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Significant Scots
Archibald Constable


CONSTABLE, ARCHIBALD, an eminent publisher, was born, February 24, 1776, at Kellie in the county of Fife, where his father, Thomas Constable, acted as overseer to the earl of Kellie. After receiving a plain education at the school of his native parish (Carnbee), he became in 1788, apprentice to Mr Peter Hill, bookseller in Edinburgh, the friend and correspondent of Robert Burns. About the time of the expiration of his apprenticeship, he married the daughter of Mr David Willison, printer, who, though averse to the match, was of some service in enabling him to set up in business for himself. This latter step he took in the year 1795, opening a shop on the north side of the High Street, near the cross, and devoting himself at first chiefly to the sale of old books connected with Scottish history and literature. In this line of trade he speedily acquired considerable eminence, not so much by the extensiveness of his stock, for his capital was very limited, as by his personal activity, agreeable manners, and the intelligence with which he applied himself to serve the wants of his customers. At an early period of his career, his shop was resorted to by Mr J. G. Dalzell, Mr Richard Heber, Mr Alexander Campbell, Mr (afterwards Dr) Alexander Murray, Dr John Leyden, Mr Walter Scott, Mr Thomas Thomson, and other young men possessed of a taste for Scottish literary and historical antiquities, for some of whom he published works of no inconsiderable magnitude, previously to the close of the eighteenth century. In 1801, he acquired the property of the Scots Magazine, a venerable repertory of historical, literary, and archaeological matter, upon which he employed the talents of Leyden, Murray, Macneil, and other eminent men in succession, though without any considerable increase to its reputation. In the preceding year, he had commenced the Farmerís Magazine, under the management of an able East Lothian agriculturist, Mr Robert Brown, then of Markle: this work, which appeared quarterly, for many years enjoyed a considerable degree of prosperity, but eventually drooped with the class to whom it appealed, and sank with the house of the publisher.

The small body of ingenious and learned persons who, in 1802, originated the Edinburgh Review, placed it under the commercial management of Mr Constable, who, though unprepared for the great success which it experienced, was not long in perceiving the high merits of its conductors, and acting towards them in an appropriately liberal manner. The business of publishing this great work remained with him for twenty-four years. In 1804, he commenced the Edinburgh Medical and Surgical Journal, which remained with him till 1826. It was throughout a successful publication. In 1805, he published, in conjunction with Longman & Co. of London, the first original work of Sir Walter Scott, "The Lay of the Last Minstrel," the success of which was also far beyond his expectations. In the ensuing year, he issued a beautiful edition of what he termed "The Works of Walter Scott, Esq.," in five volumes, comprising the poem just mentioned, the Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, Sir Tristrem, and a series of Lyrical Pieces. Notwithstanding the success of the "Lay of the Last Minstrel," Mr Constable was looked upon as a bold man when, in 1807, he offered Mr Scott one thousand pounds for a poem which was afterwards entitled "Marmion." Such munificence was quite a novelty in the publishing trade of Scotland, and excited some attention even in a part of the island where literary affairs had heretofore been conducted on a larger scale. Not long after the appearance of this poetical romance, Mr Constable and his partner had a serious difference with its illustrious author, which lasted till 1813, although in the interval he edited for them the works of Swift, as he had previously those of Dryden. An enumeration of the many valuable books which were afterwards published by the subject of this memoir, would be out of place in the present work; but the mention of a few, such as Mr J. P. Woodís excellent edition of Douglasís Scottish Peerage, Mr G. Chalmersís Caledonia, the Edinburgh Gazetteer, in six volumes, the Philosophical Works of Mr Dugald Stewart, and the Supplement to the Encyclopedia Britannica, (the stock and copyright of which work he purchased in 1812,) will be sufficient to suggest a career far transcending in enterprise and brilliancy anything of the kind ever known in Scotland. In 1804, Mr Constable had assumed as partner Mr Alexander Gibson Hunter, of Blackness, and from that time the business was carried on under the designation of Archibald Constable and Company. A few years afterwards, when the concerns of the house had become very extensive, Mr Constable thought it a hardship that so much of his wares should pass through the hands of an English agency, who at once absorbed a considerable share of his profits, and could not profess to promote his interest with so much zeal as their own. He and his Edinburgh partner therefore joined, December, 1808, with Mr Charles Hunter and Mr John Park, in commencing a general bookselling business in London, under the designation of Constable, Hunter, Park, and Hunter. This speculation, however, being found to be unattended with the expected advantages, was given up in 1811. In the early part of this year, Mr A. G. Hunter retired from the Edinburgh house, on which occasion Mr Constable, acting on the liberal view which he usually took of the value of his stock, and perhaps not unwilling to impress the world with an exalted idea of his prosperity, allowed to his partner a greater amount of actual cash (seventeen thousand pounds is understood to have been the sum paid,) than what was justly his due. Mr Robert Cathcart of Drum, writer to the signet, and Mr Robert Cadell, then a clerk in Mr Constableís shop, were assumed in Mr Hunterís place, and the firm still continued under the designation of Archibald Constable and Company. Mr Cathcart being carried off after a few daysí illness in November, 1812, Mr Cadell remained Mr Constableís sole partner.

