The Folger Shakespeare Library recently acquired a copybook with an intriguing pictorial paper cover, and it is, of course, the subject of the crocodile mystery we posted last week. This cover is made of thick paper (thicker than regular paper but thinner than boards) and is decorated with an engraving depicting Don Quixote mounted on his noble steed Rocinante, accompanied by his faithful servant Sancho Panza. Other characters appearing in the novel are depicted around them. Above, in a medallion, is a smiling Dulcinea, the main female character of the book, while on each of their sides are the famous chivalric characters, Amadis of Gaule, Orlando Furioso, and Merlin.
The copybook is made of 48 pages filled with alphabet letters, numerals, and moralistic maxims. Some of the pages are decorated with flourishes depicting natural subjects similar to those found in writing manuals.
Several inscriptions in the manuscript indicate that it belonged to a certain Mary Bold in 1719.
The engraving on the paper cover is signed by the Flemish engraver Michael vander Gucht and it first served as the frontispiece for an edition of Don Quixote, newly translated into English by John Stevens, published in two volumes in London in 1700.1
Thirty-three engravings, unsigned, illustrate the two volumes. The frontispiece and the majority of the illustrations in the book copy those used in a Spanish edition of Don Quixote published in Brussels in 1662.2 Stevens’ translation was more accurate than the one done by Thomas Shelton, the first translator of Don Quixote into English, but lacked its vitality. This may explain why only one other edition of this translation was published in 1706.
How did an engraved copper plate originally intended for an illustrated book get to be reused to decorate the cover of a blank book (to become later Mary Bold’s copybook)?
Most likely, our pictorial paper cover is not a leftover leaf, but was originally intended for another use. While some early wrapper covers were made from discarded printed leaves from a book, the thickness of the paper in this case indicates that it was meant to be used as a cover. I suspect that vander Gucht’s copper plate was printed on other covers of blank books as part of a business decision rather than being a one-off print done for a particular owner.
Most likely it was the consortium of eight booksellers listed on the title pages of the 1700 and 1706 editions of Stevens’ Don Quixote who financed the publication of the book and commissioned its engraved frontispiece and illustrations (nowhere in his preface does Stevens mention the images in the book). Any of these booksellers could have retained ownership of the copper plates. Perhaps the bookseller Richard Chiswell, listed first in both imprints, was the main investor in this publishing project and, as the result, was the proprietor of the engraved plates. Chiswell is well known as a major London wholesaler of books. This is, however, speculative for, as James Raven has pointed out, it is difficult to interpret booksellers’ consortia without further information.3
Finally, Michael vander Gucht could have also remained the owner of his engraved plate for the frontispiece. Originally from Antwerp, vander Gucht had immigrated to England in the late 1680s. Both he and his sons were prolific engravers. In addition to being one of the leading engravers of London, his son Gerard seems to have been a print seller.4 He could have reprinted his father’s plate since print sellers could own rolling presses and sell stationary in addition to prints. Interestingly, Gerard vander Gucht was later commissioned to produce the engravings illustrating a new translation of Don Quixote by Charles Jarvis.5
So the most likely scenario seems to be that the pictorial cover of our copybook was made for a bookseller or a print seller who sold blank books in addition to printed books and/or prints.
Cervantes’ work was popular in England. The first English translation of Don Quixote published in 1612 by Edward Blount introduced it as a work intended to entertain. Stevens, in his preface, praised the physical size of his 1700 edition, which was smaller than earlier ones, and described it as “a Book of such excellent diversion, and so full of instruction that it ought to be made fit for the Pocket.” While various translations, editions (several of them with illustrations), and abridgments of Cervantes’ works succeeded throughout the seventeenth century, they multiplied in the 1700s. English readers were familiar with Don Quixote and they would have had no difficulty identifying the characters in vander Gucht’s engraving. Its depiction of Don Quixote wearing a barber’s basin for a helmet and the medallion portrait of Dulcinea signaled the comical aspect of the book as well as its feminine readership.
Indeed, there is evidence that some English editions of Cervantes’ writings were directed to young women readers as early as the mid-1600s.
The reuse of vander Gucht’s copper plate on a blank book may have been seen as a means to add an enjoyable decorative note to a usually plain item and to attract young customers. As a matter of fact, this pictorial cover is similar to those used on children’s books, which developed in England in the second part of the eighteenth century and may be an early example of these.6
One would like to think that someone purchased this blank book for Mary Bold to please her and perhaps hoping that she would cherish it and would be enticed into writing.
[Edit, 8/3/16: Updated call number of the manuscript and linked to the Hamnet record.]
- Cervantes Saavedra, Miguel de, 1547-1616. The History of the Most Ingenious Knight Don Quixote de la Mancha. London, R. Chiswell [etc.] 1700.
- I have not been able to trace the German edition published in 1687 mentioned by Jeff Meade.
- James Raven, The Business of Books: Booksellers and the English Book Trade, 1450-1850, New Haven : Yale University Press, 2007, pp.119-129
- A set of engravings executed around 1625 with inscription “Sold by G. Vander Gucht in Queen Street, Bloomsbury.”
- The Life and Exploits of the Ingenius Gentleman Don Quixote de la Mancha. Translated from the original Spanish of Miguel Cervantes de Saavedra. By Charles Jarvis, Esq; In two volumes. Printed for J. and R. Tonson in the Strand, and R. Dodsley in Pall-Mall, MDCCXLII. 
- For examples see Brian Alderson and Felix de Marez Oyens, Be Merry and Wise: Origins of Children’s Book Publishing in England, 1650-1850, New York : Pierpont Morgan Library : Bibliographical Society of America ; London : British Library ; New Castle, Del. : Oak Knoll Press, 2006.