Dove’s English Classics

Bloomfield The third in a series of vignettes of items found (and shops visited) on a recent book-hunting trip.

I found this at High Street Books – Geoff Tyson’s genial and enticing bookshop at Honiton.  Another one of those shops which no neighbourhood should be without (see previous post) – and how blessedly lucky is Honiton in having another one (Graham York Rare Books) just up the road.

A pocket edition of Robert Bloomfield’s “Farmer’s Boy”, together with his “Rural Tales”, bringing together the peasant poet’s best-known and most successful works, originally published in 1800 and 1802 respectively, and both best-sellers in their time. This edition also contains a ten-page memoir of the author, who died in 1823. Evidently published within a few years of that, the volume is bound in an absolutely contemporary full black calf – a sweet and very pleasing little binding.  And it cost considerably less than I spent on last night’s supper.  It is something that never ceases to amaze – how many genuinely interesting books can still be bought for so very little. This is a little fragment of the past, a perfect example of what it is, nigh on 200 years old, and quite beautiful in itself.

bloomfield titleIt forms part of a series known as “Dove’s English Classics”, published by John Fowler Dove (1787-1866) of St John’s Square in Clerkenwell, each book in the series decorated with a frontispiece and an additional vignette title-page, engraved by good engravers from designs by good artists – in this case Henry Corbould (1787-1844).  I don’t have a complete listing of all the titles (does anyone?), but have managed to identify seventy or so.  There must have been rather more, because as early as 1826 Dove was advertising that around eighty were already available and he was to continue producing them for a number of years after that.

dovedeviceThe earliest titles in the series, dating from about 1825 onwards, bear the imprint “Printed for the Proprietors of the English Classics by J. F. Dove” and the series itself was perhaps a revival or a continuation of an earlier series known as “Walker’s British Classics” [see the comment from Simon Alderson below].   Within a couple of years, the imprint becomes a simpler “Printed & Published by J. F. Dove” – his “dove” device prominent on the title-pages.  Dove himself was born in the same part of Suffolk as Robert Bloomfield and it would no doubt have given him particular pleasure to add this title to the collection.

High Street Books, Honiton

High Street Books, Honiton

It is a series which offers a fairly elastic definition both of “English” and of “Classic” – the only real feature uniting a disparate range of titles is that these were all popular and famous books, many of the publications in the series including more than one individual work.  No particular surprise to find Francis Bacon, Bunyan, Edmund Burke, Samuel Butler, Lord Byron, Lord Chesterfield, William Cowper, Day’s “Sandford and Merton”, Gay, Goldsmith, Gray’s “Elegy”, Samuel Johnson, Milton, Bishop Paley, Pope, Shakespeare, Walpole, Isaac Walton, Isaac Watts, Henry Kirke White, and Edward Young all included in the list.  Contemporary usage may just have allowed the Scottish and Irish authors Rabbie Burns, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Adam Smith, Tobias Smollett, Jonathan Swift and James Thomson to be included in this general category of “English”, but probably not the American Benjamin Franklin – still less Homer, Horace, Ovid and Virgil – unless translations by Pope and Dryden make them so.  Elsewhere in the series, we also find the not obviously “English” Sophie Ristaud Cottin, François Fénelon, Jean-Pierre Claris de Florian, Alain-René Lesage, Jean Louis de Lolme (albeit on the “English Constitution”), Jean-François Marmontel, François de la Rochefoucauld and Jacques-Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre.

Public Ledger and Daily Advertiser – Saturday 18th November 1826.

Public Ledger and Daily Advertiser – Saturday 18th November 1826.

Women are well represented, which may come as a surprise to some.  As well as Madame Cottin, there were Anna Laetitia Barbauld, Fanny Burney – both “Cecilia” and “Evelina”, the “little spitfire” Hester Chapone, the American Susan Huntington, Ellis Cornelia Knight, Hannah More, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, the “queen of gothic” Ann Radcliffe, Clara Reeve, Lady Rachel Russell, and Sarah Trimmer. I’ve also seen reference to Elizabeth Inchbald, Harriet Newell and Hester Thrale appearing in the series, although I have not been able to verify that.  Interestingly, a copy of Dove’s edition of Laetitia Barbauld’s “Evenings at Home” featured in a much-reported court case in 1827. The “beautiful and elegantly dressed” Elizabeth Watts, a young woman of twenty-two, was revealed as a kleptomaniac who had “a kind of large pocket at the back of her silk cloak” filled with articles of plunder. When she was arrested the secret pocket was found to contain, alongside the book, three ounces of tea, a fowl, a piece of pickled pork, a pair of gloves, and two of three pairs of stockings.  Her reticule was additionally found to conceal a coral necklace, a pearl brooch, a gold chain, etc. Her defence was that “she knew not what she was doing at the time”.

© Foster’s Bookshop

© Foster’s Bookshop

By the standards of the period, these “Dove’s English Classics” were cheap.  Although admittedly nowhere near as cheap as such things became later in the nineteenth century, they provided a relatively affordable way of acquiring rather an impressive and interesting collection of standard texts.  A memoir of the self-educated bookseller and writer on antiquities, William Grainge of Harrogate, records that “Our author spent the first twenty-seven years of his life working on his father’s farm, and all the while educating himself, for he left the village school … when about twelve years of age.  All his leisure was spent in reading, or in some other way of gathering knowledge.  At this early age Dove’s ‘English Classics’ were his especial favourites.  Being small pocket volumes, they were well adapted for his purpose, and were constant companions when at work—for he shared in all the labours of his father’s farm, and at noon, or other times, when those about him rested or slept, he read” (Shipley Times, 5th April 1907).