Mr Constable and his partner published after 1813, all the poetical works of Sir Walter Scott, and the whole of his prose fictions (excepting the first series of the Tales of My Landlord) down to the year 1826. The vast amount of lucrative business arising from these publications, and others of nearly equal popularity and importance, produced in the subject of this memoir the sincere though erroneous conviction that he was a prosperous, and in one respect a wealthy man. He had never, it is true, possessed much free capital: he had scarcely ever known what it was to be exempt from difficulties for ready money; yet he could calculate for certain on the productiveness of several of his more important speculations, and he every day saw around him such a large and increasing amount of stock, that nothing less than the demonstration of figures could have given him greater assurance of his affluent condition. That demonstration unfortunately was wanting. Mr Constable was no arithmetician. His mind was one of those which delight in forming lofty enterprises and ambitious schemes, but are too much engrossed with the glories of the ultimate object, to regard much the details by which it is proposed to be accomplished. For very many of his publications, the literary labourer was greatly over-paid; in most cases he printed a much larger impression than was necessary, or, if the demand came nearly up to the supply, the benefits of success were lost upon an undemanded second edition. He had a magnificent way of transacting every kind of business, seeming in general less to regard the merits of the matter in hand, than the dignity of his name and profession. Proceeding in this manner, rather like a princely patron of letters, than a tradesman aiming at making them subservient to his personal interest, Mr Constable was easily led into a system of living greatly beyond his real means, and from which the pressure of no embarrassments, however severe, could awaken him. Another error, to which the steps were perhaps as natural and easy, was his yielding to the desires of his friend Sir Walter Scott, for money, and the means of raising money, as a fore-payment of literary labour. Both men were in some degree intoxicated by the extraordinary success they had met with in their respective careers, which seemed to assure them against the occurrence of any real difficulty in any of the processes of worldly affairs; and, mutually supporting their common delusion, they launched without rudder or compass into an ocean of bank credit, in which they were destined eventually to perish. The reverence of the publisher for the author was not greater than was the confidence of the author in "the strong sense and sagacious calculations," (his own words) of the publisher. Both afterwards discovered that they had been in a great measure wrong, as even the works of a Scott could only produce a certain sum, while the calculations of Mr Constable, though bearing the impress of an ardent and generous temperament, were not conducted upon those rules which alone will ensure good results in commercial affairs. It is painful to reflect on the change which adversity brought over the mutual sentiments of these distinguished men. Mr Constable lived to lament on a death-bed the coldness which the results of his bankruptcy had introduced into the mind of his former friend, and to complain (whether justly or not) that, if he had not been so liberal towards that friend, he might have still known prosperity. Sir Walter, on the other hand, lived to suffer the pain of pecuniary distress in consequence of the loose calculations of himself and his publisher, and to entertain in his benevolent and tranquil mind, so changed a feeling regarding that individual, as prevented him from paying the common respect of a friend to his remains, when, in the hour of calamity and sorrow, they were transferred to the grave.

