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  • James Wallis’s Editions of James Thomson’s The Seasons
  • Kwinten Van De Walle (bio)

The commercial success of James Thomson’s The Seasons, first published in 1730, is most prominently reflected in the wide range of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century editions of the poem appearing after the lapse of Andrew Millar’s copyright in 1765.1 Booksellers issued their own distinct editions of The Seasons on the expanding literary marketplace in the hope of capitalizing on the poem’s immense popularity. In 1805, James Wallis, a young, entrepreneurial London bookseller, produced three different editions of the poem in three different formats to increase the number of potential consumers. Even though Wallis included the same paratexts—a set of newly commissioned illustrations, a biography of Thomson, and an index, as well as a glossary—he distinguished his editions in terms of their formal makeup. In this essay, I will examine Wallis’s print-cultural repackaging of Thomson’s poem in connection with contemporary editions of The Seasons as well as with Wallis’s other publication ventures. Diversifying the material design and execution of his editions, Wallis manufactured three distinct products, each of which catered to a specific type of consumer. Wallis’s project not only serves as an insightful case study of marketing strategies adopted by booksellers in the competitive marketplace, but also testifies to developments in illustration practices at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The editions were embellished with finely executed wood engravings, produced by Thomas Bewick and his workshop apprentices after designs by John Thurston. Negotiating the rich illustrative tradition of the late eighteenth century, the illustrators generated new interpretations of Thomson’s poem. At the same time, the collaboration between bookseller, designer, and engraver represented an experiment with the medium of the wood engraving as a viable alternative to the previously dominant technology of the intaglio engraving.

There is little information available about James Wallis and his publishing enterprise. Registered as an apprentice to the Stationers’ Company in 1789, he became a freeman in 1797 through redemption—that is, the paying of a fee—and was elected to the rank of liveryman on 7 October 1800. He initially operated from Ivy Lane, but relocated to Paternoster Row [End Page 115] in 1798.2 In the years after his apprenticeship, Wallis published mostly nonfictional works such as travel narratives, letter collections, and moral and philosophical essays, often in collaboration with fellow booksellers to share the production costs and to reduce financial risks.3 In the late 1790s and at the beginning of the new century, sales must have been poor or Wallis must have overstretched his resources, however, since he went bankrupt on 2 November 1801. Wallis’s case is symptomatic of the fortunes of many ambitious minor booksellers who entered the London book trade after the abolition of perpetual copyright by the House of Lords in 1774. With the monopoly of the Stationers’ Company effectively at an end, the book market became open to entrepreneurs attempting to benefit from the new commercial opportunities. However, the trade was as risky as it was profitable. James Raven reports on the changing circumstances of the trade:

The profits of certain publishing booksellers soared, but so also did the number of bankruptcies. Unprecedented turnover in books matched unprecedented turnover in booksellers. Although joint ventures and ad hoc partnerships continued—many lessening risk and ensuring secure profits—the trade as a whole experienced a new vulnerability and rivalry.


In spite of his initial setback, Wallis persisted and reentered the trade in 1802. Instead of investing in a number of unrelated book projects, he initiated a more ambitious publishing program, one component of which was his project of publishing editions of Thomson’s poem in multiple formats. He entered into a particularly competitive market, since British booksellers had frequently reissued The Seasons. Catering to specific segments of the buying public, booksellers included distinct sets of illustrations and a wide variety of nonvisual paratexts such as critical essays, biographical accounts, explanatory notes, and indices to increase the appeal of their editions.4 The production of new editions of The Seasons reached its climax in the final decade of the eighteenth century. Booksellers...


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