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Significant Scots
Robert and Andrew Foulis


FOULIS, ROBERT and ANDREW, eminent printers in the eighteenth century, were natives of Glasgow, and were born, the elder brother on the 20th of April, 1707, and the younger on the 23d of November, 1712. Their mother, who seems to have possessed shrewdness and intelligence beyond her station, educated them at first under her own care, and had not Robert’s talents attracted attention, they would probably never have proceeded farther in the acquisition of knowledge. At an early age Robert was sent an apprentice to a barber; it would even seem that he afterwards practised the art on his own account for some time. While thus humbly employed, he came under the notice of the celebrated Dr Francis Hutcheson, then professor of moral philosophy in Glasgow university. This acute observer discovered his talents,— inflamed his desire for knowledge,—and suggested to him the idea of becoming a bookseller and printer. Foulis did not, however, receive a complete university education, although he attended his patron’s lectures for several years, and his name is so enrolled in the matriculation book. Andrew, who seems to have been designed for the church, entered the university in 1727, and probably went through a regular course of study.

For some years after they had determined to follow a literary life, the brothers were engaged in teaching the languages during the winter, and in making short tours into England and to the continent in summer. These excursions were of great advantage to them; they brought them into contact with eminent men, enabled them to form connexions in their business, and extended their knowledge of books. On some of these occasions they made considerable collections, which they sold at home to good account. Thus prepared, the elder brother began business in Glasgow as a bookseller about the end of 1739, and in the following year published several works. Three years afterwards his connexion with the university commenced. In March, 1743, he was appointed their printer, under condition "that he shall not use the designation of university printer without allowance from the university meeting in any books excepting those of ancient authors." [The date at which Andrew joined him in business is uncertain.] The first productions of his press, which were issued in 1742, were almost exclusively of a religious nature, many of them relating to the well known George Whitefield. In 1742, he published Demetrius Phalereus de Elocutione, apparently the first Greek work printed in Glasgow, although we are certain that there existed a fount of Greek letters there nearly a century before. It would be tedious to notice each work, as it appeared: the immaculate edition of Horace, an edition of Cicero’s works in twenty volumes, Caesar’s Commentaries in folio, Callimachus in the same size, with engravings executed at their academy, form but a small part of the splendid catalogue of their classics.

The success which had attended their exertions as printers, induced the elder Foulis to attempt the establishment of an academy for the cultivation of the fine arts, a scheme for which Scotland was but ill prepared by the dissensions which had followed the union, and which had been succeeded by the rebellions of 1715 and 1745. In 1751, he went abroad, partly with the view of extending his commercial connexions, but principally with the intention of arranging for the establishment of this institution. After remaining on the continent for about two years, and sending home several artists whom he had engaged in his service, he returned to Scotland in 1753. His design was considered romantic; many of his friends exerted all their eloquence to persuade him to desist. But Foulis, who possessed a degree of determination which might perhaps not unjustly be termed obstinacy, was fixed in his "high resolve," and although he must have observed with mortification, that (to use his own expression) "there seemed to be a pretty general emulation who should run the scheme most down," he established his academy in the course of the same year. He soon found that he had embarked in an undertaking of no common difficulty. From a letter in the Scots Magazine for 1759, it appears that the selection of proper teachers had cost him much trouble and anxiety. He had to contend, besides, with the national prejudices in favour of the works of foreign artists; and after amassing a considerable collection, he found it extremely difficult to dispose of it to advantage. In the same year it was proposed, that such persons as were willing to support the institution should advance certain sums yearly, for which they should be entitled to select prints, designs, paintings, &c. to the amount of their subscriptions.

In the meantime, the operations of their press went on with increasing rigour. If we may judge from the catalogue of their books, the period between 1750 and 1757, seems to have been the most flourishing era in their trade. During that time "Proposals for publishing [As a curious estimate of the expense of classical reading in these days, we extract the first article in the proposals. "I. In nine volumes in quarto, of which the Greek in six volumes and the Latin translation with the notes in three. The price to subscribers, one penny sterling per sheet. The whole will be contained in about 500 sheets, so the price will be about 2 pounds, 1s. 8d. in quires, on a fair paper. A number will be printed on a fine large paper at twopence sterling per sheet."] by subscription the whole works of Plato" were issued, and considerable progress made in collating MSS. in the Vatican and national libraries. But the embarrassments occasioned by the ill-fated academy seem to have prevented the publication of this as well as many other works, which might have added much both to their fame and their wealth. Yet while we condemn the obstinacy with which this institution was carried on, when it was a daily source of anxiety and pecuniary difficulties, it should be remembered, that it was the means of bringing forward the "Scottish Hogarth," David Allan, and Tassie the medalist. The latter of these, while a stone mason, acquired a relish for the arts in visiting the academy on a holiday, when the pictures were generally exhibited gratis.

It would be foreign to the purpose of the present work to notice the various books which issued from the Foulis press at this and subsequent periods. It may be sufficient to say, that in the latter part of their history the brothers seem to have lost much of their original energy, and the celebrity of their press may be considered as expiring with their folio edition of Milton, published in 1770. They continued, indeed, to print till the death of Andrew, which took place suddenly on the 18th of September, 1775; but many of the works published at that period were of inferior workmanship.

We shall close the history of these remarkable but unfortunate men in a few words. After the death of the younger brother, it was determined to expose the works belonging to the academy to public sale. For this purpose Robert, accompanied by a confidential workman, went to London about the month of April, 1776. Contrary to the advice of the auctioneer, and at a period when the market was glutted by yearly importations of pictures from Paris, his collection was sold off,—and, as the reader may have anticipated, greatly under their supposed value. Irritated at the failure of this his last hope, and with a constitution exhausted by calamities, he left London and reached Edinburgh on his way homeward. On the morning on which he intended setting out for Glasgow he expired almost instantaneously, in the 69th year of his age.

Robert Foulis was twice married. From his second marriage with a daughter of Mr Boutcher, a seedsman in Edinburgh, was descended the late Andrew Foulis, who died at Edinburgh, in great poverty, in 1829. He had, besides, by his first marriage with Elizabeth Moor, a sister of the celebrated Grecian, five daughters; all of whom are now dead.

Of the Scottish works produced at the Foulis press the greater number were ballads, some of them original, and all of them since published in the collections of bishop Percy, Ritson, Cromek, &c. The "Memorials and Letters relating to the History of Britain" in the reigns of James I. and Charles I., published by Lord Hailes, principally from the Denmylne MSS. in the Advocates’ Library, were also published at Glasgow. But the greatest service that they could have performed for Scottish history, would have been the publication of Calderwood’s MS. history. This they undoubtedly had in view. It appears from the records of the university of Glasgow that they got permission to borrow their MS. [It is not, however, the original MS.]in September, 1768. They did not, however, accomplish their patriotic purpose, and this valuable work still remains accessible only to the historian and the antiquary. Let us hope that the period is not far distant, when some of the clubs of the present day shall immortalize themselves by laying it before the public. [Abridged from a volume entitled, "Notices and Documents Illustrative of the Literary History of Glasgow," presented by Richard Duncan, Esq., to the Maitland Club.]


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