Jacob Tonson I (1655/61736; fl. 16781720)



  • Bookseller
  • Publisher

Jacob Tonson the Elder, bookseller and publisher, at the Judge's Head in Chancery Lane (1678–98); at Gray's Inn Gate (1700–10); at Shakespeare's Head in the Strand (1710–20). He retired in 1720, leaving his nephew Jacob Tonson the younger to carry on the business.

Dictionary of National Biography (1885–1900)

TONSON, JACOB (1656?–1736), publisher, born about 1656, was the second son of Jacob Tonson, chirurgeon and citizen of London, who died in 1668. He is believed to have been related to Major Richard Tonson, who obtained a grant of land in co. Cork from Charles II, and whose descendants became Barons Riversdale (Burke, Extinct Peerage). By his father's will (P. C. C. Hene 147) he and his elder brother Richard, as well as three sisters, were each entitled to 100l., to be paid when they came of age (Malone, Life of Dryden, p. 522). On 5 June 1670 Jacob was apprenticed to Thomas Basset, a stationer, for eight years (ib. p. 536). Having been admitted a freeman of the Company of Stationers on 20 Dec. 1677, he began business on his own account, following his brother Richard, who had commenced in 1676, and had published, among other things, Otway's 'Don Carlos.' Richard Tonson had a shop within Gray's Inn Gate; Jacob Tonson's shop was for many years at the Judge's Head in Chancery Lane, near Fleet Street. It has been said that when Tonson bought the copy of 'Troilus and Cressida ' (1679), the first play of Dryden's that he published, he was obliged to borrow the purchase money (20l.) from Abel Swalle, another bookseller. However this may be, the names of both booksellers appear on the title-page, as was often the case at that time. Tonson was sufficiently well off to purchase plays by Otway and Tate. In 1681 the brothers Richard and Jacob joined in publishing Dryden's 'Spanish Friar,' and in 1683 Jacob Tonson obtained a valuable property by purchasing from Barbazon Ailmer, the assignee of Samuel Simmons, one half of his right in 'Paradise Lost.' The other half was purchased at an advance in 1690. Tonson afterwards said he had made more by 'Paradise Lost ' than by any other poem (Spence, Anecdotes, 1858, p. 261). In the earlier part of his life Tonson was much associated with Dryden [see also Dryden, John]. A step which did much to establish his position was the publication in 1684 of a volume of 'Miscellany Poems,' under Dryden's editorship. Other volumes followed in 1685, 1693, 1694, 1703, and 1708, and the collection, which was several times reprinted, is known indifferently as Dryden's or Tonson's 'Miscellany.' During the ensuing year Tonson continued to bring out pieces by Dryden, and on 6 Oct. 1691 paid thirty guineas for all the author's rights in the printing of the tragedy of 'Cleomenes.' Addison's 'Poem to his Majesty' was published by Tonson in 1695, and there was some correspondence respecting a proposed joint translation of Herodotus by Boyle, Blackmore, Addison, and others (Addison, Works, v. 318–21). Dryden's translation of Virgil, executed between 1693 and 1696, was published by Tonson in July 1697 by subscription. Serious financial differences arose between the poet and his publisher, and Dryden's letters to Tonson (1695–7) are full of complaints of meanness and sharp practice and of refusals to accept clipped or bad money. Tonson would pay nothing for notes; Dryden retorted, 'The notes and prefaces shall be short, because you shall get the more by saving paper.' He added that all the trade were sharpers, Tonson not more than others. Dryden described Tonson thus, in lines written under his portrait, and afterwards printed in 'Faction Displayed' (1705):

With leering looks, bull-faced, and freckled fair;
With two left legs, and Judas-coloured hair,
And frowzy pores, that taint the ambient air.

