“The Puck of Commentators”

One of Douce’s most assiduous correspondents in the 1790s was the Shakespeare scholar George Steevens (1736-1800), of whom the DNB says that “his wit and the associated learning […] earned him the name of the Puck of Commentators”:

John Beckett after George Dance, Portrait of George Steevens, 1770-79, etching (The British Museum)

From his letters to Douce, it is clear that Steevens was a keen collector of prints and that their tastes and interests were rather similar. Douce and Steevens often exchanged not only information about works in their respective collections, but also prints, such as this ‘Exact copy of an ancient painting as large as the life, in Hungerfords Chapel at the East End of Salisbury Cathedral’:

Thomas Langley after J. Lyons, Copy of an ancient painting in Hungerfords Chapel, 1748, etching (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford)

Douce’s annotation on the margin explains that “The writing at bottom is Mr Steevens’s, to whom I am indebted for this print and the accompanying leaf of letter-press”, which has been pasted on the back of the mount:

Steevens sent the print as an example of “the manner of dressing and writing in England in the time of King Edward IV” -his own annotation shows that he was particularly interested in the cane “armed with spines” held by the young man in a leotard.

Douce, however, kept the print with his images of the Dance of Death. In 1833, he mentioned it as a depiction of “a portion of the Macaber Dance”, lost when the chapel was demolished in 1789-90. He added that “its destruction is extremely to be regretted, as, judging from that of the young gallant, the dresses of the time would be correctly exhibited” (The Dance of Death, London, 1833, pp. 52-53).

What else could be found in Steevens’s print collection? The catalogue of the sale, which took place in 1804 (Lugt 6819), shows a preference for portraits, 17thC and 18thC English prints, and Dutch and Flemish works. Lot 45 is described as “A Pair, from Breughel, Fat and Lean Kitchen”, framed and glazed. We know that Douce attended the sale because, in his Collecta, he wrote that he had “unaccountably missed” these two prints at the time. Nevertheless, he bought them “accidentally” a few months later when, acting on a tip from his friend Richard Twiss, he came across them again at a bookseller’s in Paddington Street:

Pieter van der Heyden after Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Rich Kitchen, 1563, engraving (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford)

Douce had more than one impression of the print, but the annotation at the bottom confirms that this is the one formerly belonging to Steevens: “G.e S. Dono dedit / Henricus Blake Aren.r / talium formarum / Spectator amantissimus / 1766”.

The question remaining is: who was Henry Blake? In a footnote to his edition of Shakespeare’s plays, Steevens referred to “a gentleman to whom I have yet more considerable obligations in regard to Shakespeare. His extensive knowledge of history and manners, has frequently supplied me with apt and necessary illustrations […] I indulge my own vanity in affixing to this note, the name of my friend Henry Blake, esq.” (p. 48).

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“To the friend of curious and interesting things”

Among Douce’s portraits of artists, there is a silhouette of the Swiss engraver, publisher, and art dealer Christian von Mechel (1737-1817):

Christian von Mechel, Amicis Sacr: Christ. a Mechel Civis Basileensis, 1791, etching and engraving (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford)

The print is annotated with Mechel’s dedication to Douce:

I beg dear Mr Douce, the friend of curious and interesting things, to allow the shadow of his new friend from Switzerland to follow him home in his absence. / London, 15 September 1792 / Chr. de Mechel

Between 1780 and 1795, Mechel published the four parts of his Oeuvre de Jean Holbein, ou, Recueil de gravures d’après ses plus beaux ouvrages, accompagnés d’explications historiques et critiques. The first volume, dedicated to George III, contains Mechel’s take on Holbein’s Dance of Death:

Christian von Mechel, Le Triomphe de la Mort, 1780, etching and engraving (©Pitts Theology Library, Emory University)

In 1833, Douce published his own study on the subject. He included Mechel’s work on his list of copies after Holbein’s prints (see no. XI, p. 132):

Douce’s Dance of Death

A copy of Mechel’s Oeuvre de Jean Holbein can be found among the books that Douce bequeathed to the Bodleian. But eight plates originally produced for Mechel and never published were kept by Douce with his prints of the Dance of Death:

Cancelled plates for Christian von Mechel’s ‘Le Triomphe de la Morte’, 1771 (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford)

They include a different title-page and the mount on which they are pasted has been annotated by Douce: ‘These and the 4 following were originally engraved for M. de Mechel’s work, but cancelled and never published’.

