Rev. Thomas Frognall Dibdin

Anonymous, Obituary in Gentleman's Magazine NS 29 (January 1848) 87-92.

Nov. 18. After a long illness, of paralysis on the brain, aged 71, the Rev. Thomas Frognall Dibdin, D.D., Rector of St. Mary's, Bryanstone-square, Vicar of Exning. Suffolk, and Chaplain in Ordinary to her Majesty, formerly F.R.S. and F.S.A.

Dr. Dibdin was a nephew of the celebrated Charles Dibdin, the song-writer, and the son of Charles's elder brother, Thomas, whom he has immortalized as "poor Tom Bowling, the darling of our crew." Mr. Thomas Dibdin, who had commanded the Eagle gally, a sloop-of-war, in the year 1756, was afterwards a captain on the Indian ocean, and married secondly, in 1775, at Calcutta, Elizabeth Compton, who gave birth the next year, at the same place, to the subject of this memoir. He received his second name from Captain Frognall, his mother's uncle. Both his parents dying in 1780, he was educated under the care of his uncle, Mr. William Compton, first at Reading under Mr. John Man, next at Stockwell, and lastly under Dr. Greenlaw, at Isleworth. He was then matriculated at Oxford, as a commoner of St. John's college, where his tutor was Mr. Marlowe, afterwards President. At college commenced his taste for history and literature. His favourite books were Boswell's Anecdotes of Johnson, D'Israeli's Curiosities of Literature, and the historical works of Rushworth, Henry, and Gibbon. He was one of the first members of the Society for Scientific and Literary Disquisition, of which the late Dr. Maton was the founder. Having determined to adopt the bar as his profession, he became a pupil of Mr. Basil Montagu, of Lincoln's Inn; but, before the time arrived for his being called to the bar, he removed to Worcester, to practise as a provincial counsel. This plan, however, did not promise success, and he was thereupon induced to turn his views to the Church. With this design he waited upon the venerable Bishop Hurd, but was refused ordination until he should have taken a degree.

Mr. Dibdin thereupon bade adieu to Worcester, took his degree with as little delay as possible, and, in pursuit of a title, established his residence at Kensington, where he continued an inhabitant for the next twenty-one years of his life. He was ordained by Dr. North, Bishop of Winchester, Dec. 24, 1804. One of his earliest preferments was the preachership of Archbishop Tenison's chapel in Swallow-St. given him by Dr. Andrewes, the Rector of St. James's. He subsequently obtained, "under the odious process of competition," (such are his own words,) the alternate morning preachership and the evening lectureship of Brompton chapel, which he held for nineteen years, and other preacherships, at Quebec and Fitzroy chapels. He quitted Brompton chapel in 1811, proposing to build one at Kensington. (See Gent. Mag. vol. LXXXl. ii. 203, 299, 404.)

Some time before, he had settled into the clerical profession, indeed from the earliest stage of his career, Mr. Dibdin evinced a strong inclination for authorship. His first productions were some essays, written at Oxford, and published in the European Magazine; and some poetry, afterwards printed in a volume, 8vo. 1796. When at Worcester he wrote some tales, one of which, La Belle Marianne, was privately printed, long after, in 1824.

He describes his "first literary engagement," however, as having been the conduct of a weekly journal, called The Quiz, to which Sir Robert Ker Porter and his clever sisters were contributors, and in which Mr. Dibdin undertook to furnish the pieces connected with antiquity and art. It was not of long continuance.

Whilst pursuing the study of the law, he prepared an analysis of Blackstone's first volume on the Rights of Persons, which was engraved on a large copperplate; and he also published, at Worcester, a sheet on the Law of the Poor Rate. He edited a History of Cheltenham in 8vo. 1802, for Mr. Ruff, a bookseller there. The same person printed the first edition of his Introduction to the Knowledge of Rare and Valuable Editions of the Greek and Latin Classics, published in 8vo. 1802; which was so successful, that a second edition was required in 1804, and a third in 1808. The last was dedicated to Earl Spencer, to whom the first edition had been the means of introducing him. There was afterwards a fourth edition, in 1827.

In 1805 he translated, for Mr. Ruff, Fenelon's Treatise on the Education of Daughters, which was dedicated to the Duchess of Bedford.

In 1804 he was a candidate for the office of librarian of the Royal Institution, but was successfully opposed by the late Mr. Harris. Soon after, he engaged in the composition of a series of lectures for delivery at the same establishment, On the Rise and Progress of English Literature. These were altogether twenty-eight in number, and delivered in the years 1806, 1807, and 1808. One course was repeated at the London Institution in 1823.

