apollo, from Claude, and two premium pictures from the Smiths of Chichester, were amongst the first large works which this excellent artist engraved; but the Niobe and the Phaeton, from Wilson, established his fame. For the first of them the alderman agreed to give the engraver fifty guineas, and when it was completed paid him a hundred. The second, the artist agreed to engrave for fifty guineas, and the alderman paid him one hundred and twenty. The two prints were published by subscription, at five shillings each. Proof prints were not at that time considered as having any particular value; the few that were taken off to examine the progress of the plate were delivered to such subscribers as chose to have them, at the subscription price. Several of these have since that time been sold at public auctions, at ten and eleven guineas each. By these and similar publications he had the satisfaction to see in his own time the beneficial effects of his exertions. We have before observed, that previous to his establishing a continental correspondence for the exportation of prints, immense sums were annually sent out of the country for the purchase of those that were engraved abroad; but he changed the course of the current, and for many of the later years of his life, the balance of the print-trade with the continent was very much in favour of Great Britain.

On the 5th of August 1732, Mr. Boy dell was chosen alderman of London, for the ward of Cheap, in the room of alderman Crichton, deceased. In the year 1785 he served the office of sheriff; and in 1790, was chosen lord mayor of London, an office of which he discharged the duties and the honours with a diligence, uprightness, and liberality, that may be equalled, but will rarely be exceeded.

Having been so successful in promoting the art of engraving in this country, he resolved to direct his next efforts to the establishing an English school of historical painting; and justly conceiving that no subject could be more appropriate for such a national attempt than England’s inspired poet, and great painter of nature, Shakspeare, he projected, and just lived to see completed, a most splendid edition of the works of that author, illustrated by engravings from paintings of the first artists that the country could furnish, and of which the expence was prodigious. These paintings afterwards formed what was | termed “The Shakspeare gallery,” in Pall Mall; and we believe there are few individuals possessed of the least taste, or even curiosity, who have not inspected and been delighted by them.

It is always interesting to trace the origin of a great undertaking. The Shakspeare gallery arose from a conversation at the dining-table of Mr. Josiah Boydell (the alderman’s nephew and successor) in November 1786, in the presence of Mr. West, Mr. Romney, and Mr. P. Sandby, artists^ and Mr. Hayley, Mr. Hoole, Mr. Braithwaite, Mr. Nicol, and the alderman. The literary part of the company were joining with the professional gentlemen in complimenting the alderman on having lived to see the whole tide of the commerce in prints with the continent entirely changed from importing to exporting, and that effected in the space of one life, by the alderman’s great and munificent exertions. The only answer the alderman made to these compliments was, that he was not yet satisfied with what he had done; and that, old as he was, he should like to wipe away the stigma which all foreign critics threw on this nation, “that we had no genius for historical painting.” He said he was certain from his success in encouraging engraving, that Englishmen wanted nothing but proper encouragement and subjects to excel in historical painting, and this encouragement he himself would endeavour to find, if a proper subject was pointed out. Mr. Nieol (his majesty’s bookseller, and afterwards the alderman’s nephew by marriage) replied that there was one great national subject, concerning which there could be no difference of opinion, and mentioned Shakspeare 1 The proposition was received with acclamation by the alderman and the whole company; and on December 1 of the same year, the plan being considered, was laid before the public in a printed prospectus.

After having expended in his favourite plan of advancing the fine arts in England no less a sum than 350,000l. this worthy and venerable character was necessitated, by the stoppage of his foreign trade during a dozen years of war, to apply to parliament, in the beginning of 1804, for permission to dispose of the Shakspeare gallery, and his other collections of pictures and prints, by way of lottery. His letter to sir John William Anderson, bart. on the occasion of his introducing a petition for that purpose to the house of commons, is a document of too much curiosity and | interest to the feelings to be omitted. We have therefore thrown it into a note. *


