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Vol. 51 no. 4: Spring 2018

G. E. Bentley, Jr., Thomas Macklin (1752–1800), Picture-Publisher and Patron: Creator of the Macklin Bible (1791–1800)

  • Alexander S. Gourlay
27 March 2018
27 Mar. 2018


No one who knows the quality and quantity of his work will be surprised to hear that G. E. Bentley, Jr., published one more meticulous, thoughtful, and eminently readable book before his death in 2017. This one is an account of the publishing career of Thomas Macklin, patron of William Blake (and most of his colleagues in art), proprietor of the Poets’ Gallery (the name of a printshop, a gallery, and a series of publications), and the publisher of the largest and most opulent illustrated letterpress King James Bible ever produced. Little is known about Macklin beyond the public facts of his commercial activities—even the year of his birth is expressed by a span of nearly a decade—but in his day he was second in importance only to John Boydell among English publishers of prints and illustrated books. Boydell began building his publishing empire in the early 1750s, cannily introducing vertical integration into the prevailing model of printselling, in which independent engravers sold their prints and sometimes their plates to printsellers, who retailed them to the public. Except for Hogarth’s works, the English print market in the first half of the eighteenth century was dominated by portraits, landscapes, and genre subjects with only modest aesthetic pretensions, using merely functional graphic techniques. Hoping to raise the dignity of the English print, Boydell began to hire the best painters in England to create grand images of historical (that is, narrative) subjects from myth and ancient and modern history, then hired the best engravers to create large, highly polished prints, often on the scale of small paintings, using elegant graphic techniques that had been the specialty of European engravers. “History painting” was the most exalted, among critics, at least, of the pictorial modes, but had been largely avoided in the early English print market, whether because of vestigial Protestant iconoclasm, objections to the “Roman” associations of traditional religious subjects, or aversion to classical paganism. Boydell’s new English prints often appealed to patriotism (as in the large engraving of Benjamin West’s Death of Wolfe) and were marketed as fine art for those who could not afford oil paintings but could manage a few fancy prints, framed and glazed, perhaps hand colored, for their parlors. This phenomenon expanded and exalted the English print market for a while, but bourgeois parlors had limited space on the walls, and only wealthy collectors could afford to buy and store, much less display, large numbers of prints.