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Douce’s Persian manuscripts

Among Douce’s portraits of ‘Learned Foreigners’ there is a plate from the European Magazine depicting the traveller Mirza Abu Talib Khan Isfahani (1752-1806):

Ridley after Drummond, Aboo Taleb Khan, 1801, etching and stipple (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford)

Douce wrote under the portrait: “This gentleman paid me a visit in Gower Street”. Their meeting must have taken place sometime between 1800 and 1803 during Khan’s European tour. In 1810, The travels of Mirza Abu Taleb Khan, in Asia, Africa, and Europe, during the years 1799, 1800, 1801, 1802, and 1803 were translated by Charles Stewart and published in London (for Douce’s copy, see Bodleian Douce M 27-28).

What did Douce and his visitor talk about? In the catalogue of books and manuscripts bequeathed by Douce to the Bodleian there is an entry on a Persian album containing ‘three of the five celebrated poems of Nizami’ (no. 348, p. 60):

Prefixed to the volumes are an account of the story of Leila and Mejnoun, by Mr. Douce: “some particulars relating to this Ms. communicated by Abootalib Khan, a gentleman from Lucknow” […] and the note following: “This Ms. originally belonged (as Aboo Talib told me) to Shaw Allum, whose library fell into the hands of Youlan Kaudir Khan, and being afterwards distributed among his adherents, it passed to Sujah Dowlah, the father of Azof Dowlah, who has been deposed by Saudit Allee.

The manuscript is beautifully illustrated, as can be seen in this painting from Layla u Majnun:

Mughal, early 17th century, Majnun among the animals, Bodleian Library, Oxford, MS Douce 348, fol 42r.

According to Thomas F. Dibdin, Douce and his friends Sir Gore Ouseley (1770-1844) and Sir Charles Wilkins (1749-1836) ‘could expatiate with the happiest effect’ upon the ‘singularly interesting subject’ of Persian art. At the time, Wilkins was working on a dictionary of Sanskrit that he never completed; Ouseley’s Persian manuscripts, also in the Bodleian, include a seventeenth-century Mughal album containing calligraphy and paintings:

Muhammad Ikhlas i Abid, Shah Jehan and his court, watercolour and gilt on paper (Bodleian Library, Oxford)


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The limping messenger

Douce’s illustrations from almanacs date from about the last quarter of the eighteenth century to the early 1830s. As is often the case with the part of his collection that remains arranged by subject, the images are taken out of their original context and they do not follow a chronological order. These prints are not even classified by theme, since Douce was interested mainly in their technique. They seem to belong to different editions of the popular calendar Der Hinkende Bote (or Messager boiteux), published in the Swiss cantons. As can be seen in my previous post on this matter, a constant motif that makes their title-pages instantly recognizable is the figure of the limping pedlar offering his goods to a motley crowd:

Anonymous, The limping messenger, c. 1770-1800, wood-engraving (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford)

The contents of these almanacs were almost as diverse as their readers. Douce was interested in the means by which both tales and visual types are not only transmitted from generation to generation, but also circulated within society. In the pages of these publications, images of exotic peoples and lands coexist with depictions of historical events, practical jokes, freak accidents, popular festivals, public ceremonies, and other current affairs:

Jean L, Christening of the infant Henri d’Artois, c. 1821, wood-engraving (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford)

As the image above suggests, the adventures and misadventures of different European royal houses were given as much coverage as they have in today’s glossy magazines. But, in the turbulent aftermath of the French Revolution, to their births, marriages, christenings, and coronations coups and assassinations were often added:

Possibly E. W. Zimmer, Assassination of Gustav III of Sweden, c. 1792, woodcut (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford)

