The original engraved copper printing plate for a view of Boston, prepared by James Trenchard to illustrate a description of the city in the December 1787 issue of The Columbian Magazine. A unique and important artefact of early American printing, complete with fingerprints in ink.
Note: the image of the plate has been brightened and the contrast enhanced to bring out the detail.
The plate depicts a charming view of Boston, taken from the vantage point of Castle William across the harbor to the southeast (This being a printing plate, the view is of course rendered in reverse.) The view is a carefully engraved reduction of an image originally drawn by British colonial administrator Thomas Pownall and published in the Scenographia Americana: or, a collection of views in North America and the West Indies (1768), the most important English collection of views of North America published before the Revolution.
Trenchard’s version is a simplified reduction, focussed more narrowly on the city, and accentuating – as an artistic device – the spires of the city’s churches, while removing the ships from the harbour. The most obvious change is the substitution of the American flag for the British Union Flag on the flagpole in the foreground.
This is the earliest surviving American copper printing plate I have encountered in trade and by far the most significant, with the plate apparently still in serviceable condition. Early American printing plates, of any subject, are very rarely encountered on the market, and I cannot recall having seen another from the 18th century. Copper, being a soft metal, was easily damaged by careless handling or in storage, and the value of the metal itself meant the plates were generally recycled: the image was either burnished away and the plate re-engraved, or the plate melted down so the metal could be reused.
The Columbian Magazine
The Columbian Magazine, or monthly miscellany containing a view of the History, Literature, Manners & Characters of the year, was first published in 1786 by a consortium of leading Philadelphia bookmen and publishers, including William Spotswood, Charles Cist, Mathew Carey and James Trenchard.
The original subscription price was twenty shilling per annum, for which the publishers delivered thirteen numbers. An important element was engraved illustrations, generally two per issue, with Trenchard as the house engraver. This was a costly commitment, but the original print-run was an impressive 1,500 per issue, with demand seeing this increase to two thousand per issue, giving it the largest circulation of any American periodical of its day.
Unfortunately for the consortium, Carey left to found a rival publication, the American Museum. The other partners drifted away, finally leaving only James Trenchard, and the magazine folded in 1792.
Trenchard (1747-1798?) was active in Philadelphia from about 1777, as an engraver, seal-cutter and die-sinker. He was probably trained by James Smither and in turn trained James Thackara, and all three are well known today for their map work. His son Edward C. Trenchard advertised as a map-engraver. Trenchard’s later career is mysterious. He abandoned his wife – she had to sue for divorce – possibly emigrating to England in about 1793, but was recorded in court papers in Philadelphia in 1797 and died shortly after, either in Philadelphia or England.
His most important work was the single sheet version of the Reading Howell map of Pennsylvania 1791, but he is thought to have engraved most of the maps and plates for The Columbian Magazine, including maps of the “Annual Passage of the Herrings’ (a Gulf Stream map), Pennsylvania and a map of the seat of war around Boston. He also engraved portraits and landscapes, as here.
Provenance and references
This printing plate was previously in the hands of the Rosenbach Company, the most important of the American rare book dealers from the first half of the 20th century. It is housed in an early paper sleeve with manuscript title, inserted into a Rosenbach manila envelope, accompanied by a typed list of plates issued in the The Columbian Magazine. The list suggests that at one time that Rosenbach had acquired some or all of the plates from the Magazine.
Stauffer, American Engravers, #3285. Mott, A History of American Magazines 1741-1850, pp. 92-99 (for a history of The Columbian Magazine).
Offered in partnership with James Arsenault & Company and The Old Print Shop.