"A TURNING POINT IN BRITISH DECORATIVE ART… ANTICIPATES THE BOOK ILLUSTRATIONS OF WILLIAM BLAKE": 1753 FOLIO SECOND EDITION OF BENTLEY'S DESIGNS… FOR SIX POEMS BY MR. T. GRAY, WITH 25 ENGRAVED ILLUSTRATIONS
GRAY, Thomas (BENTLEY, Richard, illustrator). Designs by Mr. R. Bentley, for Six Poems by Mr. T. Gray. London: R. Dodsley, 1753. Folio (11 by 15 inches), mid-19th-century full dark green straight-grain morocco gilt, elaborately gilt-decorated spine, raised bands, marbled endpapers, all edges gilt. $3500.
Second edition, issued the same year as the first, of Richard Bentley's illustrated edition of six of Thomas Gray's poems, including his masterpiece "Elegy Written in a Country Church-Yard" (first published in 1751), one of the most famous poems in the English language, with 25 lively engravings, consisting of a title page vignette, six historiated initials, six headpieces, six tailpieces, and six full-page folio plates, all by Bentley. Handsomely bound in contemporary morocco-gilt by Clarke & Bedford.
Thomas Gray was "a gentleman of his age, who numbered among his private accomplishments the occasional composition of poetry, who wished to share with others only those poems which met his own standards of excellence, and who, except for the two Pindaric odes, was reluctant to see any of them appear in print. Among these was one, perhaps the richest in self-revelation… a poem which through many changes of taste has retained its popularity and defined the literary rank of its author. Gray's Elegy is one of the great poems of the English language; to many readers, learned and otherwise, it has stood almost for the idea of poetry itself" (ODNB). Indeed, Gray only published 13 poems in his lifetime; six of those appear in this anthology. "A Long Story" is printed here for the first time.
Gray's poems are marvelously complemented here by Bentley's charming and evocative illustrations. Precociously talented but wayward with money, Bentley found a modicum of stability when he became friends with Horace Walpole. He produced illustrations for several works published at Walpole's Strawberry Hill press, and even provided architectural drawings for the renovation of Walpole's great estate—but the present work remains his finest. "He produced innovative architectural drawings for Strawberry Hill, painted landscapes and allegorical designs, and made ingenious illustrations for the first anthology of Gray's poems (1753)… His designs for Gray's poems were deemed by Hanns Hammelmann to be 'a turning-point in British decorative art.' Their complement of visual puns and pictorial allusions to other works of art gives the interplay of the sister arts an unexpectedly provocative coherence. Walpole referred to them enthusiastically in his correspondence; Gray felt embarrassed over his small output of poetry and asserted that his verses were 'only subordinate, & explanatory to the Drawings'… Bentley's unique pictorial enrichment of the poems enlarges yet refines traditional articulations of ut pictura poesis and anticipates the book illustrations of William Blake. His finest work, whether in the graphic or literary arts, reveals a fertile genius, an energetic imagination, and an ebullient, incisive wit" (ODNB). "Another fine rococo book, this time with occasional neo-Gothic intrusions" (Ray). Second edition, with the half title reading "Designs, &c." rather than "Drawings"; with an exclamation mark in the row of printer's flowers dividing text on pp. 3 and 4 of the "Explanation of the Prints" at the rear of the volume; inverted "p" used in place of lower case "d" in last seven occurrences on p. 26. Ray, The Illustrator and the Book in England, 4. Hammelmann, 14. Rothschild 1061. ESTC T75219.
Minor foxing, slight wear to corners, a few shallow scratches or discolorations to covers. A near-fine and beautifully bound copy of this desirable illustrated folio.