The John Rylands Research Institute is a diverse community of researchers, working in partnership with the John Rylands Library. I joined the Institute last month as a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow, and I am also affiliated with Art History and Visual Studies at the University of Manchester. I was previously at Manchester for my PhD (2012-2015), which focused on William Blake’s depictions of Christ.

My new research project is about the Macklin Bible. Thomas Macklin (1752/3-1800) was a publisher and dealer of pictures, based in London in the late eighteenth century. In 1788 he opened a ‘Poet’s Gallery’ to exhibit and reproduce in engravings paintings by eminent British artists of great works of English poetry. The following year, Macklin announced that he would add scripture pictures to the exhibition, which would be reproduced in an ambitious illustrated Bible. Biblical paintings were included in Macklin’s exhibitions in the years 1790-93, and the printed Bible was published in 1800.

Fifteen artists produced paintings for the Bible; they include names who remain fairly well-known, such as Benjamin West, Angelica Kauffman and Henry Fuseli, and others who are now relatively obscure, such as Sir Francis Bourgeois, Robert Smirke and William Artaud.

Macklin’s Poet’s Gallery and Bible were examples of similar projects in London in this period, known as ‘Literary Galleries’, the most famous of which was Boydell’s Shakespeare Gallery. While Macklin’s Poet’s Gallery followed the same pattern as Boydell’s project of an exhibition of paintings and a collection of prints, the Bible took a slightly different format by integrating the plates into an edition of the biblical text. Macklin also commissioned Philip James de Loutherbourg to design vignettes for the head and tailpieces each book of the Bible.

James Thompson, after Henry Fuseli, “St. John’s Vision”, from the Macklin Bible, 1797, etching and engraving (Courtesy of The Trustees of the British Museum).

My project investigates how the Macklin Bible came into being (what were the motives and processes behind it) and what the reactions to the exhibition and printed Bible were (for example, what did critics write about the exhibition, and who were the subscribers to the printed Bible). A broader aim is to investigate how the Macklin Bible relates to the proliferation of religious painting in Britain in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries – a striking phenomenon which has been under-explored in existing scholarship.

I will be using a variety of material in the Rylands collections in my research: the library has copies of the printed Bible, the papers of contributing artist William Artaud, and a wealth of other visual material and art discourse from the period to contextualise Macklin’s project. There are also works by contributing artists in the Whitworth’s collection (including a sketch which appears to be a study for one of the Macklin plates – more on that another time perhaps!).

Robert Shipster, after Philip James de Loutherbourg, “Head-piece to the general epistle of Jude”, from the Macklin Bible, 1800, etching and engraving (Courtesy of The Trustees of the British Museum).

Another important resource in Greater Manchester is the Bowyer Bible in Bolton Library; this extra-illustrated copy of the Macklin Bible was compiled by rival publisher Robert Bowyer (1758-1834) and has over 6000 engravings, as well as de Loutherbourg’s original drawings for the vignettes. The Bowyer Bible is a fascinating example of a collector’s response to the Macklin Bible, and its vast collection of biblical images helps to build the picture of what other kinds of biblical images were circulating in the period.

I’ll look forward to sharing some of my findings as my research progresses.