When told of Douce’s bequest to the Bodleian Library, Sir Frederic Madden predicted that, as a consequence, his late friend’s collections would ‘sleep on… undisturbed above once in a lustre by some prying individual of antiquarian celebrity’. He would have been surprised to see that, at present, Douce’s prints and letters are ‘disturbed’ almost on a daily basis -not by any renowned antiquary, but by myself and by my colleagues in the Department of Western Art of the Ashmolean Museum. Students, researchers and members of the public interested in a wide range of subjects, from witchcraft and pilgrimage to angling and musical instruments, have also rummaged through his portfolios in the past few months.
This might not have been foreseen by Douce who, in his letters, seems a bit wary when discussing the afterlife of private collections turned public. Thus in January 1824, he tells off his friend and fellow collector George Cumberland for his misplaced generosity:
I wish you would not give amulets (or any thing else) to Museums where they are literally buried, because they are hid.
One year later, he returns to the same subject. After praising the King of Sardinia for his purchase of a collection of Egyptian antiquities, he regrets that
our Museumites are letting their collections rot in damp cellars where no one that is prudent can look at them.
Notwithstanding of this wariness, in his will, Douce bequeathed his books, manuscripts, prints, drawings and coins to the Bodleian Library and his private papers to the British Museum (with the proviso that they should not be looked at until 1900). The latter were given to the Bodleian by the Trustees of the British Museum in 1933.
All original single-sheet drawings and most of the prints were transferred to the Ashmolean Museum in 1863. Some prints were, however, returned to the library in 1915: these included over 20,000 prints of every age, school, quality and size, arranged by subject and kept either in Douce’s original wooden boxes:
Or in large nineteenth-century portfolios:
A third group consisted of bound volumes, such as Pinelli’s costume plates and Goya’s series of Caprichos and bull-fighting scenes, or Tauromaquia. It was only in 2003 that the whole print collection was finally reunited in the Ashmolean Print Room, where it can be consulted by visitors to the museum.
We will be focusing mainly on Douce’s prints, but if you wish to know more about other aspects of his collections, I recommend the catalogue of the exhibition organised by the Bodleian Library to commemorate Douce’s bequest in 1984: