The Edwardses of Halifax: The Making and Selling of Beautiful Books in London and Halifax, 1749–1826 by G.E. Bentley, Jr. (review)
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Reviewed by
G.E. Bentley, Jr. The Edwardses of Halifax: The Making and Selling of Beautiful Books in London and Halifax, 1749–1826. University of Toronto Press. xxviii, 288. $65.00

The Edwardses of Halifax is a comprehensive history of two generations of the preeminent family of English bookbinders, publishers, and antiquarian booksellers from 1749 to 1826. The father, William Edwards, had a shop in Halifax, Yorkshire; his sons, James and Richard, expanded the business to London contributing not only to profound change in the book industry but also, as Bentley makes clear, to British cultural identity.

The book trade in Britain was transformed in this period: paper of the best quality came to be manufactured by English firms like Whatman, eliminating the need to import from the Continent. A market for luxury printing developed, with an appreciation of India paper, vellum, silk, and satin. New methods of decoration emerged, including fore-edged painting and a patented method for "painting under transparent vellum covers." New inks led to "sharp, black, and uniform" type, and with it "British" fonts: Caslon, Foulis, Baskerville. Other factors contributed to the dramatic changes in book production and consumption: the incorporation of the Royal Academy of Art (1768) had an impact on the quality of book illustration; the lapse of Perpetual Copyright (1774) made the Bible, Shakespeare, Milton, Dryden, and Hume's History of England, by way of example, part of an expansive library of beautiful British books. The Edwardses were at the centre of it all; they were masters of technique and, as Bentley makes clear, cultivated tastes and relationships with collectors to develop a luxury book market over the course of the lifetimes of their firms.

James Edwards, the most successful Edwards, befriended and commissioned work from preeminent artists of the day, including Fuseli and [End Page 232] Walpole. He also had the distinction of being a book collector, bookseller, and possible spy as a friend of Earl Spencer, First Lord of the Admiralty, travelling to the Continent during the Napoleonic Wars. What Bentley records in stunning detail is how James Edwards travelled to and from the Continent in a period of war in pursuit of books (and the impact embargoed shipments of his books had on his business, friendships, and commissions). Richard Edwards, the most unlucky Edwards, in what should have been a triumph, commissioned William Blake to produce prints and engravings for Edward Young's Night Thoughts (1797). Blake worked for two years producing 537 folio watercolours, neglecting other commercial commissions. Due to Richard Edwards's seeming mismanagement of the enterprise, Blake was paid only £21 instead of £105, – it should have made Blake's fortune; however, fewer than 250 copies were printed and sold, and it is not known by whom or when, and the business soon closed.

The family is deserving of such close attention because of their contribution to book production and their contribution to the formation of a distinctly "British" press. The Edwardses were masters of technique and their shops seemingly the locus of industry. Bentley displays an encyclopaedic knowledge of the period, of book technologies, and of personal relationships which shaped and influenced socio-political and bio-bibliographic relationships. There are a few illustrations in the monograph complemented by a few figures (pages 399–405) on the Press web site; the other 398 digital pages are scholarly notes. Given that the monograph is largely about material culture, there should be more and better images. The lack is perhaps a consequence of the monograph's origin: it is a record of Professor Bentley's passionate exploration of things "Edwards" over a career of scholarship; however, he had no intention to publish this work. A colleague delivered his material to the Press, and only then was he persuaded to publish. We should be grateful to the Press for recognizing the dual value of the work: a comprehensive history of innovators and contributors to book history and production deserving critical attention and a testament of impeccable scholarly passion. [End Page 233]

Ann-Barbara Graff
Division of Art History and Critical Studies, NSCAD University
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