(Hist. MSS. Comm. 3rd Rep. p. 193). Subsequently the letters became more friendly, and on the publication of 'Alexander's Feast,'in November 1707, Dryden wrote to Tonson, 'I hope it has done you service, and will do more.' Dryden's collection of translations from Boccaccio, Chaucer, and others, known as 'The Fables,' was published by Tonson in November 1699; a second edition did not appear until 1713. There is an undated letter from Mrs. Aphra Behn [q. v.] to Tonson at Bayfordbury, thanking him warmly for what he had said on her behalf to Dryden. She begged hard for five pounds more than Tonson offered for some of her verses. In connection with Jeremy Collier's attack on the stage, the Middlesex justices presented the playhouses in May 1698, and also Congreve for writing the 'Double Dealer,' D'Urfey for 'Don Quixote,' and Tonson and Brisco, booksellers, for printing them (Luttrell, Brief Relation of State Affairs, iv. 379). Tonson published Congreve's reply to Collier, and at a later date 'The Faithful Friend' and 'The Confederacy' by his friend, Sir John Vanbrugh. Before the end of the century Tonson had moved from the Judge's Head to a shop in Gray's Inn Gate, probably the one previously occupied by his brother Richard. It is not unlikely that Richard was dead, and that Jacob, who had no children, and seemingly never married, now took into partnership his nephew Jacob, whose son was afterwards to be his heir. It is not always easy to distinguish the uncle from the nephew in later years; the latter will be referred to in future as Tonson junior. By 1700 Tonson's position was well established, and about that time the Kit-Cat Club was founded, with Tonson as secretary. The meetings were first held at a mutton-pie shop in Shire Lane, kept by Christopher Cat [q. v.], and may have begun with suppers given by Tonson to his literary friends. About 1703 Tonson purchased a house at Barn Elms, and built a room there for the club. In a poem on the club, attributed to Sir Richard Blackmore [q. v.], we find:One night in seven at this convenient seat:Indulgent Bocaj [Jacob] did the Muses treat. Tonson was satirised in several skits, and it was falsely alleged that he had been expelled the club, or had withdrawn from the society in scorn of being their jest any longer ('Advertisement' in Brit. Mus. Libr. 816. m. 19/34). In 1703 Tonson went to Holland to obtain paper and engravings for the fine edition of Caesar's Commentaries,' which was ultimately published under Samuel Clarke's care in 1712. At Amsterdam and Rotterdam he met Addison, and assisted in some abortive negotiations for Addison's employment as travelling companion to Lord Hertford, son of the Duke of Somerset (Aikin, Life of Addison, i. 148–55). In 1705 Tonson published Addison's 'Remarks on several Parts of Italy.' Verses by young Pope were circulating among the critics in 1705, and in April 1706 Tonson wrote to Pope proposing to publish a pastoral poem of his. Pope's pastorals ultimately appeared in Tonson's sixth 'Miscellany' (May 1709). Wycherley wrote that Tonson had long been gentleman-usher to the Muses: 'you will make Jacob's ladder raise you to immortality' (Pope, Works, vi. 37, 40, 72, ix. 545). Rowe's edition of Shakespeare, in six volumes, was published early in 1709 by Tonson, who had previously advertised for materials (Timperley, Encyclopædia, p. 593). Steele dined at Tonson's in 1708–9, sometimes to get a bill discounted, sometimes to hear manuscripts read and advise upon them (Aitken, Life of Steele, i. 204, 235). There is a tradition that in earlier days Steele had had a daughter by a daughter of Tonson's; if this is true, it must apparently have been a daughter of Richard Tonson, Jacob's brother. In the autumn of 1710 Tonson moved to the Shakespeare's Head, opposite Catherine Street in the Strand; his former shop at Gray's Inn Gate was announced for sale in the 'Tatler' for 14 Oct. (No. 237); and it seems to have been taken by Thomas Osborne, stationer, the father of the afterwards well-known publisher, Thomas Osborne (d. 1767) [q. v.] On 26 July 1711, after a long interval, Swift met Addison and Steele 'at young Jacob Tonson's.' 'The two Jacobs,' says Swift to Esther Johnson, 'think it I who have made the secretary take from them the printing of the Gazette, which they are going to lose.... Jacob came to me t'other day to make his court; but I told him it was too late, and that it was not my doing.' Accounts furnished to Steele by Tonson of the sale of the collective editions of the 'Tatler ' and 'Spectator' have been preserved (Aitken, Life of Steele, i. 329–31); from October 1712 Tonson's name was joined with Samuel Buckley's as publisher of the 'Spectator.' In November 1712 Addison and Steele sold all their right and title in one half of the copies of the first seven volumes of the 'Spectator' to Tonson, jun., for 575l., and all rights in the other half for a similar sum to Buckley. Buckley in October 1714 reassigned his half-share in the 'Spectator' to Tonson junior for 500l. (ib. i. 354; Hist.MSS. Comm. 9th Rep. ii. 471). Tonson published Addison's tragedy, 'Cato,' in April 1713; and, according to a concocted letter of Pope's, the true reason why Steele brought the 'Guardian' to an end in October was a quarrel with Tonson, its publisher; 'he stood engaged to his bookseller in articles of penalty for all the "Guardians," and by desisting two days, and altering the title of the paper to that of the "Englishman," was quit of the obligation, those papers being printed by Buckley.' There are various reasons why this story is improbable; the truth seems to be that Steele was anxious to write on politics with a freer hand than was practicable in the 'Guardian.' In the summer of 1714 we hear of Steele writing political pamphlets at Tonson's, where there were three bottles of wine of Steele's (Aitken, Life of Steele, ii. 25, 30), and in October Tonson printed Steele's 'Ladies' Library.' Tonson appears in Rowe's 'Dialogue between Tonson and Congreve, in imitation of Horace,'

