Spring 2024: Decorative Initials in 18th Century Britain and Ireland

Table of contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Printers
  3. Methods & Materials
  4. Case Studies
  5. Visualisations
  6. Reflection
  7. Conclusion
  8. Division of Labour and Reflection on Learning
  9. References


This is our blog for the Digital Humanities Project Course in Spring 2024. This project relies on an existing project by Helsinki Computational History Group (COMHIS) and our dataset is the illustrations used in ECCO (Eighteenth Century Collections Online) provided by COMHIS. We used their work on pre-clustered decorative initials (DIs) to identify book printers and to make connections between DIs during a printers career and between different printers in London and Dublin. To aid this process, we also used Compositor, a database of 18th century printers’ ornaments, to cross-reference between some key DIs we found. In prior research DIs are called either decorative or decorated initials. As these two terms are used interchangeably, we decided to also use both of the terms throughout our blog.

We focused our research on four prominent printers of the time: Bowyer and Richardson, established in London, and Grierson and Nelson, established in Dublin. We provide some background on each in section 2. In section 3, we describe the methods and materials that were used in more detail, after which, in section 4, we provide accounts on DIs of interest by both Bowyer and Richardson and the resulting case studies. The first case study is on the link between some Bowyer initials and Irish versions of the same initials. The second and third case studies are connected by the use of near identical DIs. Of these the first case study is on the three printed versions of an 18th century book The Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands, and its use of a specific DI attributed to Richardson in a book covering his printing career (Maslen, 2001). This is followed by an account of the near-identical DI and its use in our database in a request to find a connection between the two. All our case studies endeavour to connect these specific decorative initials to a bigger picture of the 18th century London and Dublin book publishing world. After the case studies, in section 5, we provide multiple visualisations based on the metadata connected to the clusters and genres of the books they appear in. Finally, in our reflections we present some pointers, and mainly target the cluster cleaning process, as we found our final dataset to be incomplete. We supplemented the incomplete dataset by manual extra collection and cross-referencing with Compositor where necessary, but it remains a source of insight and possible future research.

Research questions

Our work became more explorative as the project unravelled, so our research questions in the end were also quite broad:

  1. What can be said about the printing culture of 18th century Britain and Ireland based on decorated initials of Samuel Richardson and William Bowyer in the ECCO database?
  2. How do the decorated initials appear in regard to genres?

Images in Books

As our project looks into book illustrations, we should also provide context about the images that adorn the books in our dataset. For example, headpieces are images printed into the upper part of the book’s page. Factotums are similar to decorated initials, but have a blank square in the middle for any initial to be placed. Decorated initials, the main focus of our project, can be divided into categories such as inhabited and historiated initials. The former are decorated with figures of people or beasts that do not relate to the story, and the latter are decorated with figures relating to the narrative of the story (Beal, 2007, p. 187). Therefore: “Historiated initials can also be said to frame an author’s intended imagery in visual as well as textual terms” (Koroniak et al., 2001). Recently there has been growing research interest on digitised databases and the possible approaches of using computational methods to analyse the large amount of textual and visual data available in the different repositories. One such database under scrutiny is the Eighteenth Century Collections Online (ECCO, more about the database under the “Materials and Methods” section).

The trend of focusing on the visual aspects of books is a welcome notion, because decorated initials have previously played more than just a stylistic role in storytelling, by illustrating the meaning of the following text for the readers to understand it better (Koroniak et al., 2021). One such instance of a well-known book with initials that have more than a stylistic function was written by William Cowper, a 18th century doctor in London, who was one of the first people to teach anatomy and to author a book in the field. His book contained decorated initials related to the subject matter which sometimes even drew attention away from the content itself (Sanders, 2005). According to Koroniak et al. (2021), looking into the decorations of the books can help us uncover not only narrative or stylistic aspects of the books, but also social and cultural aspects of the society the book was published and printed in. Whether the decorated initials or any other image in the books, the readers of the time were exposed to them, and thus they were a part of the reading experience. As such, excluding decorative initials from research of printing history would likely be a disservice.

Printing and Book Culture in Britain and Ireland during the 18th Century

In the 1690s, printing in England was restricted to London, Oxford, Cambridge and York due to licensing laws, after which publishing remained mainly in those cities until the 1740s (Rivers 2001, p. 1). Throughout the 18th century, London booksellers dominated the market also by retaining copyrights to books and limiting the publishing and production rights in regional towns outside the capital (Raven 2014, p. 42). At the beginning of the 18th century, an estimated 1 500 different titles of books and pamphlets were printed in Britain and Ireland annually (Raven 2014, p. 39). It is worth noting that in addition to books, printers produced a variety of everyday paper products such as printed tickets and customs forms required by the growing trade market and businesses of the time. This jobbing printing formed a significant portion of printers’ income as books were printed less rarely. At the start of the 1700s, there were 70 master printers in London, and by the 1760s the number of printing presses in the major centres of London, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Dublin had grown to 250 (Raven 2014, p. 41). In the second half of the 18th century, printers were often employed by publisher-booksellers on project basis, unlike in the previous centuries when printers were also publishers. Book printing was a risky business, and at the beginning of the 18th century, books imported from continental Europe were still popular in filling the needs of the customers. Printing costs were covered partially by advance pledges made by customers (Raven 2014, p. 46).

Dublin had a smaller market than London, but during the 18th century the situation started to change, as production in Dublin started to increase after 1718. Printers had dominance over publishers in early 18th century Dublin, as can be seen in the books that were usually inscribed “Printed by” not “Printed for” like their counterparts published in London (May, 2021). Besides reading to oneself, the ability to expressively read out loud to others came to be seen as an important skill for an educated person. It was popular for people who could not read to participate in the activity by having the texts read to them. This became a part of the social culture in different settings (Kennedy, 2005). People were also encouraged to buy books for the sole purpose of home decoration (Faulkner & Grierson, 1745). It is also noteworthy, that in the 18th century, Ireland was the second destination after North America (and Dublin the main destination within Ireland) for books exported from London, although there was a shift to reprinting the books instead of importing them (Benson, 2010, p. 369).

Next section: Printers