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The essence of innumerable biographies…

30 November 2021

David Alexander, A biographical dictionary of British and Irish engravers 1714–1820, Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art/Yale: New Haven and London, 2021

I pre-ordered this a long time ago, and had completely forgotten when it unexpectedly arrived a week ago. It spent the ritual three days in quarantine before I dared open it. And I have been browsing through it since, reflecting as I did on the concept of art dictionaries. For of course I am the last person to ask to review one, since I am in a sense a rival. (Actually not as much as I expected: both Alexander’s dictionary, which I refer to below as DA, and mine include about 3000 names, but the overlap of artists in both is about 5% at a rough estimate.)

Physically it is similar to Ingrid Roscoe’s Biographical dictionary of sculptors in Britain 1660–1850, 2009 (from the same publisher), although that is considerably longer; at xii+1047 pages (not 1120 pp as on publisher’s website) DA is the same size as John Ingamells’s invaluable Dictionary of British and Irish travellers in Italy 1701–1800, 1997 – a work whose charms and scholarship never fail. (What a pity the same paper could not be used.)

DA too is a work of obvious scholarship and huge diligence, but which nevertheless brought out the Beckmesser in me (never far from the surface), for reasons that I will come to. Partly dare I confess I found it odd to have my work referred to as “Pastellists” when everything else is cited by author’s name. The feeling that I was a late addition was reinforced by my puzzlement as to when Pastellists is cited – it seems rarely, usually in relation to minor figures, but, for example, not in the bibliographies for Joseph Ducreux, Daniel Gardner, William Hoare, Charles Howard Hodges, Arthur Pond, Thomas Frye, Jean Pillement etc. It didn’t put me in the best frame of mind for a balanced review. Which in any case should only be undertaken after using a reference work over a much longer period than four days.

But readers of this blog will want to know more immediately whether they should buy it. At £75 it’s neither expensive nor cheap – the decision depends on what you want it for. There is something about art history that attracts dictionary-makers, and for dealers and collectors the ability to find basic information and be directed to deeper studies is a major attraction. So publishers have found a market for major works throughout the ages. The great Allgemeines Künstlerlexikon, Bénézit or the Grove Dictionary of art are perhaps best known, but there is a vast number of dictionaries and encyclopaedias focused on narrower areas from architecture to miniatures. Perhaps there should be a dictionary of dictionaries – but of course there is, there are…

Prints have had more than their fair share of lexicographical obsession. The role of engravings before photography was often as reproductions of real works of art; the prints themselves could display a level of craftsmanship which was occasionally breathtaking, but rarely original. The challenge of identifying and cataloguing “states” of engravings involves a rare kind of meticulous attention which is not for all; some will consider it little removed from stamp collecting. I confess to having indulged in a bit of this myself, justified I think by the astonishing quality of the work by Nanteuil and Drevet which I collected 35 years ago (when you could buy portrait engravings on the Portobello Road). In France, Firmin-Didot, Portalis & Beraldi set a standard that progressed to the sadly still incomplete Inventaire du Fonds français, and Britain has not been ignored with the vast riches of Victorian scholarship now updated and largely consolidated in the fabulously useful, if occasionally incomplete, British Museum collection database (“BM” below).

So is there a need for yet another Dictionary of British and Irish engravers? (I didn’t count but I suspect there are nearly as many engravers from France as from Ireland – a reminder that the level of skill and training in Paris was astonishing, and of the need to be as familiar with French genealogy sources as with British ones.)

On the positive side there is a truly vast amount of information in this volume, and really important accounts of the work of major engravers presented clearly. Its function of identifying engravers whose names are known is obvious. The question of homonyms (there are 50 Smiths, 18 Walkers (6 of them John), 17 Williamses…) illustrates the need for such a dictionary. And I noted very few omissions: Luttrell may be an example, although it is difficult to be sure if he made any plates after 1714; see also Holloway and Benson below. Who knows if Basan was correct in suggesting that Franz de Paula Ferg and Pierre Maloeuvre (neither is included) had worked in London? Omissions are always harder to spot.

