Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Thomas Palser, (fl. 1797 - 1843)

A trade card for Thomas Palser's shop near Westminster Bridge, c.1800

I recently purchased a rather unusual print from June 1815 that contains profiles of George III, Napoleon and Wellington hidden amongst an apparently meaningless image of an explosion. I was initially drawn to this image because it's such a nice example of the use of silhouette as a satirical device but then was also intrigued by the fact that it carried a publication line that I'd never seen before; that of “T. Palser, Surrey Side Westminster Bridge”.

Anon., A Thunder Bolt for Boney, 12th June 1815 , T. Palser

From the outset I have to admit that very little is known about Palser’s life beyond what we can infer from his prints and the few facts that can be gleaned from assorted trade directories and other sundry records. It’s possible that Palser’s career in the printing trade began at an early age, as the archives of London’s Honourable Company of Stationers’ indicate that a Thomas Palser was enrolled in the Company as an apprentice in the year 1770. The Stationers Company was the ancient trade guild that presided over England’s publishing trade for centuries and although its influence declined markedly during the course of the eighteenth century, membership was still required by law for anyone who sought to work in the publishing trade anywhere within the confines of the City of London until 1858. The fact that Palser was enrolled into the company as a young apprentice suggests that his employer was probably one of the many publishers, print shop owners or booksellers that crammed themselves into the warren of streets and alleys surrounding St Paul's Cathedral.

After 1770 Palser’s name disappears from the records connected with the London publishing trade and does not reappear again until 1797, when his business at the southern side of Westminster Bridge is mentioned in a London trade directory and the first known example of prints carrying Palser’s publication line are produced [1]. I have been able to come up with two possible theories to explain the absence of Palser’s name from the historical record for such a considerable period of time. The first is that he spent the initial thirty years of his career as an employee in someone else’s business before finally establishing his own firm when he was in his late 30s or early 40s. Very few records survive which give us any indication of the identities of the men and women employed in the London print trade below the level of proprietor and it may simply be the case that Palser spent the years between 1770 and 1797 working as one of the many engravers, typesetters, papermakers and colourists whose names are now completely lost to posterity.

The second theory is that Palser left London sometime prior to 1792 and established himself as a papermaker in the West Country. An analysis of the British Book Trade Index reveals that a Mr Thomas Palser was listed as the owner of a paper mill in the Gloucestershire hamlet of Wooten-under-Edge sometime around 1792 and that he had vacated the premises and let it out to a tenant by the start of 1798 [2]. Given that this date coincides almost exactly with the reappearance of Palser’s name in London, it is possible that the records refer to the same individual and that Thomas Plaser used the proceeds from the sale of his leasehold in Gloucestershire as the basis for a publishing venture in London.

Charles Williams, Bonaparte. On the quarter deck of HMS Northumberland, 1st January 1816, T. Palser 

The precise location of Palser’s business premises is also something of a mystery. His publication lines between 1797 and 1820 are vague and give his address as being either “Bridge Road Lambeth” or “Surrey Side Westminster Bridge” and in some cases Palser appears to have issued prints which carried no publication details whatsoever [3]. The fact that Palser evidently did not feel the need to provide a specific address on his prints suggests that he may not have dealt with the public and therefore operated from the backroom of premises that were primarily used for some other purpose. This theory is borne out to some extent by an original folio of Palser’s caricature prints which was uncovered in the late 1990s. The title label on the cover of the album states that Palser was the publisher of the designs but that they were printed by a T. Romney, which is presumably a reference to Thomas Romney who, along with his wife Elizabeth, is listed as the owner of a printing firm located at 7 Bridge Street Lambeth between 1808 and 1828 [4]. It may therefore be the case that Palser also had some connection with this address.

C.A. Lehmann, Enigmatical Design of the Situation of Buonaparte in March and April 1814, 8th April 1814, T. Palser
 Whilst it may appear as though Palser chose an odd location in which to set up shop as a publisher, being remote from both the print shops of the fashionable West End and the centre of London’s commercial publishing trade in the City, the choice of Bridge Street does not seem so odd when one considers that Westminster Bridge was one of only two crossing points over the Thames during the early 1800s and therefore a major transport artery running through the capital. Palser may also have hoped to benefit from locating his business within spitting distance of Astley’s Amphiteatre, a large indoor circus and one of the principle attractions of Georgian London, which would no doubt have provided commissions for the production of handbills and advertisements as well as drawing hundreds of potential customers onto Bridge Street every day.