To sir John William Anderson, bart. one of the representatives of the city of London. ”Dear Sir, Cheapsuh, Feb. 4, 1804. “The kindness with which you have Undertaken to represent my case, calls upon me to lay open to you, with the utmost candour, the circumstances attending it, which I will now endeavour to do as briefly as possible. ”It is above sixty years since I began to study the art of engraving, in the course of which time, besides employing that long period of life in my profession, with an industry and assiduity that would be improper in me to describe, I have laid out with my brethren in promoting the commerce of the 6ne arts in this country, above three hundred and fifty thousand pounds. “When I first began business, the whole commerce of prints in this country consisted in import ing foreign prints, principally from France, to supply the cabinets of the curious in this kingdom. Impressed with the idea that the genius of our own countrymen, if properly encouraged, was equal to that of foreigner*, I set about establishing a School of Engraving in England; witli what success the public are well acquainted. It is, perhaps, at present, sufficient to say that the whole course of that commerce is changed, very few prints being now imported into this country, while the foreign market is principally supplied with prints from England. ”In effecting this favourite plan, I have not only spent a long life, but have employed near forty years of the labour of my nephew, Josiah Boydell, who has been bred to the business, and whose assistance during that period has been greatly instrumental in promoting a School of Engraving in this country. By the blessing of Providence, these exertions have been very successful; not only in that respect, but in a commercial point of view; for the large sums I regularly received from the continent, previous to the French revolution, for impression* taken from the numerous plates engraved in England, encouraged me to attempt also an English School of Historical Painting. “1 had observed with indignation that the wamt of such a school had been long made a favourite topic of opprobrium against this country, among foreign writers on national taste. No subject, therefore, could be more appropriate for such a national attempt, than England’s inspired poet, ani great painter of nature, Shakspeare; and I flatter myself the most prejudiced foreigner must allow that the Shakspeare gallery will convince the world that Englishmen want nothing hut the fostering hand of encouragement, to bring forth their genius in this line of art. I might go further, and defy any of the Italian, Flemish, or French schools, to show in so short a space of time, such an exertion as the Sh:ikspeare Gallery and if they could have made such an exertion in so short a period, the pictures would have been marked with all that monotonous sameness which distinguishes those different schools. Whereas, in the Shakspeare Gallery, every artist, partaking of the freedom of his country, and endowed with that originality of thinking so peculiar to its natives, has chosen his own road to what he conceived to be excellence, unshackled by the slavish imitation and uniformity that pervade all the foreign schools. ”This Gallery I once flattered myself with being able to leave to that generous public who have for so long a period encouraged my undertakings; but, unfortunately for all those connected with the fine, arts, a Vandalick revolution has arisen, which, in convulsing all Europe, has entirely extinguished, except in this happy island, all those who had the taste or the power to promote the fine arts; while the Tyrant that at present governs France tells that believing and besotted nation, that, in the midst of all his robbery and rapine, he is a great patron and promoter of the fine arts; just as if those arts, that humanise and polish mankind, could be promoted by such means, and by such a^nao.

The act of parliament being passed to sanction this lottery, the worthy alderman had the gratification of living | to see every ticket sold. We are, at first sight, inclined to lament that he did not live to see the prizes drawn, and the whole terminated. But for him to have witnessed his gallery transferred to other hands, hesides a number of pictures, for the painting of which he had paid immense sums, scattered like the Sybili’s leaves, might possibly have given him many a heart-rending pang. It may be sufficient in this place to notice that the gallery of paintings, in one lot, and consequently the highest prize, became the property of Mr. Tassie, of Leicester-square, nephew to the late well-known imitator of ancient cameos and intaglios, and by him the pictures were afterwards sold by auction.

Mr. Bpydell’s death was occasioned at last by a too scrupulous attention to his official duties. Always early

"You will excuse, I am sure, my clear Sir, some warmth in an old man on this subject, when I inform you that this unhappy revolution has cut tip by the roots that revenue from the continent which, enabled me to undertake such considerable works in this country. At the same time, as I am laying my case fairly before you, it should not be disguised, that my natural enthusiasm for promoting the fine arts (perhaps buoyed up by success) made me improvident. For had I laid by but ten pounds out of every hundred pounds my -plates produced, I should not now have had occasion to trouble my friends, or appeal to the public; but, on the contrary, I flew with impatience to employ some new artist, with the whole gains of my former undertakings. I see too late my error; for I have thereby decreased my ready money, and increased my stock of copper-plates to such a size, that ait the print-sellers in Europe could not purchase it, especially at these times, so unfavourable to the arts.