How helpful is it as a practical guide to attribution when there are literally no reproductions beyond a tiny vignette on the dust-wrapper? As it is a biographical dictionary, are the family relationships set out clearly? As it is printed, are the indexing (none) and cross-referencing good enough? How much original material is there? If this is a compilation, is there any logic to assembling in a single volume material available elsewhere (particularly when the scope ranges from engravers of portraits to music etc.)? And fundamentally, as anyone who works with this type of material knows, when presenting information from different sources that is contradictory, are the discrepancies satisfactorily resolved, or has the book merely added another source of confusion?

That I think is probably the most important challenge. I don’t want a seventeenth reference work I’m going to have to read against sixteen others before deciding which is right: I want one which gives the correct dates (surely one of the most important pieces of information sought in a biographical dictionary) every time, and, where they contradict other respected sources, explains why.

A reviewer is likely to open this book, see a wealth of interesting facts and assume it is all correct, without realising that it is virtually impossible to escape error or incompleteness when it comes to biographies of obscure people in the eighteenth century. This is partly because of the explosion of online material: databases with parish records, imaged as well as transcribed (so previous errors can be eliminated) as well as far more liberal access to images of the prints themselves. I note for example that Ian Mackenzie’s rather useful British prints (Antique Collectors’ Club) is not mentioned, although it is a handy compilation with useful images that many readers may have to hand from pre-internet days. Comparing the first page of both, DA gives Henry Abbott’s dates as fl.1820, Mackenzie the full 1768–1840. This is found also for example in the Yale Center for British Art Collections Online database, so, even if wrong, DA needs to say why.

This is not the only example. It is only by working through specific examples that one comes across questions: I have (not quite randomly, as my eye was inevitably drawn to artists I knew independently) compiled below a list of such observations. Suffice it to say that it is rather longer than I expected. (I know only too well how such errors arise, particularly when a work has developed over a very long period.)

I’m attaching it partly to help readers understand the sort of problems I encountered, but also I hope to set off a debate about how we can more efficiently handle the task of sifting such errors out of art history reference material. Lists of errata (several have previously appeared on this blog) are never popular with the authors, and my own preference is to provide them before printing rather than after purchase – but I’m not asked as often as I’d like.

Increasingly of course reference material is online, or will go online (as I hope this will), and so can be corrected and updated: but even here practices differ widely. I’ve submitted corrections or observations to the British Museum collection database which have invariably been adopted with courtesy (not always immediately, but the advance of human knowledge doesn’t have to be instant, and there is something to be said for letting new information mature before it is acted upon). In contrast a long list of corrections for the Oxford DNB sent in 2014 have been ignored with a level of arrogance I find misplaced.

Another approach which in theory should be efficient is the collective enterprise of a Wiki-like undertaking. In principle this could allow us to join together all those dictionaries of minor arts, genealogies etc and forge a communal knowledge base etc. But sadly I don’t see any way to get it to work in practice, with the wide range of skills among likely participants, combined with the genuinely different needs for a database on say needlework compared with one for topographical watercolourists. I fear we are stuck with the individual project.

There are other issues with the book. It has entries only for those who actually engraved: no doubt for reasons of space, but many of us will want list of artists whose work has been engraved and by whom, if only in an index. Indeed when prints are mentioned, the details don’t always include the artist whose work is engraved. This (like many of my criticisms) all depends on where you’re coming from.

The vocabulary is occasionally quaint: apprentices are invariably “bound”, while a few artists come from “gentry families” (I use the word reluctantly, but only as a noun). The handling of foreign names is a bit odd, as some of the examples below illustrate. Of course French names often appeared in anglicised form in British documents at the time, but both forms should be given today; spelling, alphabetisation and identification of family names are not standardised here. And, as a number of my illustrations below suggest, I felt a biographical dictionary should have more about wives and families and colourful stories rather than just the work; others will disagree.

