Introduction: Illustrations for John Murray’s Life and Works of Lord Byron, 17 vols, 1832-33


A series of seventeen vignette watercolours made c.1831-33 for John Murray’s edition of ‘The Life and Works of Lord Byron’.

The editions was conceived following Murray’s publication in 1830 of the Letters and Journals of Lord Byron with Notices of his Life by Thomas Moore. Shortly afterwards he determined on publishing a popular edition of the Life in sequence with the collected works, in, as he calculated, fourteen volumes, each with an engraved title-page and frontispiece. Illustrations were commissioned from the leading, and most bijoux, illustrators of the popular annuals. These included Clarkson Stanfield, J.D.Harding and William Westall. The commission seems to have been shared out quite extensively in the earlier stages; only one Turner subject appearing in the first six volumes, but after that Turner predominates, contributing half the total of thirty-four plates, in what turned out to be seventeen volumes in all.

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Private Collection

The principal account of Turner’s illustrations to Byron is by David Blayney Brown in Turner and Byron (Tate, 1992). Rawlinson volume 2, 1912 lists the engravings (nos.406-431), and Wilton 1979 (nos.1210-1235) lists the watercolours, but Brown properly unravels the publication history. Jan Piggott adds further detail in Turner’s vignettes (Tate, 1993). The vignettes for the Life and Work were developed as a distinct group quite separate from a parallel series of landscape-format engravings that were issued by Finden as Landscape Illustrations to the Life and Works of Lord Byron. The latter is treated separately here.

The first volume of the Life and Works appeared in January 1832 and successive volumes appeared at monthly intervals. Moore’s Life occupied the first six volumes, and included only one vignette after Turner, in volume 5.

The first three volumes were illustrated by Clarkson Stanfield, the fourth by Harding, who also shared the fifth with Turner and the sixth features the work of William Westall. From this is would appear that Turner was a late recruit to the project. However as soon as the poems began to flow in volume 7, so did the Turner illustrations. He was the sole illustrator of volumes 7 and 8 and featured in every volume thereafter apart from 9 and 12.  Publication continued monthly up to volume 16 on April 1833 with a slight gap before the final volume in June 1833, no doubt to allow time to collate the completion of the whole edition.

Brown draws upon documentation in the John Murray company archive. At that time the material was still housed in the firm’s historic headquarters on Albemarle Street in London. In 2002, however, the family company was sold and operations transferred elsewhere. The archive is now available to scholarship at the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh.

Brown gives indicative references, but it would be good to make a fully-extended account of the documentation. Brown says ‘By the end of 1831 Murray decided to target a much wider market and to issue Moore’s text with Byron’s works at a modest price, illustrated with frontispieces and title page plates.’. Brown also reports that Murray’s accounts show that the first payment for any of the drawings was made in December 1831. This was to Westall and to Turner for Plains of Troy. Working back from the publication of volume 1, however, in January 1832, Murray must have started work on the project a long time before then. Subscriptions had to be raised, copy printed, subjects decided, negotiated and engraved. The volumes made up, and stock shored up and secured so as to ensure continuity of supply once the first volume was issued. Murray’s decision must have been made in 1830, and besides the engraving, the Findens were entrusted by Murray with the business of ‘selecting and procuring’ the designs from the artists. Finden was fully committed by October of 1830 to his separate, but essentially co-dependent publication. The Landscape Illustrations were issued in parallel to Murray’s Life and Works, the first monthly part also appearing in January 1832.

In their published book form the vignettes and title-page vignettes were issued in foolscap 8vo book size i.e 6 ¾ x 4 ¼ ins. They appear to have been printed separately to the text block and added in binding. In most cases the page edges were cut to a neat clean-edged block, so the fore-edges were fit for marbling or gilding, so the resulting page size is somewhat smaller. In the edition before me, the page size is 6 5/8 x 4 1/8. Various bindings are encountered, many luxuriously and beautifully finished with leather and marbling, but Murray’s original trade edition was issued in a dark green cloth with watered silk effect. This is of some significance in itself in being the first series to be issued in a library cloth binding, with gold block titling applied to the spines. Prior to this, books were generally issued in paper covers to be bound to taste and pockets by booksellers and individuals. Gold blocking onto cloth at high volume required a technical innovation. Nor does it appear to have been available right at the beginning, for volume one of early printings has the title blocked onto a piece of green paper. The edition was spectacularly successful and Murray sold nineteen thousand copies of the last volume at 5/- each.

There is one other peculiarity to be noted. In its original conception, the series was planned as a fourteen-volume set, and the title pages lettered accordingly. The preface to vol.13 explains that it has now been decided to extend the series to seventeen volumes, so as to incorporate editorial notes and commentary. This was slightly problematic given that the series was being issued ready-bound, so vol.16 provided a replacement set of title pages, now lettered ‘In seventeen volumes’. One wonders how many bothered to have their existing volumes rebound. Certainly in the copy before me the replacement title pages remained unused, tucked inside the cover of the volume in which they were supplied.

Finden’s advertisements for the Landscape Illustrations offered collectors’ editions, saying ‘A few proofs are taken’ in ‘royal quarto’ on plain paper 5/- per part, or on India paper at 7/6 per part; ‘and with these’, the advert explained, ‘are given proofs of the Frontispiece and Vignette contained in each volume of the Life and Works.’  It is not known what constituted ‘A few’. With copper that would have been numbered in tens: With steel it could have been considerably more. Royal quarto is normally a page of 12 ½ x 10 ins, but that is larger than an example on the market in July 2020, which measures 11 ½ x 9, which would normally be described as medium 4to.

Rawlinson lists various states thus

Ist state: India proofs on colombier 4to 17 x 11 ½ ins, artists names but before title and pub line

2nd state: Large plain proofs on imperial 4to 15 x 11, with lettering as (1)

3rd state: Large paper edition of Finden’s Landscape illustrations, india on medium 4to, 11 ¾ x 9 1/4 ins Title in open caps and publication line

Later states Plain in 8vo and 12mo editions of Life and Works

Collectors’ large paper editions without letters were very popular in the 1830s, and Moon Boys and Graves specialised in such editions. There are advertisements for such editions of plates from the popular annuals such as the Keepsake or Landscape Annual in the Literary Gazette, some alongside adverts for Murray’s Byron

Yale has a very strong collection, including examples of all these formats. It is beyond the scope of the present introduction, but it would be interesting to attempt a proper collation of the various states at Yale and elsewhere. Some of the largest size at Yale are Turner’s own, and stamped with the Turner studio sale mark when they came to market in 1874. Others are engraver’s proofs. Finden and Murray appear to have advertised only published states in the royal quarto format. It may be that Rawlinson’s larger sizes, his states 1 and 2, were all engravers proofs, some made for proving as the plate was developed, others printed for the artist, and others taken for promotional purposes, but never offered for public sale.


July 2020

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