Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Crowns, Sceptres and the King's Printer

Bur. 03295 -  Thomas, a Kempis - Select pieces of the reverend and pious Thomas à Kempis : Vol. 1. In which are contain'd four books of the Imitation of Jesus Christ. [Worthington's version.] / Corrected according to the original Latin.  Edinburgh: printed by James Watson ‘one of the printers to the King’s most excellent majesty’, 1717

This is a teeny weeny little book dating from 1717, measuring no more than 10cm tall and bound in an exquisite gilt-tooled Morocco binding.  Despite its diminutive scale, the printing and binding of this tiny book gives an insight into the hard-nosed world of eighteenth century commercial printing and the cut-throat politics of the management of royal monopolies in Stuart and Georgian Britian.  

The book itself is a popular Catholic devotional work, the Imitation of Christ by Thomas a’ Kempis, translated into English by Dr John Worthington (died 1671).  This is the first volume of a two volume edition of this work.  The first volume was printed in 1717 and the second appeared in 1721.  Sadly we only have the first volume here in Lampeter.

The printer of the book was James Watson junior (1664-1722) of Edinburgh.  His father James Watson senior was a Catholic Merchant from Aberdeen who in 1686, with the backing of the Catholic King James VII (II), was given premises in the Palace of Holyrood in Edinburgh.  In that year he had also been promised by the King, that he or his son would in due course be given the title of ‘King’s printer’ with the monopoly to print prayer books, Bibles and official publications, once that position had been vacated by the current holder.  In 1688 that position was held by Agnes Anderson, the widow of Andrew Anderson, who had been granted the monopoly in 1671 for forty years.   When his father died in 1687, James Watson junior inherited the business and he also inherited the King’s promise.  James Junior publically renounced the Catholic faith of his forbears, becoming an Episcopalian, but he continued to print books of Catholic devotion of which our copy of the Imitation of Christ is a typical example.  

At the time that this book was being printed in 1717, Watson had built upon the business he had inherited and was operating one of the most successful printing and bookselling firms in early eighteenth century Edinburgh.  He had moved to larger premises on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh, had invested in the latest printing technology and had diversified as a newspaper publisher.  Between 1711 and 1718 he was embroiled in a long running legal battle that was centred on the promise that had been made to his father in 1686 by James VII, that the Watson’s would be the next holders of the royal printing monopoly and the title ‘King’s Printer.’  The Anderson monopoly was due to come an end in May 1712.  In 1711 Mrs Anderson, still in business was trying hard to secure the continuation of the monopoly for her daughters and their husbands.   With the late King’s promise to his father still in mind, Watson approached another Edinburgh printer called Robert Freebairn and also John Baskett the King’s Printer in England and together they applied jointly for the role.  They were issued with a patent by Queen Anne in August 1711 to undertake it.

You would expect that to be the end of the story, but sadly it wasn’t.   Sadly his new partners Baskett and Frebairn did the dirty on Watson.  In 1714 they obtained a royal warrant from George I naming them the King’s Printers in Scotland and excluding Watson.   Not to be deterred, Watson was able to in June 1715 to convince the whole Scottish legal bench to declare that he still had a third share in the role and therefore had the right to call himself ‘one of the King’s Printers’, despite the 1714 warrant.  While all this was going on Mrs Anderson was carrying on printing Bible and Prayer Books and was calling herself ‘the King’s printer’, though in June 1716 Watson managed to get an order restraining her.  Matters got more complicated in 1716 when Freebairn, Watson’s original partner in the 1711 letter patent got caught up in the Jacobite Rebellion and was appointed as the official printer to the Old Pretender.  Freebairn’s legal rights were lost through his rebellion and consequently the 1711 patent granted to him, Baskett and Watson was declared null and void.  Back to square one.  This put Freebairn out of the picture, but not Baskett and in July 1716 Baskett and Mrs Anderson (using her maiden name Campbell) decided to join forces against Watson and after some lobbying they were granted the role of King’s Printer in Scotland by George I.  For Watson all now seemed lost.  Unfortunately for Baskett Mrs Anderson died three weeks after the grant was confirmed!   

Watson was back on the case and on December 14th 1716 the patent granted to Mrs Anderson and Baskett was overturned by the Court of Session after Watson petitioned the court.   In February 1718 the Lords of Appeal confirmed the Court of Session’s decision, finally confirming Watson as the ‘King’s Printer’ in Scotland, though giving Baskett certain privileges in Scotland too. [1]      
This tiny and rather beautiful book in the Lampeter collection was printed in 1717 on Watson’s Edinburgh press, while he was embroiled in the final part of his legal battle.   On the title page of the book he is described as ‘one of the printers to the King’s most excellent majesty’ a title confirmed in 1715.  By the time the second volume appearsin 1721 he is describing himself as the ‘King’s printer’, the title confirmed to him in 1718.          

Although James Watson Junior had his own bookselling premises on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh and as was usual at the time the business had its own bindery, he may well have printed this edition of the Imitation of Christ for two other booksellers. The title page of the second volume published in 1721, states that the book was ‘sold by’ George Stewart and James Robertson.[2]   Both of these men were primarily bookbinders who also traded as booksellers. George Stewart first appears as a bookbinder in 1711 in Edinburgh and had a bindery and premises ‘a little over the cross’ in the centre of Edinburgh.  He had a string of apprentices in the trade through the 1710s and 1720s and died in 1745.[3]  Robertson is known to have been a bookbinder as well as a bookseller and was registered as a ‘bookbinder’ when admitted as a Burgess in Edinburgh in 1720.[4] 

With all the legal backstory surrounding Watson’s acquisition of the title of ‘King’s Printer’ in mind, let’s look at the binding again.  The binding is certainly contemporary with the book it protects and it is probably a trade binding, in other words the book was sold ready bound in the printer-booksellers premises.  It was probably bound either on Watson’s premises or those of Stewart or Robertson.   The binding is a heavy-grained red Morocco with gold tooling and a black onlay patch label to the spine.  The central decorative element of the tooling has been created from a combination of some rather unusual hand tools, including two striking imperial crowns and two pairs of crossed sceptres terminating in fleur-de-lys.  The book was printed in 1717, and possibly bound in early 1718 just as the point when Watson gains his long sought after role as ‘King’s Printer’.   Is it too much to speculate that the binding’s unusual royal motifs were deliberately included in the decoration in recognition of Watson’s newly confirmed role?   Any retailer could be forgiven for making reference to such a prestigious and hard-won role in the products offered for sale on their premises.  


[1] The account of James Watson's legal battles is based on: W. J. Couper, James Watson King’s Printer (Glasgow, 1910)


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home