Specific comments

Francis Edward Adams: died 20.iv.1777 according to his widow’s declaration appended to his will, probated 26.iii.1801 (Prerogative Court of Canterbury).

William Barnard: birth given as “c.1776” although ODNB (cited) provides date of baptism. We can go one step further: he was in fact born 8.vii.1774.

Bartolozzi: there is huge confusion in the literature about his date of birth: citing an 1815 source is no substitute for explaining why the date given (1728) is correct.

Nicolas Dauphin de Beauvais appears under B, not D, and the forename is given as Nicholas.

Birrell: the entry is of no help in identifying the “W Birrell” who signed Hamilton’s Lady Temple in 1798; I had already conjectured this might be Andrew Birrell.

Bland: The BM collection database gives Thomas Bland’s dates as fl.1770–1790, while DA gives fl.1765–72.

James Bolton: DA gives death as 1799. BM: “died in March 1807 (information from David Beasley, Goldsmiths’ Company). Previously incorrectly identified with James Bolton, botanical painter of Halifax, who died in 1799.”

William Bond death “1842 or later”: his will made 27.xii.1837 was probated 1842; buried 2.vii.1842 aged 80, St Anne’s Soho.

Thomas Bragg (c.1780-1840): The Times inquest report gives his age as 95, while the parish burial entry is probably more accurate at 86 years. In any case c.1780 (which I presume is deduced from his likely age at apprenticeship) seems unlikely.

C. Carter: Charles Carter is identified in Pastellists (and Walpole’s correspondence, where there are numerous references) as the “painting servant” of Canon Mason, whose portrait by Vaslet J.749.18 he engraved.

Jacques Chéreau was born in 1688, not 1694.

Louis Chéron died in 1725, not 1735 (twice).

Philip Dawe: DA has “c.1750-1809 or later”; Pastellists, following ODNB (neither is cited), as ?c.1745–?1809.

William Delacour: DA plausibly suggests that he be identified with the Guillaume de la Court, son of Salomon, who was a weaver of Bethnal Green in 1704 when he married; his wife was Marie-Magdelaine du Bois, and the baptism took place in the Huguenot church, Threadneedle Street, not the hospital chapel in Spitalfields.

Nicholas [sic] Dorigny: Nicolas was born in 1658, not 1638.

Robert Dunkarton’s will was given probate on 2.ii.1815, so he must have died before “c.1817”. He married Mary Barnard on 6.x.1771 at St Paul’s Hammersmith.

Gainsborough Dupont was born in Sudbury 20.xii.1754 (if the RA archive is to be believed), not 1757.

Abraham Easto was baptised 14.v.1786 in Fressingfield, Suffolk and died in Norfolk 26.iii.1867.

William Faden, pp. 334f: this might be the place to mention his son-in-law rather than just p. 773. The question of how to handle cross-references and avoid duplication in printed dictionaries is tricky.

“Amadeo Gabrieli”: the name in the BM Collection Database is Amedeo Gabrielli: the alternatives should be listed. “C. Cunningham” is Edward Francis Cunningham. The only Boze seems to be the Louis XVI; the other royal portraits after Gratise etc.

Daniel Gardner: surely Pastellists might have been added to the bibliography? Despite my researches (Transactions of the Romney Society, xxi, 2016) we still haven’t found his exact date of birth, so c.1750 still required.

John Alexander Gresse: more in Pastellists beyond ODNB.

Samuel Hieronymous Grimm lodged with the pastellist Susannah, not Sarah, Sledge.

Charles Harris: DA suggests he may have been the engraver apprenticed to Peter Mazell, but it is difficult to see how an apprentice could exhibit as an honorary amateur.

Charles Howard Hodges: born in London, not Portsmouth (discussed in Pastellists).

Why is John Holloway Jr missing? His engraving after La Tour’s Voltaire (my J.46.312551) for Literary magazine, 1792; BM also has Joseph Benson 1804 (inv. 1851,1108.19).

