This edition of the Faerie Queen is chiefly notable for its illustrations by William Kent and the life of Spenser by Thomas Birch (1705-66) which quotes criticism by E. K., Sidney, Webbe, Rymer, Temple, Dryden, Pope, and Hughes. Kent's illustrations, as endearingly peculiar as the baroque monstrosities in Hughes' edition (1715), have found little favor despite the fact that "it is said that Kent frequently declared that he caught his taste in gardening from the perusal of Spenser's picturesque descriptions" G. Johnson, History of English Gardening (1829) 263. The text was (hastily) corrected by the poet Thomas Edwards, who had originally been intended to undertake this edition; see his letter to Birch of 1 October 1751 printed in Gentleman's Magazine 53 (November 1783) 921.
This expensive edition was evidently not successful; on 2 April 1759 Lloyd's Evening Post ran an advertisement offering the remaining copies for sale at the reduced price of £1 7s.: "This Edition is adorned with Thirty-two Copper Plates, (not in any other Edition) from the Original Drawings of the late William Kent, Esq; Architect and principal Painter to his Majesty, which cost upwards of One Thousand Pounds. What Copies remain unsold will immediately be advanced to the Original Price [of £2 2s. for small paper and £3 3s. for large]" p. 317.
Thomas Edwards to Samuel Richardson, complaining of the new Faerie Queene: "What can be done in this picture-loving age, when, if a bookseller can but get a few paltry cuts to raise the price of a book, people will come-in in shoals to subscribe, be the editor's work ever so carelessly or ignorantly executed? If pictures be, as the popish priests say, the books of the unlearned, one may guess whence this encouragement comes: but the discovery will be no great reputation to our age" 30 March 1751; in Correspondence of Samuel Richardson, ed. Barbauld (1804) 3:13-14.
Horace Walpole to George Montagu: "The first volume of Spenser is published with prints, designed by Kent; but the worst execrable performance you ever beheld. The graving is not worse than the drawing; awkward knights, scrambling Unas, hills tumbling down themselves, no variety of prospect, and three or four perpetual spruce firs" 12 June 1751; Letters, ed. Cunningham (1906) 2:257.
John Upton: "Some time after the printing of my letter to Mr. West concerning a new edition of Spenser's Fairy Queen, Mr. Kent's edition was published under the care of Mr. Birch: which came chiefly recommended by the designs and engravings, though its chief recommendation was Mr. Birch's name and care of it. But what merit these designs and engravings claim, I will leave to the judgment of the reader from the examination of the first picture; which is (as there named) Error defeated by the Redcrosse attended by Truth. The Redcrosse knight is drawn in the attitude of a desponding coward: the monster Error is not the monster in the Fairy Queen, but a monster from the painter's head without allusion or meaning, and represents a most loathsome as well as ridiculous image: For he has chosen that point of time described by Spenser in B.i.C.1.St.20. where if the images are odious rather than terrible, his allegory led him to such a description; which a painter might easily have avoided by choosing another, and a more proper point of time" Preface to the Faerie Queene (1758) 1:xxxix-xl.
William Hazlitt: "In one letter [Walpole] says 'The first volume of Spencer is published with prints designed by Kent; — but the most execrable performance you ever beheld. The graving not worse than the drawing; awkward knights, scrambling Unas, hills tumbling down themselves, no variety of prospect, and three or four perpetual spruce firs. — Our charming Mr. Bentley is doing Mr. Gray as much more honour as he deserves than Spencer!' This is indeed a lordly criticism. We really never saw so much bad taste condensed into so small a portion of prose" in review of Walpole, Letters; Edinburgh Review 31 (December 1818) 84.
Jewel Wurtsbaugh: "Kent's drawings—'a very favorite work of the artist' — were "exceedingly cried up by his admirers,' but in proportion disappointing to the public. Walpole reports that blame for their failure was thrown on the engraver, but that 'the wretchedness of drawing, the total ignorance of perspective ... the disproportion of the buildings, and the awkwardness of the attitudes could have been the fault of the inventor only.' After Kent's death in 1748, Brindley, the bookseller who promoted the edition, attempted to secure the assistance of Thomas Edwards, but with little success.... Four features of the edition are significant: the editor's attempt to collate the earliest texts, his choice of 1590 as a basic text, his attention to 'Faults Escaped,' and his scrutiny and substantiation of biographical facts" Two Centuries of Spenserian Scholarship (1936) 63-64.
A copy of this volume appears in the 1769 sale catalogue of the libraries of Joseph Spence and William Duncombe; Laurence Sterne also owned this edition; see A. N. L. Munby, in Sale Catalogues of Libraries of Eminent Persons (1971-75) 2:142, 351.
A Gentle knight was pricking on the plaine,
Ycladd in mightie arms and silver shield,
Wherein old dints of deepe wounds did remaine,
The cruell marks of many a bloudy fielde;
Yet armes till that time did he never wield:
His angry steede did chide his foming bitt,
As much disdayning to the curbe to yield:
Full jolly knight he seemd, and faire did sitt,
As one for knightly giusts, and fierce encounters fitt.