Thou, Jacob Tonson, were, to my conceiving,
The cheerfullest, best, honest fellow living.

In the same year Tonson, with Barnaby Bernard Lintot [q. v.] and William Taylor, was appointed one of the printers of the parliamentary votes. Next year he paid fifty guineas for the copyright of Addison's comedy, 'The Drummer,' and published Tickell's translation of the first book of the 'Iliad,' which gave offence to Pope. On 6 Feb. 1718 Lintot entered into a partnership agreement with Tonson for the purchase of plays during eighteen months following that date. In one of several amusing letters from Vanbrugh, now at Bayfordbury, Tonson, who was then in Paris, was congratulated upon his luck in South Sea stock, and there is other evidence that he made a large sum in connection with Law's Mississippi scheme. 'He has got 40,000l.,' wrote Robert Arbuthnot; 'riches will make people forget their trade.' In January 1720 Tonson obtained a grant to himself and his nephew of the office of stationer, bookseller, and printer to some of the principal public offices (Pat. 6 George I); and on 12 Oct. 1722 he assigned the whole benefit of the grant to his nephew. The grant was afterwards renewed by Walpole, in 1733, for a second term of forty years (Pat. 6 George II). The elder Tonson seems to have given up business about 1720. He had bought the Hazells estate at Ledbury, Herefordshire (Duncumb and Cooke, Herefordshire, iii. 100–1), and in 1721 he was sending presents of cider to the Dukes of Grafton and Newcastle, the latter of whom called Tonson 'my dear old friend,' and asked him to give him his company in Sussex (Hist. MSS. Comm. 2nd Rep. pp. 70, 71). Henceforth we may suppose, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, that 'Tonson' in contemporary allusions means the nephew. Steele's 'Conscious Lovers' appeared in 1722, and Tonson assigned to Lintot halt the copyright for 70l. He had to apply to the court of chancery for an injunction to stop Robert Tooke and others printing a pirated edition of the play; the sum paid for the copyright was 40l. (Athenæum, 5 Dec. 1891). In the same year Tonson published the Duke of Buckingham's 'Works,' and in 1725 Pope's edition of Shakespeare. Proposals were issued by Tonson in January 1729 for completing the subscription to the new edition of Rymer's 'Fœdera,' in seventeen folio volumes (of which fifteen were then printed), at fifty guineas the set (Hist.MSS. Comm. 7th Rep. p. 692; Nichols, Lit. Anecd. i. 478–80). The work was finished in 1735. Tonson published a quarto edition of Waller's works, edited by Fenton, in 1729, and an edition of Lord Lansdowne's works in 1732. Pope was annoyed to find in 1731 that Tonson was to be one of the publishers of Theobald's proposed edition of Shakespeare, in which he feared an attack on his own editorial work, but he professed to be satisfied with the assurances he received (Gent. Mag. January 1836). In writing to the elder Tonson on this subject, Pope asked for any available information respecting the 'Man of Ross,' and, in thanking him for the particulars received, explained his intention in singling out this man as the centre of a poem (Pope, Works, iii. 528). Earlier in the year the elder Tonson was in town, and Pope, writing to Lord Oxford, said that if he would come to see him he would show him a phenomenon worth seeing, 'old Jacob Tonson, who is the perfect image and likeness of Bayle's "Dictionary;" so full of matter, secret history, and wit and spirit, at almost fourscore' (id. viii. 279). On 19 March Lord Oxford, Lord Bathurst, Pope, and Gay dined with old Tonson at Barnes and drank Swift's health (Gay to Swift, 20 March 1731). In 1734 Samuel Gibbons was appointed stationer to the Prince of Wales in place of Jacob Tonson (Nichols, Lit. Anecd. viii. 399). Jacob Tonson junior predeceased his uncle, dying on 25 Nov. 1735, worth 100,000l. (Gent. Mag. 1735, p. 6S2). His will, of great length (P.C.C. 257 Ducie), was written on 16 Aug. and proved on 6 Dec. 1235 [sic (1735)]. The elder Tonson's death at Ledbury followed that of his nephew on 2 April 1736, when he was described as worth 40,000l. (Gent. Mag. 1736, p. 168). His will was made on 2 Nov. 1735 (P.C.C. 91 Derby). A painting of the elder Tonson by Kneller is among the Kit-Cat portraits; it is best known through Faber's engraving. Pope says that Tonson obtained portraits from Kneller without payment by flattering him and sending him presents of venison and wine (Spence, Anecdotes, 1858, p. 136). Dryden's satirical account of his appearance has been quoted; Pope calls him 'left-legged Jacob' and 'genial Jacob' (Dunciad, i. 57, ii. 68). Dunton (Life and Errors, i. 216) describes Tonson. as 'a very good judge of persons and authors; and as there is nobody more competentlyqualified to give their opinion of another, so there is none who does it with a more severe exactness or with less partiality; for, to do Mr. Tonson justice, he speaks his mind upon all occasions, and will flatter nobody.' No doubt this roughness of manner wore off as Tonson grew in prosperity.