Isaac Jehner: The Isaac Jenner who married Mary Ann Cattell in 1803 was a bachelor, so this cannot have been a second marriage of the father. Two years after his autobiography, Jenner, “drawing master”, also published a manual on the Art of drawing.

Elizabeth Judkins: the EJ buried in St Botolph, Bishopsgate in 20.i.1815 was aged 56, so born 1758, too late for the engraver. Another, of Leadenhall Market, was buried 30.x.1823 aged 68, just possible. Note that when James Watson married, his bride signed Mary Judkin, not Judkins, so both spellings were evidently in use. ODNB (following Goodman) gives her father as Reuben Judkins, not cited DA: from that I traced the clandestine marriage of Reuben Judkins, a coach painter of St Giles, to Ann Bouch on They had at least four children, Mary, born 30.i.1746, bpd St George’s Hanover Square, who is too young to be the future Mrs Watson (that Mary Judkin was 21 or over in 1757 according to the banns); Samuel 1748 and Joseph 1753, both baptised St Martin-in-the-Fields, and Elizabeth, baptised 12.ix.1756 at St Giles-in-the-Fields (matching the age of the deceased buried in Leadenhall Market in 1823). Nor is it likely that Reuben Judkins had an earlier marriage: he was apprenticed in 1740 (to Richard Abbott of the Painters’ company).

Charles Knapton’s dates are 1698-1742: see Pastellists.

S. Lamborn: one wonders if his engraving of Samuel Johnson, “from an original drawing”, inverted from the anonymous pastel after Reynolds, my J.6174.159, might mean he was a pastellist?

William Lane: the suggestion that he was born in Hereford (Hampton Bishop, surely, rather than Hampton Wick?) is added credence by the large group of his drawings discussed in Pastellists, of which the donor was the daughter of Reginald Lane Poole, a great-grandson of the Rev. Dr Theophilus Lane (1762–1814), prebendary of Hereford. He was the son of James Lane (1731–1791) and Eliza Reece. But the Ann Lane born in Hampton Bishop on was probably the daughter of Rev. William Lane, canon of Hereford and rector of Hampton Bishop who died 1752, born 1700 (matriculated at Oxford, Oriel College, in 1718), son of another James Lane. This could be looked at further.

“James Christopher Le Blon” for Jakob Christoffel etc.: the reader needs warning of the numerous variants.

James Macardell’s birth is given as 1729, without explaining the discrepancy with the ODNB: “in 1727 or 1728”. Later the ODNB says “he died at the age of thirty-seven on 1 June 1765”, while DA has “in July 1765” without age. Musgrave has

Alexander Macdonald: the print of Todd Jones may be after Matthew, not Robert, Hunter.

For Thomas Major’s collaboration with Liotard, see my

Simon Malgo was born in Copenhagen in 1745 according to old sources: are they wrong?

Maucourt: although Pastellists is cited (and I think I first published his forename as Claude rather than Charles), the birth certificate I found, Passavant-en-Argonne 1.iv.1714 (not c.1707), is ignored.

George Morland was the son of Henry Robert, not of George Henry, Morland.

Amelia Noel: See article in Pastellists for the full account of why she is Minka Levy. I find it hard to understand why DA questions this (or why he does not cite the source for the theory he rejects), which I put forward in 2012 (and has since appeared in various websites). My proposed identification is not in the Massill article, which merely reprints the 1781 reports of the wedding (already cited in my article) without mentioning Amelia. The law report, properly understood, makes it perfectly clear that the Amelia Noel sued by her coal merchant was the same lady.

Nutter’s birth often cited as 1754. Are we relying only on age in GM obit? If in 44th year on 22.iii.1802, 1758 is three times as likely as 1759.

Pether’s dates: buried 25.vii.1821 aged 82, so more likely born 1739 than 1738.