In this woodcut, courtiers in fancy dress dance and talk in a ballroom, while the conspirator Anckarström fires a gun at the king, dressed in Oriental costume. Violent deaths must have been a favourite topic among the readers of these almanacs, since plenty of well-publicized cases were depicted in their pages:

Jean L, The murder of M. Corboz and his maid, c. 1820, woodcut (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford)

The murder of Monsieur Corboz in Geneva, widely reported in the British press (see, for instance, The Examiner, 26 November 1820), was the subject of pamphlets that provided dramatic details of the case and of its trial, as can be seen in the Procès complet des assassins de M. Corboz et sa servante:

Procès complet

Another cause célèbre that fostered wild speculation and endless conspiracy theories was the mysterious murder of the magistrate Antoine Bernardin Fualdès in the French town of Rodez:

Anonymous, Murder of the magistrate Antoine Bernardin Fualdès, c. 1817, woodcut (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford)

What readers wanted from these illustrations were accurate depictions of the setting, a detailed sequence of events, and faithful portraits of the accused. Fulfilling these requirements often resulted in wooden renditions of the news, far removed from the heroic tone of the series of drawings that Théodore Géricault (1791-1824) produced about the same subject:

Théodore Géricault, L’enlèvement de Fualdès, 1817-18, Brown ink and graphite © musée du Louvre département des Arts graphiques, © Direction des Musées de France, 2005 © Réunion des musées nationaux.

Popular calendars in pre-industrial Europe

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German tales

The title-page of the Historische Kalender in the previous post is not the only representation of the story of William Tell in Douce’s collection. A series of plates entitled Wilhelm Tell. Nach Schillers Schauspiel and published by Philipp von Foltz (1805-1877) in 1825 can be found bound together with several German booklets of ‘ballads and romances’:

Carl Sandhas, Wilhelm Tell, 1825, lithograph (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford)

The prints were bound in 1933, when they were already in the Ashmolean. Most of them are dated in the late 1820s and early 1830s; Douce, who died in 1834, probably kept them in their original wrappers, in the hope he would eventually find the time to sort them out. Foltz’s treatment of Schiller’s work combines the legacy of French revolutionary imagery with a touch of ‘local colour’ in the depiction of Swiss traditional costumes and settings:

Philipp von Foltz, Erster Aufzug, vierte scene, 1825, lithograph (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford)

At the time of producing this series, Foltz was assisting Peter Cornelius with the frescoes of the Glyptothek in Munich. Another of Cornelius’s students at the Akademie der Bildenden Künste, Eugen Napoleon Neureuther (1806-1882), is the author of the lithographs that illustrate the rest of the albums bound in the same volume, like this collection of German popular songs or Schnoderhupfeln:

Eugen Neureuther, Schnoderhupfeln, 1829, lithograph (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford)

But Neureuther owes his reputation mainly to the illustrations that he produced for Goethe’s Balladen und Romanzen, published in five booklets between 1829 and 1839. In 1832, The Literary Gazette stated that Neureuther’s ‘curious’ publications ‘need only be seen to excite immediate imitation in this country’:

Eugen Neureuther, Randzeichnungen zu Goethes Balladen und Romanzen, 1829, lithograph printed in red (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford)

Douce acquired these albums, which include an edition of Goethe’s Faust ‘in Arabeskenform’, from Hering, the prestigious London-based booksellers and book-dealers of German descent:

The Hering family

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“The best engraver on wood in Europe”

Douce’s interest in German prints was not limited to early woodcuts and engravings; it also encompassed the work of contemporary printmakers. Next to what seems to be a proof for a title-page, Douce wrote ‘Unger of Berlin, The best engraver on wood in Europe’:

Johann Friedrich Unger, Title-page, c. 1779-1804, wood-engraving (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford).

Douce owned many examples of Unger’s main publications, as well as works by his fellow-countryman Friedrich Wilhelm Gubitz (1786-1870):

Friedrich Wilhelm Gubitz, Heiligendamm beÿ Dobberan, 1800-30, wood-engraving (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford).