In 1806, on the death of the Rev. John Brand, Mr. Dibdin was a candidate for the office of one of the Secretaries of the Society of Antiquaries: but, the late Mr. Carlisle being the favourite candidate of Mr. Lysons, the Director, whose influence in the Society was paramount, he obtained on the election only 27 votes, whilst Mr. Carlisle was elected by 120.

In 1807 he undertook the editorship of a weekly journal entitled The Director, of which Mr. Bernard, the principal manager of the Royal Institution, was the projector. It continued from the 24th Jan. to the 4th July in that year. Mr. Bernard (after Sir Thomas) was one of the writers, as was Sir Humphry Davy, Sir George Beaumont, and others. Mr. Dibdin wrote several essays, the Bibliographiana, and the British Gallery, a description of the principal pictures exhibited for sale, altogether about two-thirds of the whole.

The Bibliographiana were the germ of the Bibliomania, a work which may be considered to have established the author's reputation in his peculiar branch of research.

In 1807, also, Mr. Dibdin edited (under the assumed name of Reginald Wolfe, King's printer in the reign of Henry VIII.) Francis Quarles's Judgment and Mercy for Afflicted Souls; or, Meditations, Soliloquies, and Prayers.

In 1808 he engaged in a new edition of the Utopia of Sir Thomas More, which was printed in two volumes octavo, and the large paper in a small quarto.

In 1809 the Bibliomania, a poetical epistle by Dr. Ferriar, addressed to Richard Heber, esq. suggested to Mr. Dibdin his prose work on the same subject: the first edition of which was written within a month, and published in a small octavo volume.

He now embarked on one of his most extensive works, and that which, if completed, would have been the most important, The Typographical Antiquities of Great Britain. The first volume was wholly devoted to preliminary matter, and the works of Caxton. It contained the substance of Lewis's Life of Caxton, the materials collected by Ames and Herbert, with very considerable additions. It was published at the beginning of 1810, in a handsome quarto volume, richly embellished; the sixty-five large-paper copies were all engaged at seven guineas a copy; about 420 small-paper copies were bespoke; and the editor cleared between 500 and 600 pounds. The second volume, which is devoted almost exclusively to the works of Wynkyn de Worde and Pynson, appeared in 1812, having been sold to Miller, the bookseller, for 200 guineas; the third was bought by Murray (Miller's successor) for the like sum, and published in 1816; the fourth was not ready until 1819, and was published by Longmans, on Dr. Dibdin's own account. By this time the original purchasers were partly dead, and partly grown lukewarm; and, as this volume barely cleared its expenses, the work here unfortunately ceased. To have been properly carried out, it would have formed ten volumes.

In the mean time the author had prepared the second edition of his Bibliomania. This he cast into a new form, calling it "a bibliographical romance," in six parts, and designating the parts thus: 1. The Evening Walk. 2. The Cabinet. 3. The Auction Room. 4. The Library. 5. The Drawing Room. 6. The Alcove. The characters of his friends and the principal book-collectors were introduced as dramatis personae, under romantic names, the antitypes of which are for the most part divulged in his subsequent writings. The author himself figured under the name of Lysander. "But Lysander had something else to do than to indulge in mere literary chit-chat for the amusement of his guests. Dry and dusty authors were to be taken down and rummaged; and I think that I speak soberly when I say, that nearer three hundred than two hundred of such authors were pretty carefully examined. Including the various works of these authors consulted and referred to, not fewer than four hundred must be considered as the number. In regard to Morhof in particular (him upon whom Johnson seems to lay a most emphatic stress,) I might at that time be said to have had his Polyhistor Literarius at my fingers end. Hard, dogged, fagging was the basis of all the vivacity of the Bibliomania."

This work was generally received with much approbation, and the author derived from it a profit of about 200. Eighteen copies only were printed on large paper in two volumes imperial octavo; they were published at ten guineas, and have since been sold for fifty.

We now arrive at the period of the formation of the Roxburghe Club, which originated in the sale of the Duke of Roxburghe's library, in June, 1812. On this subject Dr. Dibdin has discoursed at length in his Bibliographical Decameron, and in a long chapter of Roxburghiana, in his Literary Reminiscences. Of the eighteen original members the only survivors are the present Duke of Sutherland and Mr. Utterson. The number was gradually increased to thirty-one, at which it was permanently fixed. Dr. Dibdin was the Vice-President, and Lord Spencer the President.

It appears to have been the library of Lord Spencer which really drew away our author's attention from the plodding labour of the Typographical Antiquities. He found there so many productions of the continental presses to attract his admiration, that he was drawn aside from the less interesting productions of the minor English printers. His first work on this valuable collection is entitled, Book Rarities, or a Descriptive Catalogue of some of the most curious, rare, and valuable Books of early date, chiefly in the Collection of the Rt. Hon. George John Earl Spencer, K.G. Of this only thirty-six copies were printed: and it consisted of thirty-four pages, entirely devoted, with two exceptions, to the early printed Dantes and Petrarchs at Spencer House.