Purcell: The Richard Purcell of Springford, Co. Cork, born 1728, who married Catherine Grove in 1762 (Cloyne marriage licence bonds index) died in 3.ix.1797: he was the rector of Casteltownroche near Cork, and appears in Edmund Burke’s correspondence. He was from a different layer of Irish society. See link for his career. The son apprenticed to John Bennett of Fleet Street, Printseller (surely the details refer to the master, not the deceased father), on 2.xii.1777, was according to the source cited (Mckenzie), “Gasper”, not Gaspar. DA’s spelling may be correct (but if so from what source?), but the unnoted change delays verification. It seems to me likely that this apprentice was the “Jasper Purcell” listed on the register of poor children taken into parish care at St Clement Danes, aged 7, on 2 December 1767 (London Lives online). If his father was the engraver, that would confirm that Richard Purcell probably died in 1767.

Ravenet’s son was Simon-Jean-François Ravenet (1737-1821).

Ruotte: There is no doubt that the engraver was Louis-Charles Ruotte. On 16 May 1782 at St Marylebone Charles Lewis Ruotte married Jeanne Terase dit Labaume (the witnesses were Louis Francis Dumay and Marguerite Dubuisson). Their son, Louis-Nicolas-Marie Ruotte, was born in Paris on 3.vii.1785 (as we know from his 1843 marriage in Lyon, at an advanced age), so Ruotte was probably back by then. We can find many more documents in French archives. He was described as “graveur étant actuellement à Londres” in a document of 10.i.1784 (AN Y5122A) dealing with his deceased father’s estate (François Ruotte, bourgeois de Paris); a grandson of the deceased, Alexandre-François, was also named: he was the son of a deceased “professeur de langue angloise”, Francois-Marie Ruotte, the engraver’s brother. The engraver’s mother was Marie-Jeanne Caron, still living. Louis-Charles Ruotte, graveur en taille-douce, was back in Paris by 16.ix.1785, living at rue Saint-Hyacinthe, paroisse Saint-Côme (AN Y5133B). He was still there five years later, in .vii.1790 (AN Y5192B), when he applied to compromise with his creditors. Another document in the registre de tutelles (AN Y5144B) identifies him as still a minor in .viii.1786, so he must have been born no earlier than 1761, not in 1754.

John Charles Russell (p. 774) “was the son of John Russell (q.v.)”, but of which?

Charles Reuben Ryley was admitted to the RA in 14.ii.1769 aged 17, so c.1751 is surely to be preferred to the 1749 suggestion (is there any evidence that that Abraham Ryley was a trooper in the Horse Guards?).

Richard Sisson (born “c.1730”) was baptised on 19.viii.1722 at St Mary’s, Church of Ireland, the youngest of six children of Robert and Frances Sisson.

“Scorodomoff” needs at least to be cross-referenced from Sk-, 34 pages away. His dates are given in Pastellists, 12.iii.1755–12.vii.1792.

Sintzenich: three members of the family are included, but not others e.g. Friedrich Heinrich, presumably because he didn’t visit, or isn’t known to have visited, England. Correct but annoying.

Emma Smith married in London on 10.viii.1808 Robert Smith, who later adopted the name Pauncefote; that is why the marriage is hard to find.

Gabriel Smith: perhaps 1783 is wrong for his death, but is there any reason to suggest the Gabriel Smith buried in Whitechapel 8.iv.1773 rather than say the one buried at St James’s Piccadilly on 8.v.1774?

John Raphael Smith: born “c.1746”: D’Oench has Derby bpt 25.v.1751.

Francois-David Soiron was Swiss, not French; born in Geneva 12.x.1764, trained there and left for London in 1790 (Brun, Schweizerisches Künstler-Lexikon, 1913).

Peltro William Tomkins: perhaps worth noting that he owned Russell’s pastel (J.64.114) of Bartolozzi, now in the Louvre.

