Introduction: The Copper-Plate Magazine

Between c.1793 and c.1794 Turner made fifteen watercolours for engraving in ‘The Copper-Plate Magazine’ published in parts by Harrison & Co of Paternoster Row, London in partnership with the engraver John Walker. Each part consisted of two copper-plate engravings, together with a page of descriptive and historical text. The first part of the project was published 1 February 1792, and numbers were issued monthly thereafter, each priced at one shilling. The first volume of fifty plates was completed in February 1794 and list of contents issued together with a sumptuous engraved title-page so that the collection could be bound. The first plate after Turner appeared in volume 2 in 1794.

Photograph by David Hill

The advertisement, which appears to have been issued at the completion of volume 1, was completely wanton about the moderation of its cost, nor its quality ‘the grandest and most extensive assemblage of fine prints…that has ever been produced, at any price, by human ingenuity and perseverance’.

Photograph by David Hill

The title page claimed that the series was engraved by the most eminent artists, but in fact most of the work was undertaken by John Walker himself. The title also claimed that the pictures were the work of the ‘First Masters’ of the day. In fact only a very few, if any of the artists deserved that description. Edward Dayes was one of the best established, but he contributed only the first and one other to volume 1. Thomas Girtin was a pupil of Dayes and only seventeen years of age when he contributed two subjects of the first fifty. Francis Nicholson was well established but essentially provincial, and contributed three over the first two years. Francis Wheatley likewise, and he contributed three. Thomas Malton contributed two and Thomas Sandby Jnr, one. Most were by journeymen or amateurs. As the advertisement said, ‘the Nobility and Gentry, Amateurs of the Arts, as have kindly supplied… some of the most valuable Originals in this Volume.’ These being, by inference, representations of their own properties. Thirty of the first fifty subjects are views of Gentlemen’s Seats.

Photograph by David Hill

The subjects hopped around England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland with no clear logic but as the series progresses it manages to project a sense of diverse topographical character and colour within its realms

Production of volume 2 continued smoothly until December 1794, when Harrison retired from the project and John Walker took over alone. His name appears on all plates issued from 1 December 1794, and when the title-page for volume 2 was issued, Walker’s name appeared as the sole proprietor.

Turner was still a teenager when the first of his subjects, Rochester, was published in volume 2 on 1 May 1794. In total he was invited to contribute fifteen subjects and the last, of Sheffield, appeared in volume 4 on 1 August 1798. Previous accounts have listed sixteen, but one of these, Elgin Cathedral, can here be eliminated.

On 31 October 1797 Walker told the Royal Academician and Diarist Joseph Farington that all of the expenses per issue of the magazine amounted to twenty pounds for a press run of seven hundred copies, which he sold for a shilling apiece. The gross profit per month, then, was £15 and presumably a significant proportion of copies were sold at a discount through booksellers. Overall, this amounts to not much more than £150 per year, which must have seemed quite slender, and completely reliant on sales remaining buoyant. Walker, did, however, manage to keep the project going until 1802, completing 125 numbers (250 plates). The whole set comprises of five volumes, but complete sets are uncommon.

The work of a wide range of artists was engraved including Edward Dayes, Francis Nicholson and Thomas Girtin, besides many artists now little known. Turner was still a teenager when the first of his subjects, Rochester, was published in volume 2 on 1 May 1794. In total he was invited to contribute fifteen subjects and the last, of Sheffield, appeared in volume 4 on 1 August 1798. Previous accounts have listed sixteen, but one of these, Elgin Cathedral, can here be eliminated.

Rawlinson 1908 p.xix tells us that Turner received ‘two guineas for each plate, with a small allowance for travelling expense – it being stipulated that every drawing should be made on the spot.’ Krause 1997 no.16 argues that Turner’s tour of 1794 was made expressly to gather material for the project. The Matlock sketchbook (Turner Bequest XIX) includes a list of subjects, and it is possible that apart from the first two subjects, all the remainder were collected on that tour. Wilton 1979 dates the watercolours to a year or so before their publication, but it may be that longer intervals elapsed between production and publication. Several remain untraced, indeed some are completely unrecorded. The majority or those known are of a similar size to the published engravings at about 4 1/2 x  7 1/2 ins but the first two are larger at about 8 ½ x 11 ins.  

There is a noticeable difference in size between the first two and the remainder. Indeed the majority are less than one quarter the size of the first two. There is also a noticeable difference in ambition. The first two are impressive works, particularly for an artist who was still a teenager. The rest are less so.  Presumably it was a convenience for them to be of similar size to the intended engravings, but perhaps also for them not to challenge expectations in the market for popular topography.

Herrmann 1990 pp.11-12 notices the dichotomy between Turner’s independent work at this time and that made for the Copper-Plate Magazine.  His observation is that the former reflects ‘Turner’s experience in the studio of the architectural draughtsman Thomas Malton the Younger’, whilst the latter is ‘much more in keeping with the contemporary work of such artists as Edward Dayes and Thomas Hearne. Of these, Dayes is by far the most humdrum, and much more the model for Turner’s Copper-Plate Magazine watercolours. Dayes contributed the first plate of the whole project, and many more after that, and his apprentice Thomas Girtin joined the project early and contributed several subjects. Apart from the first two subjects, all of Turner’s surviving watercolours are pretty much in Dayes’s idiom. Indeed one subject based on a watercolour by Dayes of Elgin Cathedral, somehow managed to become attributed to Turner in a later edition of the plates. Herrmann puts a positive construction on the dichotomy: ‘Turner [was] able to produce first-rate work in two such varied traditions. Within a very short time these eclectic characteristic of his work in watercolour were to be replaced by the rapid development of an individual and personal manner.’

Harrison &c published another series of engravings including sixteen by Turner called the Pocket Magazine (q.v.). The first number appeared in August 1794.

The Copper-Plate Magazine plates were reissued by John Walker under the title of ‘The Itinerant’ in 1799. The seven hundred impressions taken for each number of the Copper Plate Magazine would have produced some signs of wear in the plate even before the Itinerant edition was commenced, and it seems fair to say that in the re-issue Walker was extracting full value from his investment. Under the circumstances it appears that most of the images held up very well. The same can even be said of a much later reprinting of the Turner and Girtin plates in Miller 1854, although a careful critical eye will detect numerous signs there of reworking.

David Hill, 17 June 2020

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