The task thus commenced extended into the work entitled Bibliotheca Spenceriana, which was published in four volumes super-royal octavo, all the copies of which were sold, the small copies at 8 8.s. and 9 9s., and the large paper at 18 18s. The delivery took place in April, 1814.

A Supplement was added in 1815; the Aedes Althorpianae (noticed hereafter) may be considered as vols. V. and VI.; and a Catalogue of the Cassano Library (added to the Spencer collection in 1820) formed an additional volume in 1823.

As a relief to these labours, when at Ramsgate in 1812, for the recruiting of his health, after having unbended for some time with Dryden, Pope, and the other poets, he turned for further amusement to the composition of a poem in blank verse, which he entitled Bibliography, and fully strung it with notes. Only fifty copies were printed.

Dr. Dibdin's great work, The Bibliographical Decameron, was first announced by an advertisement "on the yellow coat of old Sylvanus Urban," in June, 1815. It appeared in three volumes in Dec. 1817. The author's expenses on this magnificent work amounted to nearly 5000; but he sold the whole impression of (we believe) 18 large, and 760 small-paper copies (many of the latter at the advanced price of nine guineas, the subscription having been seven guineas and a half), and the result was not only very triumphant, but probably more profitable than in the case of any other of our author's productions. Overtures were made to him for its republication in French, but this was prevented by the plates and woodcuts having been ruthlessly destroyed by the author.

Immediately after the completion of the Decameron, Dr. Dibdin undertook another highly embellished work, a description of the mansion-house of his patron Earl Spencer, at Althorp in Northamptonshire, its works of art, and its book-treasures. This was entitled Aedes Althorpianae; to which is added, a Supplement to the Bibliotheca Spenceriana. Nearly 2000 were paid to the engravers of the plates. The work was not published until April, 1822.

In the year 1818 Dr. Dibdin went abroad, and having been nine months incessantly occupied in the examination of public and private libraries, he returned home, resolving to bring forward the result for publication, under the title of A Bibliographical, Antiquarian, and Picturesque Tour. This was published in the spring of 1821. The author had been attended by Mr. George Lewis, as an artist, from whose pencil the most beautiful plates were derived, and who afterwards published on his own account a supplemental series of etchings. The money paid to engravers nearly approached 5,000. Dr. Dibdin was probably justified when he boasted in his Reminiscences, that this was "the most costly work on the score of embellishment, and the most perilous on that of responsibility, in which a traveller — relying upon his own resources exclusively — was ever engaged." There was a second edition, in three smaller volumes, without the embellishments of the former, but with a few new ones of its own, published in 1829.

There is also a French edition, translated by M. Theodore Licquet, with additional notes, in 4 vols. 8vo. Paris, 1825; the same gentleman, the Conservateur of the Public Library at Rouen, having previously translated and published the ninth letter, which related to that library, in 1821. Mons. G. A. Crapelet, also, translated the 30th letter, descriptive of "l'Imprimerie et la Librarie de Paris," with some Notes, 8vo. 1821, to which Dr. Dibdin replied in a pamphlet entitled "Roland for an Oliver," of which only 36 copies were printed.

In 1819 Dr. Dibdin projected a History of the University of Oxford, on a most magnificent scale. The first class of subscribers were to be entitled patrons, subscribing 100 each and he obtained seven names on that condition, namely, Lord Grenville the Chancellor, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Earl Spencer, the Right Hon. Thomas Grenville, Joseph Neeld, esq. M. P., W. T. esq. and Thomas Ponton, esq. It was arranged to devote the sum of 6,330 to engravings; but, as this scheme was abortive, we need only refer for further particulars to our author's Literary Reminiscences, pp. 849 et seq.

He was now, unhappily, beginning to be entangled in those pecuniary difficulties for which, for the remainder of his life, he continued to suffer. As a means of temporary relief, he published by subscription a volume of Sermons, "preached in Brompton, Quebec, and Fitzroy Chapels." 8vo. 1820.

From June 1822 to Dec. 1825 he was a contributor to The Museum, a weekly journal, projected by Mr. A. J. Valpy, and originally under the editorship of Mr. Bailey, the editor of Facciolati's Lexicon. Dr. Dibdin was offered the editorship at a salary of 200 a year, with a share of one-sixth of the proceeds. On his declining it, it was confided to the charge of Mr. George Soane: but both the property and the editorship shortly changed hands, and the publication itself did not long survive.