Palser is not known to have produced a single caricature print prior to 1811-2, his output during the first fourteen years of his publishing career being dominated by cheap reproductions of landscape drawings, topographical studies and the works of popular artists such as Reynolds, Moreland and Wheatlely. This mixture of low prices and respectable subject matter suggests that Palser was aiming at a predominately middle class audience and we must therefore assume that the decision to begin printing caricatures reflected a change in the tastes of that audience during the early years of the Regency. The fact that a number of other publishers, who appeared to cater specifically for middle class tastes and budgets, also began to turn their hands to caricature in this period would certainly suggest that the demand for graphic satire was growing [5].

The prints Palser published can be divided into two groups - original satires and re-issues of earlier designs that were presumably produced from second hand plates. Palser seems to have relied heavily on the young William Heath to provide him with most of his original caricature designs and the plates which Heath produced for Palser during the 1810s are amongst some of the finest examples of his early work as a caricaturist. The substantial series of prints Heath produced featuring the famous clown Joseph Grimaldi (1778 - 1831) are worthy of particular attention, although the British Museum appears to hold only a fraction of the series, which may have originally encompassed a dozen or more individual prints.
W. Heath, Grimaldi's Tandem in the Comic Pantomime of the Golden Fish, 1812, T. Palser
Thomas Rowlandson and Charles Williams were also commissioned to provide a handful of original caricatures for Palser but the majority of prints which he published by these two artists were in fact reissues taken from old plates [6]. The presence of a number of designs by Henry Bunbury in the British Museum collection, coloured in the distinctively bright style of Palser's shop and printed on 1812-1817 watermarked paper, suggests that Palser also acquired a set of Bunbury's old copperplates. The prevalence of such reissues amongst the surviving examples of Palser's work, as well as his apparent reliance on the inexperienced Heath for original works, further reinforces the impression of Palser as a publisher whose wares were aimed at the middle or lower end of the market. 

H. Bunbury, Pistol Eating Fluellens Leak, 1811, T. Palser
A reissue of an earlier design by Bunbury published on paper watermarked 1817 with Palser's distinctive shop colouring. 

Palser appears to have abandoned caricature production sometime around 1817 although, taking into account his tendency to omit publication details from his prints and the fact that cataloguing of his work is extremely patchy, it is possible that production continued for a few years after this date [7]. The most obvious explanation for this decision is that graphic satire ceased to be a profitable line of business and this can hardly be surprising when one considers the broader changes taking place in the British print trade after 1820.  These were years in which demand for single sheet caricature prints dropped off markedly and in which fashionable tastes moved away from the highly burlesqued style of the likes of Rowlandson and Bunbury, towards the more sober works of John Doyle and Robert Seymour. Competition for a share of this dwindling market also increased and Palser may well have been one of the many middle-ranking publishers to have found himself being squeezed out of a market being dominated by large publishers such as Humphrey, McLean and Tegg. 

Caricature also seems to have remained a relatively minor part of the material Palser published and the subject matter of his prints, which were typically devoted to reproductions of works of art or serious topographic studies, does not indicate that he had any particular affinity with the medium as an art form. In this respect his attitude towards caricature publishing may have been similar to that of Rudolph Ackermann, who was happy to make money from meeting the increased demand for satire in the final years of the Napoleonic Wars but who fundamentally appears to have regarded such prints with a degree of disdain. 

Nonetheless, the decision to move away from caricature printing does not appear to have harmed Palser's business. In 1820 he relocated to a more prestigious address on Fleet Street and within ten years had opened a second shop in the city of Oxford. Both premises were to active until Palser's death in 1843.  


1. McKenzie, D.F., Stationers' Company Apprentices 1701-1800 (Oxford, 1978)
2. Shorter, Alfred H., Paper Mills and Paper Makers in England, 1495-1800 (Hilversum, 1967)
3. Saville, G.J., Caricatures Catalogue No. 26, (Hebden Bridge, 1998). See B.M. 12215 for another example of a print carrying the names of Palser and Romney. 
4. Todd, William B., A Directory of printers and Others in Allied Trades: London and Vicinity, 1800-1840 (London, 1972)
5. Examples of publishers who began producing satirical prints aimed at middle class audiences in this period include John Fairburn (1811), Samuel Knight (1813), William Hone (1815) William Johnstone, who had been operating in Dublin since the 1790s but who opened a London outlet in 1817. These were also the years that witnessed the emergence of caricature-based journals and magazines such as The Scourge and The Satirist that appealed to a predominately the middling classes.
6. See Saville for examples.
7. The BM collection contains a single example of a Grimaldi print dating to the 1820s which was published by Palser and drawn and engraved by Isaac Robert Cruikshank. This suggests that Palser may have tried to revive the series at a later date. 

Further reading

Princeton University Library's Graphic Arts Blog published a brief but fascinating little article which sheds more light on the connections between Palser, Heath and the watercolourist David Cox. 


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