Mr Constable had in early life entertained literary aspirations only less ambitious than those by which he distinguished himself in commercial life. Though wanting the advantages of an academical education, he wrote his own language fluently and correctly. Scottish antiquities formed the department in which he desired to exert himself, and the present writer has heard him, amidst the pressing cares of business, express a touching regret for the non-fulfilment of the hopes which he once entertained in reference to this favourite study. From respect for his literary abilities, Miss Seward bequeathed to him her whole correspondence, in the expectation that he would personally undertake the duty of editor; a task, however, for which he found it necessary to employ a substitute, in the person of Mr Morehead. The only literary efforts of Mr Constable which have ever been ascertained, consist in the editing of Lamontís Diary in 1810, and of a compilation of "The Poetry contained in the Waverley Novels," and the composition of a small volume which appeared in 1822, under the title of "Memoir of George Heriot, jeweller to king James, containing an account of the Hospital founded by him at Edinburgh." Having become a widower in 1816, Mr Constable, in 1818, married Miss Charlotte Neale who survived him. In the early part of 1822, he was obliged, by a due regard to his physical and mental energies, to reside for some months in England. It may also be mentioned among the particulars of his life, that, in 1823 though professedly a Whig in politics, he was included by the liberal policy of the government in a list of new justices of the peace for the city of Edinburgh. In the same year, he removed from the warehouse he had occupied for nearly thirty years in the High street, to an elegant mansion adjacent to the Register House, in the New Town, which had become his own by purchase from the connexions of his second marriage.

In the year 1825, Mr Constable projected perhaps the most remarkable of all his undertakings - a Miscellany of Original and Selected Works, in Literature, Art, and Science, which be designed to publish in small fasciculi at one shilling, every three constituting a volume. Having marked the tendency towards a system of cheap popular reading, which was at this time very observable in the public mind and in the bookselling business, he had resolved to take advantage of the irresistible impulse, for the reproduction of some of his best copyrights; calculating securely that these, especially if mixed up with new productions from the pens of the best modern writers, would appropriate a large share of the patronage extended by the people to cheap works, while the vast sale that might be expected as a consequence of their humble price, could not fail to afford an ample remuneration to all concerned. The design was one worthy, in its daring novelty and its liberal promise, of a publisher who, in almost all his enterprises, had shown a comprehensiveness of mind above his fellows. Nor can it be doubted that, if carried into execution with the whole powers of the original house, and the prestige which the name of Constable now carried to every British ear, it would have met with a success more than sufficient to redeem the fortunes of the establishment. Unfortunately the commercial distresses which marked the close of 1825, operated unfavourably upon a London firm with which Archibald Constable and Company were intimately connected, and at the close of the January of the ensuing year both were compelled to stop payment. The debts of the latter house were understood to be about a quarter of a million, for a considerable part of which Sir Walter Scott unfortunately stood responsible. The stock, in which the subject of this memoir was wont to contemplate an immense fund of dormant wealth, was consequently sequestered, and its real value, (especially on a peremptory sale) being very different from the apparent, it sufficed to discharge but a small part of the existing obligations.

Mr Constable, who at this time had the young family arising from his second marriage springing up around him, now retired into comparative privacy, to experience the usual fate of those whom fortune has suddenly deserted. Most of his friends, having suffered considerably by his bankruptcy, and being deeply impressed with a sense of the imprudence which had led to that event, paid him no longer any regard, though, while his fortunes lived, they would have given "fifty, nay, an hundred ducats for his portrait in little." Notwithstanding these painful circumstances, to which was soon added a return of some dropsical ailments which had formerly afflicted him, he resolved to make an endeavour for the support of his family, by commencing, though with material restrictions of plan, the Miscellany which had formerly been announced. Having made the necessary arrangements with the trustee upon the sequestered estate, he issued the first number late in the year 1826, being the beginning of a reproduction of captain Basil Hallís Travels, which that gentleman, with a kindness worthy of his distinguished abilities, had conferred as a present upon the veteran publisher. Though unable now to command all the copyrights and new productions which he originally contemplated, he succeeded in calling around him some of the rising talent of the day, and would in all probability have soon been once more engaged in an extensive and enterprising course of business, if death had not stepped in to claim his part. Mr Constable gradually sank under his dropsical ailment, and, on the 21st of July in the year just named, breathed his last, at his house in Park Place, in the fifty-second year of his age. Mr Constable was of middle stature, and, in his latter years, of somewhat unwieldy bulk; his countenance, a fair index to his mind, displayed lineaments of uncommon nobleness and beauty.


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