"Having thus candidly owned my error, I have but one word to say in extenuation. My receipts from abroad had been so large, and continued so tegular, that I at all times found them fully adequate to support my undertakings at home. I could not calculate on the present crisis, which has totally annihilated them. I certainly calculated on some defalcation of these rec- i;j!s, by a French or Spanish war, or both but with France or Spain I carried on but little commerce. Flanders, Holland, and Germany, (and these countries no doubt supplied the rest of Europe) were the great marts; but, alas! they are now no more. The convulsion that has disjointed and ruined the whole continent I did not foresee I know no man that did. On that head, therefore, though it has nearly ruined me and mine, I can take but little blame to myself.

"In this state of things I throw myself with confidence upon that public who have always been but too partial to my poor endeavours, for the disposal of that, which, in happier days, I flattered myself to have presented to them.

"I know of no means by which that can be effected, just now, but by a Lottery; and if the legislature will have the goodness to grant a permission for that purpose, they, will at least have the assurance of the even tenour of a long life, that it will be fairly and honourably conducted. The objects of it are my pictures, galleries, drawings, &c. &c. which, unconnected with my copper-plates and trade, are much more than sufficient to pay, if properly disposed of, all I owe in the world.

I hope you, my dear Sir, and every honest man, at any age, will feel for my anxiety to discharge my debts; but at my advanced age, of eighty-five, I feel it becomes doubly desirable.I am, Dear Sir, with great regard,

Your obedient and obliged Servant, John Boydell." | in his attendance on public business, he arrived at the sessions-house in the Old Bailey, ^n Friday the 7th December, 1804, before any of the other magistrates, and before the fires were lighted. Standing near a grate while this was done, the damps were drawn out, and he took a cold: this produced an inflammation of the lungs, which terminated his life on the Tuesday following. He was interred with great civic pomp (the spontaneous result of private friendship and public respect), on the 19th of the same month, in the church of St. Clave, Jewry; leaving behind him for the instruction of mankind a striking example to what heights of fame and fortune men may attain by the united efforts of persevering industry, prudent enterprize, and honourable dealing.

The alderman had long before his death arrived at that period of life which demands additional repose; and certain it is, he could not have carried on his business in the manner it was carried on, without the active and unremitting exertions of his nephew and partner, Mr. Josiah Boydell; whose professional qualifications enabled him to appreciate the value and merits of the different works submitted to his inspection; and to point out the errors which ought to be corrected; and whose own productions, even at the very early period when he made a great number of drawings from the Orford collection, gave weight to his remonstrances.

It yet remains to be added to the character of alderman Boydell, that in his magisterial capacity, though inflexibly just, he was constitutionally merciful; and when masters came before him with complaints of their apprentices, or husbands with complaints of their wives, he always attempted, and very often successfully, to accommodate their differences; and, when he could with propriety, usually recommended the complaining party to amend his own conduct, as an example to those whom he accused. Wishing to disseminate a taste for the fine arts, he has within these few years presented to the corporation of the city of London, several valuable pictures, which now ornament the council chamber at Guildhall. Some of them commemorate the actions of our military distinguished characters, and others are calculated to impress upon the minds of the rising generation, the sentiments of industry, prudence, and virtue. Several of these well-imagined allegorical delineations by Rigaud, Smirke, Westall, &c. he | has had engraved, and in the dissemination of either prints or books which had a moral tendency he always appeared to take great pleasure .*


In 1779 he presented to the worshipful company of Stationers, West’s fine picture of “Alfred dividing the loaf;” and afterwards, Graham’s “Escape of Mary queen of Scots,” and a whole length portrait of himself all which are in the court-room of that company.

In 1748, he married Elizabeth Lloyd, second daughter of Edward Lloyd, ’esq. of the Fords near Oswestry in Shropshire, by whom he had no issue. 1


Various periodical publications, and from information obligingly communicated by the family. See also Nichols’s Life of Bowyer.