In 1823 Dr. Dibdin obtained, through the untiring friendship of Earl Spencer, the vicarage of Exning near Newmarket, (in the gift of the Dean and Chapter of Canterbury), which in his Reminiscences he terms a "small living;" yet in the Retum of 1831 we find it was valued at 311 with a parsonage. He communicated a short parochial history of this place to the British Magazine. Almost immediately after, the same powerful interest obtained from the Premier, the Earl of Liverpool, the presentation of Dr. Dibdin to the rectory of St. Mary's, Bryanstone Square, then just erected, and which was consecrated on the 7th Jan. 1824. The Sermon, which the Rector preached on this occasion, was printed and published.

In 1824 Dr. Dibdin produced another work, entitled The Library Companion, or, the Young Man's Guide and the Old Man's Comfort in the choice of a Library, in one volume octavo. In this difficult task, which required an intimate acquaintance with the spirits of authors rather than their corporeal forms, his labours did not meet with that approbation which had hailed his former productions. It was severely handled by the British Critic and the Westminster and Quarterly Reviews, to which he replied in a Postscript printed for private distribution, but he was deterred from proceeding with a contemplated second volume.

In 1825 he published another volume of Sermons, preached at St. Mary's, Bryanstone-square. In 1827 he re-edited, in a fourth edition, his Introduction to the Greek and Latin Classics, which was on this occasion entirely rewritten; and in 1828 he published an edition Of the Imitation of Jesus Christ, by Thomas a Kempis.

In 1830 Dr. Dibdin became the editor of a collection of sermons, by various authors, which were issued in bi-monthly volumes, under the title of The Sunday Library, or the Protestant's Manual for the Sabbath Day. This series formed six volumes, and was published by Longman with considerable success; it was stereotyped, and more than four thousand perfect sets were sold. The Editor wished to follow up the plan with a series of Christian Classics, such as Grotius, Locke, Paley, &c., but could not find any publishers to adopt the scheme.

In 1830 Dr. Dibdin published a Sermon at St. Paul's, Covent Garden, on the Visitation of Archdeacon Cambridge; and in 1831 A Pastor's Advice to his Flock in a Time of Trouble. In Feb. 1831 he issued anonymously a pamphlet entitled Bibliophohia. Remarks on the present languid and depressed state of Literature and the Book Trade; in a Letter addressed to the Author of the Bibliomania. By Mercurius Rusticus. With Notes by Cato Parvus.

In 1833 he published, chiefly by subscription among his parishioners, Lent Lectures, in two small octavo volumes.

In 1836 Dr. Dibdin published, in two octavo volumes, his Reminiscences of a Literary Life. This work (which has been our guide in the present memoir) is, on the whole, the most amusing of all his productions. Like his former works, it abounds in minor errors, the consequences of haste, and especially in the mistaking and misspelling of names, in which he was always a delinquent. But, besides that fault, it is further disfigured by innumerable typographical errors, showing the insufficiency of his printer, for he had now lost the valuable assistance of the Bulmers and the Nicols, and their vigilant press correctors. It is, however, full of interesting anecdote, both personal and bibliographical.

In the same year he pursued the plan he had in contemplation ever since his continental Tour, namely, a Tour in England, for which 2,000 had formerly been advanced him by a publishing house, which sum he had to refund in the fatal year 1825. He now relied chiefly on the hospitality of the book collectors of the North, and in 1838 appeared in two volumes (one thick and the other thin, and but unequally embellished, being altogether a production of inferior workmanship to the Tour of the days of his strength), his Northern Tour, or, in the full words of the title-page, A Bibliographical, Antiquarian, and Picturesque Tour in the Northern Counties of England and Scotland.

Dr. Dibdin married early in life, and had issue two sons and one daughter. His younger son died at Kensington in his ninth year, and his elder son in India in 1827, being an officer in the Bengal cavalry. His widow and daughter survive him; and are happily relieved from the pressure of distress which might otherwise have overwhelmed them, by the generosity of Earl Spencer, who, in addition to his innumerable other acts of kindness, had insured the Doctor's life for 1000.

There are several engraved portraits of Dr. Dibdin:

1. In a clerical habit, aetatis xxxv. after Masquerier, by Freeman, in the large paper copies of the Bibliomania, 1811; destroyed after twenty-five impressions.

2. A silhouette, or shade, with his hat on, in the Bibliomania, p. 746.

3. By H. Edridge; engraved by H. Meyer, 1816.

4. By T. Phillips, R.A. engraved by James Thomson; in the second edition of the Continental Tour.

5. By George Richmond, engraved by J. Posselwhite; in the Literary Reminiscences. A very intelligent and speaking likeness.