If the lavish architecture and vibrant landscapes of Regency England as depicted in the many Jane Austen movies that have come out in recent years caught your eye, our latest "Rare Book of the Month" selection may be just for you.
Published in 1817, the year of Austen’s death, William Henry Pyne's History of the Royal Residences is one of the finest examples of aquatint engraving, a relatively short-lived illustration process that nevertheless resulted in some of the most beautiful books ever produced. Though invented around 1650, the aquatint process did not find much of a following until the late eighteenth century, when English watercolor painting was entering its golden age. Aquatints made it possible for printers to achieve the same tonal gradations and soft textures that watercolorists achieved with a paintbrush. Most aquatints, in fact, including those in Pyne’s Royal Residences, are a hybrid form of watercolor painting. By means of a complicated etching process—the use of acid to eat into a metal plate—each image was printed in shades of gray and then meticulously colored by hand using water-based paint. Gold highlights were even added to a few of the book’s 100 full-page illustrations. Some images are nearly photographic in quality, and the fact that they depict architectural details rather than more easily rendered landscapes (the most common category of aquatint engraving) make them all the more remarkable.
The cost of publishing the work, not surprisingly, was high—so high that Pyne ended up in a debtors’ prison. Born in 1769, he made a name for himself as a watercolorist at an early age and, in 1804, cofounded the Royal Watercolor Society in an effort to celebrate and promote this medium, which was not yet as respected as it is today. All of the illustrations in Pyne’s History of the Royal Residences, however, were done by other artists, with Pyne contributing the textual descriptions of each site. Together, the text and images provide an important record of how, for example, rooms were decorated in the Regency period, how paintings were hung, and how the British monarchy was marketed in the wake of the French Revolution. Windsor Castle was extensively remodeled in the 1820s; without Pyne’s work, we would know less about how the building’s interiors looked in earlier times. Also of interest is Pyne’s chapter on Frogmore House, which contains one of the few images of Queen Charlotte’s library. After her death in 1818, the collection was sold and dispersed.
Many copies of this now two-hundred-year-old book have been broken up over the years to provide prints for framing. The three-volume, large-paper copy of it that is now held by UNM’s Special Collections, fortunately, has remained intact and is a useful resource for studying the intersection of art, publishing, and social history in Jane Austen’s time. To view the book in person, feel free to request it in the Anderson Reading Room of Zimmerman Library.