In the same folder, Douce kept a few title-pages from the Historische Kalender illustrated by yet another German artist, E. W. Zimmer. Zimmer used scenes from the popular story of Wilhelm Tell, which would inspire Friedrich Schlegel’s play published one year later:

E. W. Zimmer, Historische Kalender, 1803, woodcut (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford).

Interestingly, Douce also collected prints by the founder of wood-engraving in Britain, Thomas Bewick (1753-1828), with whom he corresponded. Bewick’s pupils are equally well represented in the collection.

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Douce’s Baked Apple Pudding

I have just finished cataloguing Douce’s folders of woodcuts, which contain quite a few illustrations from late eighteenth-century and early nineteenth-century German almanacs. The autumn months are often represented by apple-picking:

E. W. Zimmer, September, early 19th century, woodcut (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford)

In one of his commonplace books, Douce wrote down the following recipe, which had been given to him by the housekeeper of his friend the Rev. Edward Goddard in 1830:

Baked apple pudding

Purée and core 6 apples. Put them in a stew-pan with as much water as will cover them. When done rub them through a hair-sieve. Add to the pulp 2 ounces of fresh butter, the yolks of 2 eggs & the white of one, a little grated lemon peel & nutmeg & sugar to your taste. Line your dish or mould with puff paste, then pour it in. Twenty minutes will bake it in a quick oven.

(Ms. Douce e.105)

Bakery: cake bases in the oven © 2012 ARTstor, Inc. All Rights Reserved

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Spot the prawns

Like the print of Moses mentioned in my previous post, this woodcut of the Madonna del Gamberone from Douce’s collection was probably destined to be pinned to the walls of somebody’s home:

Anonymous, Il Vero Ritrato della Madona Santissima di Gambarone di Bondeno, c. 1650-1750, hand-coloured woodcut (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford).

The original painting is kept in a chapel in the Comune di Bondeno, in Ferrara. According to Michele Bianco, the image was ‘found’ in a canal called Gamberone, from which it took its name.* This explains the presence of at least seven king prawns, or ‘gamberone’, creeping up the Virgin’s mantle:


By the mid-seventeenth century, the image was considered as ‘molto miracolosa’ and the shrine became a pilgrimage site. After 1641, the Madonna del Gambarone was transferred to a new building, which might be the tiny chapel below:

Madonna del Gamberone, Italy ©Panoramio. All rights reserved by mhl50_bnc.

* ‘Seicento religioso bondenese e ferrarese tra pietà mariana e superstizione’, in Analecta Pomposiana, XIX, 1994.

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Douce’s Annunciation

When told of Douce’s acquisition of a View of Clifton Ferry with a Holiday Party and Bristol Fair by Rolinda Sharples (1793-1838), his friend George Cumberland wrote that they had been ‘sold at an auction to Mr Douce who knows nothing of painting’.

Rolinda Sharples, Bristol Fair, 1825 (Private collection)

Shortly afterwards, Douce wrote to Cumberland asking for information about Bristol-based Miss Sharples. Funnily enough, he explained that, in one of the paintings he had bought (the View of Clifton Ferry), a portrait of Cumberland ‘is attempted’:

Rolinda Sharples, Rownham Ferry, 1820-22, Present location unknown © All rights reserved by Bristol Libraries.

What Cumberland considered as a lack of knowledge (and possibly taste) might be in fact an absence of interest in the quality of the works, often eclipsed in Douce’s eyes by their rarity, or by the oddness of their subjects. That Douce could occasionally adhere to established standards of taste is suggested by the singling out of a ‘beautiful painting of the Annunciation of the Virgin’ left to the antiquary Henry Petrie (c. 1772-1842) in his will. Sharples’s pictures were inherited by Isaac D’Israeli, who quickly got rid of them. The remaining paintings from Douce’s collection were bequeathed to Samuel Rush Meyrick (1783-1848) with other ‘miscellaneous curiosities of every description’.

