London: Printed by J. Diggins; Published at R. Ackermann’s Repository of Arts, 1815. Item #05366
"The Union of the Gruesome and the Grotesque"
Thomas Rowlandson's 'The English Dance of Death'
[ROWLANDSON, Thomas, illustrator]. [COMBE, William]. The English Dance of Death, from the designs of Thomas Rowlandson, with Metrical Illustrations, by the author of "Doctor Syntax." London: Printed by J. Diggens; Published at R. Ackermann’s Repository of Arts, 1815-16.
First edition, Remainder binding issue.
Two royal octavo volumes (9 3/4 x 6 1/4 inches; 249 x 159 mm.). vii, [1, blank], [iv, Index], 295, [1, blank]; [ii], [iv, Index], 299, [1, blank] pp. Hand colored frontispiece, hand colored title, and seventy-two hand colored aquatint plates by Thomas Rowlandson.
Text watermarked J. Whatman or Balston, 1814 and 1815; Plates watermarked J. Whatman, 1818.
Publisher's 'Remainder' binding of orange cloth, covers decorated in blind, spines pictorially decorated and lettered in gilt, yellow coated endpapers, top edge gilt, others uncut. Rear inner hinges of both volumes cracked but sound. Housed in a pale brown cloth clamshell case lettered in gilt on back.
Tiny 3/8 inch closed marginal tear on plate facing p. 37 in volume one. The text and plates remarkably clean with the exception of the occasional light foxing and offsetting from a few plates. A remarkable copy of the 'remainder' issue of the first edition, bound up ca. 1840. with early watermarks of both plates and text.
The Dance of Death was originally issued in twenty-four monthly parts. "It is possible that the extraordinary success of Dr. Syntax caused Ackermann to over-estimate the demand for the new ventures (The Dance of Death 1815-16 and The Dance of Life 1817) with the result that a large number of unbound sheets were left on his hands, and they were dispersed over a considerable period. It has even been suggested that the orange cloth-bindings were used at the time of the 1851 Exhibition, but they were certainly in circulation before." (Abbey, Life in England 263 & 264).
"The subject of the book lies in the often quoted saying of Horace -- 'Pallida Mors aequo pulsat pede pauperum tabernas Regumque turres.' (Pale Death, impartial, he knocks at the hovels of the poor, the towers…). The idea of Death as the universal depredator, stretching out his bony hand to seize his prey at moments inopportune and unexpected, showing the vanity of human life and the futility of human pleasures and pursuits, had been pictured by many artists before Rowlandson, notably in the famous series by Holbein. Rowlandson in his Dance of Death takes his characters from the world around him, sees them in his own original way, and imparts to the subject his own satirical humour, with its curious combination of the sublime and the ludicrous. It is obvious at a glance that the artist bestowed exceptional care on the illustrations for this book. The union of the gruesome and the grotesque appealed strongly to his imagination and in completeness of detail and carefulness of grouping the illustrations excel nearly all his other work." (Martin Hardie, English Coloured Books, pp. 171-172).
"Rowlandson's Dance of Death, the only series on the subject since Holbein's to rival that master, is the perfect complement to his Microcosm of London, for here the artist is concerned for the most part not with crowds, but with scenes of violent action or intense emotion drawn from private life. Far from seeming repetitious, the figure of Death provides a sardonic presence which adds immensely to the scenes he stage manages…" (Gordon Ray, The illustrator and the book in England from 1790 to 1914, pp. 27-28).
"The Combe-Rowlandson alliance also produced other fruits, The [English] Dance of Death… being notably above the ordinary level of Combe's verse. All of these works show the better side of Rowlandson's genius; the best was reserved for the Microcosm and some of his many detached drawings." (Prideaux, Aquatint Engraving, pp.306-307).
"Indispensable to any Rowlandson collection, one of the essential pivots of any colour plate Library, being one of the main works of Rowlandson." (Tooley).
Abbey. Life in England, 263; Tooley, 411; Prideaux, pp. 306-307; Ray, 35; Martin Hardie, pp. 171-172.