Introduction: The Poetical works of Sir Walter Scott

In 1831-32 Turner made a series of twenty-four watercolours for the Edinburgh publisher Robert Cadell. These were to serve as frontispieces and title-page vignettes for a new twelve-volume edition of the poetry of Sir Walter Scott. This was designed to continue and be uniform with, the 12mo popular edition of Scott’s complete works that Cadell had begun publishing with the novels in 1828. These had frontispieces and engraved title-pages by a variety of popular artists of the day, but none by Turner. For the poetry Cadell persuaded Scott that Turner should be the sole illustrator and the artist was invited to visit Scott at his Abbotsford home to visit sites together in the neighbourhood.

The principal account of the commission and Turner’s work is Gerald Finley’s 1980 book ‘Landscapes of Memory’. Finley worked from a treasure trove of primary documentation in the Cadell archive at the National Library of Scotland, and gleaned an almost unrivalled account of Turner’s professional activities at the height of his success. We learn that Cadell paid Turner twenty-five guineas for each of the watercolours.

The core of Finley’s book is a detailed reconstruction of Turner’s visit to Scott and subsequent tour of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland in search of his subjects. Scott was in frail health and died in 1832 before the first volume was issued. In some ways the series marks the high water mark of publication of his work, and an extraordinary joint enterprise between two of the most important figures of the Romantic era.

Title and frontispiece of Volume 1
Photograph by David Hill

Rawlinson vol.2, 1912 gives a complete list of subjects (nos.493 to 516) and the publication specifications. The plates were issued as sets separate to the published volumes, in two volumes of twelve plates each, published in 1833 and 1834. The plates were printed in various formats appealing to print collectors. The largest were India proofs on Colombier 4to (17 x 11 7/8 ins), without titles, priced as £1.15.0 per volume. Then came India proofs on Imperial 4to (15 3/8 x 10 ¼ ins), with slightly different lettering and a script title, priced at £1.4.0 per volume. Then Royal 4to proof prints (13 5/8 x 10) with the same lettering, priced £1.0.0. Then an octavo edition of prints at 10 x 6 1./2 ins, priced 12/-. Finally the plates were given an added series title and new publication line and bound into the 12mo edition with a page size of 6 ¾ x 4 ¼ ins. Some bound sets are smaller where the page edges have been shaved to give an even finish, or to be gilt edged or mottled. The published page size nonetheless does fully accommodate all the detail, and was plainly intended as the final product. The separate sets add no significant engraved material, but do give the artwork space on the page in a manner designed to enhance the viewing experience.

It was the established practice to print the largest impressions first with minimal lettering to ensure maximum detail. This was essential with soft copper plates, but by the 1830s engraving on much harder-wearing steel plates as here had taken over. There is, therefore, little obvious wear detectable between the proof impressions and those in book form. In this case the book form appeared first, and the large paper collectors’ impressions must have been stored away until sufficient had been collected to form a volume. We do not know how many of each state were printed, but Cadell sold thousands of copies of each volume priced at 5/- per issue.

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