Petrie’s Annunciation was the same painting acquired by Douce for 27 guineas at the Count of Altamira’s sale in 1827. But where is it now? Although both Meyrick and Douce appear as previous owners of The Annunciation by Joos van Cleve in the Metropolitan Museum,  the painting is not listed among those included in Meyrick’s ‘Doucean Museum’, described in The Gentleman’s Magazine in 1836. In his copy of the catalogue of the Altamira sale, Douce wrote ‘Certainly by Martin Schoen’ next to lot 36, an Annunciation sold as by Lucas van Leyden. The Annunciation in New York was attributed to Martin Schongauer in late nineteenth-century catalogues -and it could have become Meyrick’s after Petrie’s death in 1842:

Joos van Cleve, The Annunciation, ca. 1525, oil on wood, New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Friedsam Collection, Bequest of Michael Friedsam, 1931. www.metmuseum.org.

Interestingly, in the painting the Virgin Mary seems to be reading an illuminated book of prayers like those collected by Douce; in the background, Moses holding the Tablets of Law is depicted in a hand- coloured woodcut pinned to the wall next to the bed. According to the Met website, A. Hyatt Mayor has identified the print as a lost woodcut attributed to Jacob Cornelisz. van Oostsanen. Douce’s boxes and portfolios are the ideal place to search for lost woodcuts, so I keep Moses in mind while scouring them. For a detailed view, click on the link below and zoom in:

Joos van Cleve, The Annunciation, ca. 1525

Posted in Antiquaries, Collections and Collectors, Colour, Everyday life, History of printmaking, Paintings, Prints, Religion, Woodcuts | Comments Off on Douce’s Annunciation

Sea-monsters and spinning sows

Douce collected a remarkable number of woodcuts published by the Antwerp-based book-seller Joannes Norbertus Vinck. They are mostly popular prints, often coloured (a bit coarsely) in yellow and red. My favourite is this bespectacled spinning sow:

Anonymous, Le Truye qui File, coloured woodcut, late 18th century (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford)

Although the theme of the spinning sow dates back to the Middle Ages (see Malcolm Jones’s article on ‘Folklore motifs in Late Medieval Art’ in Folklore, 1991), the version above might have been produced in the seventeenth century. Vinck was active in the late eighteenth-century, but his woodcuts were probably printed from older woodblocks. He also published this depiction of Antwerp’s annual ‘ommegang’, or  ‘very curious triumphal procession’:

Anonymous, Le Chamarin de Neptune accompagnei de ses Dauphins, late 18th century, coloured woodcut (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford)

A different image of the ‘ommegang’ of 1685 by Gaspar Bouttats (1625-1695) can be found among Douce’s prints of ‘Ceremonies’. The chariot carrying Neptune and Amphitrite surrounded by dolphins, Tritons and mermaids follows the enormous fish whose tail is depicted in Vinck’s woodcut -the only disappointment is the disappearance of the waves among which the standard-bearers walked oblivious to the scary sea-monsters and the fish swimming about:

Gaspar Bouttats, Antwerpse ommegang van 1685 Verbeeldinghe vanden Triumphanten Jaerelycksen Ommeganck van Antwerpen, 1685, etching (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford). Detail.

On the back of the piece of cardboard to which the print is attached, Douce pasted a fragment of another view of the same event by Jan Luyken (1649-1712) and he wrote some comments below:

Jan Luyken, De Jarelykse Triumphante Omgang tot Antwerpen, c. 1680-81, etching (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford)

The drawing mentioned by Douce in his annotation is probably this watercolour in the V&A:

Thomas Rowlandson’s La Place de Meir, Antwerp

When Douce wrote that the location depicted in the print was found almost unchanged  by Thomas Rowlandson at the time of his journey to the Low Countries in 1791-92, he was clearly referring to the etching by Bouttats, who showed the procession at exactly the same point chosen by Rowlandson. Given that this blog is still rather low-tech, I am borrowing an image of the print from the Rijksmuseum’s wonderful website that allows zooming in and out to one’s heart’s content:

Antwerpse ommegang at the Rijksmuseum


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