Choice 6: Bentley’s Designs for Gray’s Poems
By Wilmarth S. Lewis
“‘Short Notes’ records, ‘This year  published a fine edition of poems by Mr T. Gray with prints from designs by Mr R. Bentley.’ He might have added that the fine edition had an ‘Explanation of the Prints’ by himself. A sample is:
“Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat,
“The cat standing on the brim of the tub, and endeavouring to catch a gold fish. Two cariatides of a river god stopping his hears to her cries, and Destiny cutting the nine threads of life, are on each side. Above, is a cat’s head between two expiring lamps, and over that, two mouse-traps, between an mandarin-cat sitting before a Chinese pagoda, and angling for gold fish into a china jar; and another cat drawing up a net. At the bottom are mice enjoying themselves on the prospect of the cat’s death; a lyre and pallet.
“Walpole published the book through Robert Dodsley in London to help his two friends. In the absence of his correspondence with Dodsley about the book we don’t know the terms of its publication apart from Dodsley’s payment of £42 to Gray for the copyright of his poems. Designs of Mr R Bentley for Six Poems by Mr T. Gray finally appeared in 1753, a royal quarto of thirty-six pages so cut that it looks like a small folio. The price was high, half a guinea, the equivalent today of what–fifty dollars? Dr. Johnson in his chapter on Gray in Lives of the Poets annoyed the poet and his friends by saying that the poems were printed on one side of each leaf ‘That they might in some form or other make out a book,’ but Bentley’s Designs went through three editions in 1753 and four more from 1765 to 1789. In our own day it has been hailed as a landmark of English book illustration by Osbert Sitwell and Kenneth Clark who called it ‘the most graceful monument to the Gothic Rococo.’
“Both Bentley’s original drawings and Walpole’s copy of the printed book are at Farmington. I am saving the book of drawings. Walpole noted in it. ‘These are the original drawings by Mr Bentley from which Grignion and Müller engraved the plates. Hor. Walpole.’ He pasted the drawings where the prints were to be. His usual binding was plain calf, but he had this book bound in red morocco with elaborate gilt tooling, a beautiful book. William Beckford paid eight guineas for it in the Strawberry Hill sale through his bookseller, Bohn, as we know from their correspondence about the sale at Farmington. Bohn reported that the drawings are so like engravings he had to look pretty carefully to satisfy himself that they are not engravings, an uncertainty shared by all then and since. After the Beckford Sale in 1882 they went to the ardent Walpolian Laurence Currie and came to me from Maggs in 1933.
“The publication of the Designs did not proceed smoothly. Gray objected to numbering the stanzas and the numbers were removed; he insisted that ‘Mr’ be put before his and Bentley’s names for fear that their omission would make him appear as ‘a classic.’ Walpole saw no ‘affectation in leaving out the Mr before your names; it is a barbarous addition. . . . Without ranging myself among classics, I assure you, were I to print anything with my name, it should be plain Horace Walpole; Mr is one of the Gothicisms I abominate,’ but Gray insisted on having it. Although he disliked Walpole’s ‘Explanation of the Prints,’ he conceded, ‘If you think it necessary to print these explanations for the use of people that have no eyes, I could be glad they were a little altered.’ Gray, always the candid friend with Walpole, wrote that he, Gray, would ‘revise the press, for you know you can’t.’ He became seriously alarmed when Dodsley, to make the book look more for its money, had Eccardt’s portrait of Gray at Strawberry Hill engraved for the frontispiece. On hearing this the poet wrote Walpole, ‘Sure you are out of your wits! this I know, if you suffer my head to be printed, you infallibly will put me out of mine. I conjure you immediately to put a stop to any such design. Who is at the expense of engraving it I know not, but if it be Dodsley, I will make up the loss to him. The thing as it was, I know, will make me ridiculous enough, but to appear in proper person at the head of my works, consisting of half a dozen ballads in thirty pages, would be worse than the pillory. I do assure you, if I had received such a frontispiece without any warning, I believe it would have given me a palsy.’ The print appears in only a few copies, including Walpole’s own. He lettered ‘Thomas Gray’ neatly on it and below the print, ‘Eccardt pinx, Müller Inv. In the collection of Mr H. Walpole.’
“With the removal of Gray’s portrait the frontispiece became Bentley’s illustration for the ‘Elegy’ that shows the poet musing by the babbling brook. There has been some speculation on the poet’s identity, whether he was Gray, Richard West, or just anybody. Comparison of Bentley’s original drawing with Müller’s print of it shows that the musing figure was originally Gray, adenoids and all, and that Müller’s figure, in compliance with Gray’s wishes, is nobody in particular. Walpole’s annotations in his printed copy of the book point out Gray’s indebtedness in the poems to Richard III, As You Like It, La Bruyère, and the Spectator. Walpole also noted that the Favourite Cat Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes belonged to himself and that the authority for Chancellor Hatton’s dancing in ‘A Long Story’ is found in Anthony Bacon’s papers, vol. I, p. 56. Walpole bound in an excellent sketch by Gray of Stoke House in A Long Story opposite Bentley’s drawing of it and when we put these two drawings beside Grignion’s engraving of Bentley’s drawing we have Stoke House from start to finish.”
Lewis continues the chapter by discussing the friendship between Gray and Walpole, including their experiences during their Grand Tour travels and afterwards, and their quarrels and reconciliations. He notes, “Bentley’s Designs for Gray’s Poems‘ was inspired by Walpole’s eagerness to help his friends who he believed were geniuses.”
Lewis, Wilmarth S. Rescuing Horace Walpole. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1978.
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