© George Bayntun

© George Bayntun

The books appear generally to have been issued in printed boards – here’s a nice example from the George Bayntun website – although I gather that some of the later titles at least could be had in cloth with paper labels, or even full cloth gilt.  But as Dove’s advertisement makes clear, copies of all the titles were always kept in stock “in elegant bindings, for presents, &c”, and I imagine that this is how this Bloomfield volume, once the property of a Mrs J. Englefield, started out in life. This may well also be true of the pictured examples from Bow Windows and Foster’s bookshops.

As for Dove himself, he was born 20th October 1787 and baptised on the 18th November of that year at the local church of St. Gregory at Sudbury, in Suffolk – the son of Humphry Dove and his wife Ruth Yardley.  He was apprenticed into the Stationers’ Company in 1803 and was active as a printer in Clerkenwell in his own right from at least as early as 1813, probably earlier.  There he remained for the next twenty years, although he briefly had additional premises on Piccadilly either side of 1830.

© Bow Windows Bookshop

© Bow Windows Bookshop

He worked extensively for John Murray and other publishers and is known especially for the classical texts he printed for Richard Priestley. That he was in quite a large way of business is attested in the reports of trial in 1826 of one of his former employees for stealing 130lbs of type from the Clerkenwell premises, probably with the help of accomplices.  It says much for his humanity that on hearing that the culprit’s wife had no money for food he went round in person to give her financial assistance.

In or about 1833, while still in his forties, he retired to Suffolk with his wife, Elizabeth Debenham (1787-1876), whom he had married in 1812.  Whether it was a matter of family money or that he had made a handsome fortune from the “English Classics”, he plainly had no need to work again.  His only further appearance in public life appears to have been the occasion on which he held an oak sapling for Queen Victoria to plant at Burghley in 1844 (Prince Albert planted a lime).  Dove was apparently staying at Burghley at the time. The Queen was charmed and asked for his address so that she could write to him.

For the remainder of his life, he lived at a house or cottage called Hopleys at Horningsheath, with his wife, a cook, and a housemaid.  On the 1851 census return he was recorded as having “no profession, but occupier of a park of fifty acres”. He died on the 17th October 1866 and there is a memorial to him in St. Leonard’s churchyard at Horringer.

After his retirement from the book trade, “Dove’s English Classics” were taken over by his successors, “Scott & Webster” (“Scott, Webster & Geary” from 1836) and some further titles were added.  In sum, I can’t think of any valid reason at all why anyone would not want to collect this series.  Modestly priced, full of interest and challenge, hours of the very best of old reading, highly attractive and demanding very little room – Away you go!

About Laurence Worms - Ash Rare Books

Laurence Worms has owned and run Ash Rare Books since 1971. He represented the antiquarian book trade on the (British) National Book Committee from 1993 to 2002 and has been six times an elected member of the Council of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association. He was largely responsible for drafting the Association’s Code of Good Practice first introduced in 1997 (and its recent update), served as Honorary Secretary of the Association from 1998 to 2001 and as President from 2011 to 2013. He is a former member of the Council of the Bibliographical Society and continues to serve on the Council of the London Topographical Society. He writes and lectures on various aspects of the history of the book and map trades, and has lectured at the universities of Cambridge, London, Reading and Sheffield, as well as at the Bibliographical Society, the Royal Geographical Society, the Warburg Institute, the National Library of Scotland and at Gresham College and Stationers' Hall. Published work includes the compilation of fourteen ‘lives’ for the “Oxford Dictionary of National Biography”, a number of articles for “The Oxford Companion to the Book” and the chapter on early English maps and atlases for the fourth volume of “The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain”. Essays on the British map trade are also appearing in “The History of Cartography” published by the University of Chicago Press. His long-awaited “British Map Engravers”, co-written with Ashley Baynton-Williams, was published to critical acclaim in 2011. He also contributed the numerous biographical notes to Peter Barber’s hugely successful “London : A History in Maps”, co-published by the British Library and the London Topographical Society in 2012.
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2 Responses to Dove’s English Classics

  1. Simon Alderson says:

    Thank you for a most interesting article. From the evidence of various volumes printed / published by Dove in my possession, I have the feeling that he must have taken over a large back catalogue of small format classics that he had been printing for other ‘proprietors’ for several years. Perhaps by the mid 1820s he was the ‘go-to’ printer for these kinds of volumes? Of several very similar format volumes on my shelves (all approx. 13 x 7.5 – 8cm, with engraved frontispiece and title page plus printed title page), I find a volume of the Works of Benjamin Franklin from 1819 (no mention of a series, but printed for J. Walker and 14 other ‘proprietors’) that is ‘printed by J.F Dove’; a volume of Hoole’s translation of Jerusalem Delivered published 1821 (again no series mentioned) by Rivington and 17 other proprietors, also printed by Dove; and a volume dated 1824 with an engraved title page stating ‘Printed for the Proprietors of the British Classics’ and a printed title-page listing 22 ‘proprietors’, on the reverse of which is ‘J.F. Dove, Printer, St John’s Square’. In my collection, Dove doesn’t appear on a title page until an 1825 edition of the Works of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, for which the engraved title page reads ‘Engraved for Dove’s English Classics’ and the printed title-page has ‘Printed for the Proprietors for J.F. Dove’. Perhaps then sometime between 1824 and 1825 Dove negotiated to take over the rights for various small-format classics that he had in fact been printing for some years?


    • Thank you so much for this. Yes – I think this must be right, that Dove took over the rights in the existing “Walker” series – probably in two stages: the first involving changing the series title to his own, but still printing on behalf of the “Proprietors”, and then subsequently acquiring the full rights and (in about 1827) commencing to publish solely under his own name.


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