The following notice appeared in the Times of 10th April 1789. It provides a salutary to anyone thinking of attempting to pull the wool over an engraver’s eyes:
A Cheap Receipt to Get One’s Head in a Print Shop
Procure some plausible Friend to scrape acquaintances with a young engraver, commend his works, and express good wishes for his success. Let this Friend call frequently on the Artist aforesaid, and at last drop a hint that a Mezzotinto from the Portrait of a certain Member of the Opposition, or adherent to the same Party, could not fail to engage an extensive subscription. Next, let the agent proceed a step further, viz. by offering his interest to borrow the likeness of the Patriot of Partizan [sic], provided the engraver will promise to undertake the print, the engraver unthinkingly consents, and the picture is soon produced; but a list of pretend subscribers must also be brought in to keep the Artist in hope. A Patriotic Lady is, on this occasion, the most apt accomplice. The work, however, being completed, most of the subscribers turn out to be mere phantoms, and the engraver finds he has little besides labour and loss of time for his pains. The Patriot’s end, however, is answered, – he gets his head into a print-shop gratis – Probatum est [it is proved].
We do not know who the “young engraver” behind the notice was, or which “certain Member of the Opposition” had attracted his ire. A quick search through the British Museum’s online catalogue reveals only one mezzotint portrait of a Whig MP carrying a 1789 publication date – that of Lord John Townshend (1757 – 1833), engraved after Sir Joshua Reynolds by John Jones (c.1745 – 1797) which is shown above. Townshend was a younger son of Marquess George Townshend, an amateur caricaturist who had published numerous political satires during the 1760s and 1770s, so it’s conceivable that his son could have been behind this scam to get his portrait published and displayed around town. Although I’m not sure that the 44 year-old Jones quite matches the description of a “young engraver”.
Most likely the article refers to a portrait of an obscure backbencher which was never published. The incident is interesting because it casts some light on the business of being a jobbing engraver at that time. The artist behind the article was understandably disgruntled because he’d invested time and money in producing a plate which no-one was willing to publish. Eighteenth-century printsellers were remarkably adept at transferring the financial risks associated with publishing onto the artists that worked for them and in many cases the engraver would be expected to pay for the cost of the plate and sometime even the printing the of the finished design. This wasn’t cheap and a poorly chosen subject or badly executed engraving could be the harbinger of financial ruin.
Evidently this engraver wasn’t ruined, as he could still afford to purchase column inches in a national newspaper, but his anger suggests he’d still taken a serious financial hit on the project. Quite clearly this was one young man who wasn’t to be trifled with.