Much has been written about the great color-plate books of the Regency Period – and rightly so. To give just three examples: Humphry Repton, a man of privilege who enjoyed royal favor, published his great books on landscape gardening and architecture from the 1790s to about 1820; in 1808 Rudolph Ackermann published the Microcosm of London, with many of its 104 plates of contemporary London scenes designed by the great caricaturist Thomas Rowlandson; and from 1814 through 1825 William Daniell published his epic Voyage Round Great Britain, consisting of 308 plates. The illustrated plates in these lavish works are aquatint engravings printed in one to three colors, with tinting and additional colors added by hand. A great many of mainly immigrant women and children were needed to hand color the prints.
These books have survived in large numbers relative to the size of the original editions, and one can consult R. V. Tooley’s bibliography for detailed accounts of the various issues of an edition and the various printed states of individual plates. By contrast, relatively little is known about the many hand-colored chapbooks, pamphlets, satiric and salacious prints, and associated ephemera from this period, most of which have long disappeared.
We recently acquired an unusual pamphlet published by one John Fairburn that falls exactly into this nether world, which is only now becoming better known to us thanks in large part to historian Iain McCalman’s 1988 study, Radical Underworld: Prophets, Revolutionaries and Pornographers in London, 1795-1840.
Alas, it is not a piece of pornography; but as a piece of printed ephemera, this eight leaf pamphlet of Park’s Ten Commandments is indeed radical. A cursory survey of Fairburn’s extant pamphlets reveals him to be a master of the low. We must collectively share, I think, an unconscious knowledge of their fulsome titles: Horrible Rape and Murder!! The Affecting case of Mary Ashford, A beautiful young Virgin, who was diabolically Ravished, Murdered, and thrown into a Pit… is the title of a pamphlet he published in 1817. Yet this “veteran scandalmonger, print seller, and radical publisher” also published some classic children’s titles, including an edition of Mother Goose with a hand colored frontispiece designed by George Cruikshank. Many of Fairburn’s fulsome titles on all manner of subjects can be found in the Chapbook Collection at the Lilly Library in Indiana, but you’ll not find a copy of Park’s Ten Commandments. The Ten Words are sacred after all, and it will not do to print them letterpress, which is the commonest and fastest way to print cheap chapbooks intended for children, and which is how Fairburn printed his many pamphlets – no, the revealed word of God must be engraved and printed intaglio – or it must appear to be so.
At first glance it is only natural to assume this pamphlet to be a common chapbook, but turn over the cover, and – behold!
The eye is instantly arrested by an explosion of multiple bright colors, and the mind is instantly charmed by the design of the illustrations. One sees in the faces the hand, or influence, of William Blake. Of “Park’s edition” I found no bibliographical reference; the text, with a few inconsequential variations, is taken from the English Book of Common Prayer. The first leaf verso (plate 1) begins with the first commandment (verses 1-2); and the second leaf recto (plate 2) skips to the third commandment (verses 7-8). All sixteen verses are included, printing two per illustrated plate, but not following the order as printed in the Book of Common Prayer: 1-2; 7-8; 5-6; 3-4; 13-14; 11-12; 9-10; 15-16.
While the brightly colored illustrations appear slapdash at first, it quickly becomes apparent that this is not your typical cheap and crudely made chapbook for children. A close examination reveals twelve separate colors applied by hand with stencils. Even more surprising, what one expects to be wood cuts or wood engravings at best; are in fact copper-plate engravings with considerable soft-ground etching and a bit of stippling giving tone to the faces. One can also clearly see line engraving in the patches of cross hatching in the dark thunder clouds underneath the graven image of God, and in the outstretched arm of the lady in blue. These illustrations were printed intaglio.
What is more, what one expects to be letterpress – that is, the verse text to be hand-set from metal types and printed relief – are in fact engraved letters printed intaglio, or hand written letters printed lithographically. Each letter of the verse was either engraved along with the illustrations on the same copper plate, or they were written in reverse directly onto the surface of a stone and printed separately from the illustrations on a lithographic press. I strongly suspect the latter. (They also could have been transferred to the surface of a stone from a piece of specially prepared paper, but this I have ruled out because the ink shows little evidence of having been transferred.) Finally, every two printed pages are followed by two blank pages because the original unfolded sheets were printed on one side only. This is near definitive evidence of intaglio or lithographic printing.
Conclusive evidence that it was printed intaglio and lithographically can be seen on the first plate in the space between the ornamental border and text, where God says, “Here, Israel” the initial H overlaps the winged Cherub’s wing; and where God commands, “None other God’s at all before My presence shalt thou have” the little n in None overlaps the edge of the yellow colored drapery. Had the letters been engraved on the same copper plate with the illustrations, the engraver would not have allowed this to happen. Finally, when viewed through a simple ten power lupe, one can clearly see how the dark ink of the border drapery seems to rise above the surface of the paper, like rust (characteristic of an etched or engraved line), while the adjacent letters are flat as pancakes (characteristic of a lithographic line). Finally, the visible “awkwardness” of the letters indicates that they were written backwards on the stone with a lithographic pen.
So it is most likely that the pages were imposed two-up (i.e., side by side), with the pamphlet being made-up from four sheets printed first intaglio (the illustrations) and then lithographically (the text) on one side of the sheet (or vice-versa); which was then hand-colored; and then folded in half and stitched. It only remains to be noted that the fourth or outer sheet was somehow backed (i.e., glued) onto an additional yellow sheet of paper with the printed cover in order to make the wrapper.
What this tells us is that much labor went into the making of this pamphlet; that it must have required a significant investment of capital on the part of Fairburn, and that a great many women and children were employed to do the hand coloring, unless it was a small edition. I am almost certain that the coloring is contemporary, and that up to twelve colors were applied to the illustrations with stencils. That too is unusual in consideration of the amount of time and labor required. The pamphlet is not dated, but the late 1820s is likely, as the London Commercial Directory for 1829 lists “John Fairburn, bookseller at 110 Minories,” as one of his three known business addresses.
Here are the last two plates, illustrating the fourth commandment (verses 9-10) and the tenth commandment (verses 15-16), with the eleven colors identified (the 12th is better seen on the first plate)
1. Dark Red: The drapery in the upper corners of both plates; the cloaks worn by Moses and our young hero (verso)
2. Dark Blue: The other cloak on our young hero (verso); and over the arm of Moses (recto)
3. Sky Blue: The small patches of sky in both plates
4. Steel Blue: The column of thunder clouds above Moses (verso)
5. Dark Yellow: The woman’s cloak (verso)
6. Light Off-Yellow: The sun rays above Moses (verso)
7. Brown: (The ground)
8. Flesh, or light pink: (The faces)
9. Bright Green: The other man (verso); Moses (recto)
10. Forest Green: The patches of background landscape in both plates
11. Dark Green: The palm tree leaves (verso); the table cover (recto)
*12. Dark Brown: On the first plate the dark brown used for the palm tree leaves flanking God is distinct from the lighter brown used for the ground
I have identified only one other copy of this pamphlet at Claremont College in California. Their catalog record only notes the presence of colored illustrations, but I think it safe to say that a comparison would show the same twelve colors, applied by the same hand. Of Fairburn we know that there was more than one John Fairburn from the same family active in the publishing and print selling trade from about the 1790s through 1840. But there is no doubt that the John Fairburn of 110 Minories was William Hone’s main rival as a radical bookseller during this period, before the great Victorian reaction, and that both publishers were part of a small London based coterie of radical Methodists and infidels that grew up around the great engravers William Hogarth, Thomas Gillray, Thomas Rowlandson, and Isaac Cruikshank, and the land reformer Thomas Spence.