Besides the papers at Bayfordbury, there is a considerable collection of Tonson papers in the British Museum, some relating to business and some to private matters; but many of them are damaged or fragmentary (Addit. MSS. 28275–6). Single letters and papers will be found in Addit. MSS. 21110, 28887 f. 187, 28893 f. 443, 32626 f.2, 32690 f. 36, 32986, 32992 f. 340; Egerton MS. 1951, and Stowe MSS. 755 f. 35, 155 f. 97 b. [Malone's Life of Dryden, pp. 522–40; Dryden's Works, ed. Scott, i. 387–91, viii. 5, xv. 194, xviii. 103–38, 191; Swift's Works, ed. Scott, ii. 319, v. 460, xvi. 326, 330, xvii. 158, 348; Pope's Works, ed. Elwin and Courthope; Gent. Mag. lxxv. 911, lxxvii. 738; Spence's Anecdotes; Aitken's Life of Steele; Walpole's Letters, ii. 216, iii. 89, iv. 179; Hist. MSS. Comm. 3rd Rep. p. 193, 2nd Rep. pp. 69–71, 7th Rep. p. 692, 8th Rep. iii. 8, 10, 15th Rep. pt. vi.; Nichols's Lit. Anecd. and Lit. Illustr.; Knight's Shadows of the Old Booksellers; Dublin University Mag. lxxix. 703.]

G. A. A.

A Dictionary of the Printers and Booksellers who were at Work in England, Scotland and Ireland from 1668 to 1725, by Henry Plomer (1922)

TONSON (JACOB) I, bookseller in London, (i) Judge's Head in Chancery Lane, near Fleet Street, 1678–98 ; (2) in Gray's Inn Gate, next Gray's Inn Lane, 1700–10 ; (3) Shakespeare's Head, opposite Catherine Street in the Strand, 1710–20. 1677–1720. Younger brother of Richard Tonson (q. v.) and second son of Jacob Tonson, "a barber-surgeon in Holborn". He served his apprenticeship with Thomas Basset, to whom he was articled in 1670, and took up his freedom on December 20th, 1677. He settled at once at the Judge's Head, and in Hil. 1678 shared with his brother and with Bentley and Magnes the publication of Prechac's novel, The Heroin Musqueteer, his name only appearing on the third and fourth volumes. [T.C. 1. 300, 320, 330; Esdaile, p. 291.] He soon began to publish plays, and in 1679, with Abel Swalle, of whom a probably fabulous tradition asserts that he borrowed the purchase money, he published his first book for Dryden, Troilus and Cressida, In 1684 he started the celebrated Miscellany Poems, edited and largely written by Dryden, and commonly called Tonson's Miscellany. Another very important acquisition by Tonson was Paradise Lost, which he purchased in two instalments in 1683 and 1690. Between 1698 and 1700 [T.C. in. 57, 171] he moved from Chancery Lane to Gray's Inn Gate, no doubt succeeding his brother, whose name disappears from the Term Catalogues in 1689. The latter's son Jacob probably joined his uncle now; he had possibly been latterly keeping up a retail business at Gray's Inn Gate. Tonson followed up his earlier successes by publishing for the rising school of literary men. In 1705 he published Remarks on Several Parts of Italy for Addison, whom he had met in Holland; Steele seems to have acted for him as a "publisher's reader". He also published Cato, 1713. In 1709 he secured Pope's Pastorals for his sixth Miscellany. From about 1700 he was secretary to the newly founded literary Kitcat Club, and it shortly took to meeting at his house. In 1710 he made his second move, to the Strand. [Tatler, October 14th.] He retired about 1720, in favour of his nephew, and lived till 1737 at Ledbury. Tonson was accused by Dryden of meanness, and is caricatured by him in the well-known lines:

With leering look, bull-fac'd, and freckled fair With two left legs, with Judas-coloured hair, And frowzy pores, that taint the ambient air.

Dunton comments [p. 216] on the harshness of Tonson's critical judgements. [D.N.B.; Nichols, Lit. Anecd. I. 292–5.]

Encyclopædia Britannica 11th edition (1911)

TONSON, the name of a family of London booksellers and publishers. Richard and Jacob Tonson (c. 1656–1736), sons of a London barber-surgeon, started in 1676 and 1677 independently as booksellers and publishers in London. In 1679 Jacob, the better known of the two, bought and published Dryden’s Troilus and Cressida, and from that time was closely associated with Dryden, and published most of his works. He published the Miscellany Poems (1684–1708) under Dryden’s editorship, the collection being known indifferently as Dryden’s or Tonson’s Miscellany, and also Dryden’s translation of Virgil (1697). Serious disagreements over the price paid, however, arose between poet and publisher, and in his Faction Displayed (1705) Dryden described Tonson as having “two left legs, and Judas-coloured hair.” Subsequently the relations between the two men improved. The brothers jointly published Dryden’s Spanish Friar (1683). Jacob Tonson also published Congreve’s Double Dealer, Sir John Vanbrugh’s The Faithful Friend and The Confederacy, and the pastorals of Pope, thus justifying Wycherly’s description of him as “gentleman usher to the Muses.” He bought also the valuable rights of Paradise Lost, half in 1683 and half in 1690. This was his first profitable venture in poetry. In 1712 he became joint publisher with Samuel Buckley of the Spectator, and in the following year published Addison’s Cato. He was the original secretary and a prominent member of the Kit-Cat Club. About 1720 he gave up business and retired to Herefordshire, where he died on the 2nd of April 1736. His business was carried on by his nephew, Jacob Tonson, jun. (d. 1735), and subsequently by his grand-nephew, also Jacob (d. 1767).

Notes & Queries "London Booksellers Series" (1931–2)

TONSON, JACOB. Born about 1656; apprenticed, with his elder brother, to Thomas Basset on June 5, 1670. His apprenticeship was to last eight years. (See Malone, 'Life of Dryden.' p. 536). On Dec. 20, 1677, he was made a Freeman of the Stationers' Company, and soon afterwards opened a shop at the Judge's Head in Chancery Lane. Amongst his noted patrons were Dryden, Otway, Tate, and Addison. In 1683 he purchased a half share in 'Paradise Lost' from Aylmer, and in 1690 acquired the complete copyright of the poem. From now onwards he became increasingly important in the publishing world, and a landmark in his career was made by the appearance of his famous 'Miscellany,' (1684–1708). About 1699 he moved to the shop vacated by his brother Richard at Gray's Inn Gate, and took into partnership with him his nephew Jacob, the son of Richard. In 1710 they moved to the Shakespeare's Head against St. Catherine's Street, their old shop being taken over by the stationer, Thomas Osborne. The elder Tonson, who died on April 2, 1736, retired about 1720, and the nephew Jacob succeeded to the business. He died, however, on Nov. 25, 1735, a few months before his uncle, and was succeeded by his son, another Jacob. This Jacob Tonson was still publishing in 1750, and at that time had with him his brother Richard as partner.

—Frederick T. Wood, 17 October 1931


TONSON, JACOB, I and II. In the account given of this uncle and nephew no allusion has been made to Jacob Tonson senior's connection with the famous Kit Cat Club. Mention might be made too of the fact that Jacob junior bought half the rights in the first seven volumes of the Spectator from Addison and Steele in 1712 and that the acquired the remaining half two years later.

—Ambrose Heal, 5 December 1931