Townley: the family relationship worth explaining is with the collector: the connection is (very) distant. I am not sure whether he died in Hertford in 1802 (plausible); but Margaret called herself his widow in a will made in 1803 and proved on her death in 1809. He had two children by a previous marriage (the son’s name, Charles Haswell Townley, might be a clue to his first wife’s family name). This is made clearer by the marriage record on 14.ix.1801 which did not take place in “St George’s Church, Hendon” as incorrectly reported in the press at the time, but at St John’s, Hampstead, and he was described as “Chas Townly Widower”.

George, Marquess Townshend: it seems eccentric not to give him his title in the headline. He is the subject of a rich iconography by artists including Reynolds, Hudson, Mather Brown and Angelica Kauffman, as well as (probably) by Liotard. It’s a pity portraits of engravers aren’t systematically listed as they are a useful clue to the reciprocity of artistic relations.

Henry Trench: there is no reason to doubt the 1684 year of birth inscribed on his self-portrait in Stockholm reproduced in Pastellists.

George Vertue’s death is printed twice (on pp. 939, 941) as in 1755; is there any reason to question the 24.vii.1756 given in Pastellists and most other sources?

J. Violet: nothing better illustrates the need for continuing research. Here is a portrait engraving of the highest quality signed by an otherwise unrecorded engraver. Was he English or French? Looking through the biographical sources, one wonders about the James Violet living in Grafton Street, London in 1781 according to the Westminster rates books; but the Westminster poll book for 1780 (his name struck out as “foreign”) gives his occupation as “victualler”. Perhaps he might be the Jacques Violet, aged 10 in 1751 (registres de tutelles), son of a menuisier in Paris, but there is no other trace. Could this in fact be an early London appearance of the miniaturist Pierre (see below) Violet whose middle names was Jean? All guesses, wisely omitted from the book.

“Pierre Violet (1749–1819)”: citing ODNB for his career as a whole. But Pastellists has more than either. His full name was Pierre-Jean-Noel Violet, born 25.xii.1742. ODNB is confused too about his marriages: his first marriage, in Paris on 7.viii.1770 (contract of 20.vii.1770), was to Marie-Félicité Legeste; he was divorced on 12.iii.1794, and, on 11.xii.1797, at St James’s Piccadilly, he married Marguerite Becret (1769–1851); Francesco Bartolozzi was witness. There were two daughters of the second relationship: Maria, born 1793 and Cécilia, born three weeks before the 1797 marriage.

James Ward: Pastellists and ODNB give his birth as 23.x.1769, not 1770.

Caroline Watson “(1760–1814)”: where does the 1760 come from? The ODNB gives 1760/61–1814, and notes that her mother was Mary, daughter of Reuben Judkins, indicating she was born c.1740. See my comments on Elisabeth Judkins above, where I suggest Mary was in fact born 30.i.1746. But James Watson married Mary Judkin [sic] on 17.i.1757, and according to the banns she was 21 or over. I can’t resolve these curiosities (I’d rather hoped that DA would do so for me), although it is not impossible that Mary’s age was misstated, she married at 13 and gave birth several years later; but this seems improbable.

“James Watson (c.1740–1790)”. According to Pastellists, based on Irish church records (which may be incomplete), and assuming that Redgrave is right that he was the brother of William Watson, it is most likely that they were the William and James Watson baptised respectively on 20.iv.1730 and 18.ix.1734 at St John’s Dublin, the sons of William and Sarah Watson.

“Ephraim Welsh (c.1749–1772 or later)”: he served as topographical artist on the voyage of the Fox packet to and from China 1781–82.

Francis Wheatley: there is no mention of his liaison with Jean-Alexandre Gresse’s wife which is supposed to have caused his four-year stay in Ireland.


From → Art history

  1. Authors must cringe when seeing a review of such depth (and length) from someone so knowledgable and respected. Would it not be so much better if a draft was sent for review prior to publication, but of course that would justify editorial fees that most publishers would want to avoid. Excellent review. Thanks again.

    Bruce Trewin

  2. I may not always have the time, the inclination or the knowledge, but I am always happy to be asked; and I never ever charge fees… And I’m usually pretty quick. So yes please!

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