Edinburgh Bookshelf

Kay's Originals Vol. 2


BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCHES. 473 No, CCCXXIX? ARCHIBALD CONSTABLE, ESQ. THE illustrious citizen of Edinburgh here represented has, not without good claim, been styled “ the Prince of Publishers.” He was born on the 24th February 1774 in the parish of Carnbee, Fifeshire, where his father was a farmer and manager of the estates of the Earl of Kellie. He was descended of good family, and there was even a trace of nobility in his blood, at all events it may fairly be said that he inherited a noble soul. Like most geniuses who have risen from comparative obscurity to fame and fortune, he gave early indication of the bent of his mind, and after attending the parish school (the only education he seems to have received) he was at his own request apprenticed to Mr. Peter Hill, a bookseller in Edinburgh of considerable standing, who, with other advantages, could boast of being one of the friends and correspondents of Burns. He had no sooner commenced his duties than he showed an enthusiasm for everything connected with books, so much so that his master entrusted him with tasks much more important than usually fall to the lot of a beginner. At Hatton House, Midlothian, a seat of the Earl of Lauderdale, he was employed to catalogue a valuable library (a description of work for which he showed an early aptitude), and here it seems his natural love of old books first got vent. The term of apprenticeship, usually dull and monotonous, seems with him to have been one of cheerful activity and progress, and instead of leaving his master on its termination he remained with him a year longer as clerk He then resolved to set up business on his own account, not, however, until he had taken the important preliminary step of settling down as a married man. This was in the year 1795. His shop was well chosen and classic ground, being situated on the north side of the High Street, nearly opposite the Old Cross-a site formerly occupied by Andrew Hart, the famous printer, and more recently by Kincaid and Creech, both notable bibliopoles who had attained to the highest civic honours of the city. The place was in those days a sort of lounge for literary men, from its contiguity to the Cross and the Parliament House, not to speak of some highly-favoured taverns in the adjoining closes, which were then the resort of the choice spirits of the day. Here he was not slow to form many literary connections, and to lay the foundation of a business that rapidly assumed gigantic proportions. It is impossible in a short notice like this to enter into the details of the numerous literary works which he projected and carried out. The first of these, appropriate enough considering his agricultural antecedents, was the Famner’s Magazine ; the second, characteristic of his love of Scotch literature, was the Scots Magazine; and the third and crowning periodical work was the world-renowned Edinburgh Beview, the first number of which ap- VOL 11. 3 P
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474 BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCHES. peared on the 10th October 1S02. His intimacy with Sir Walter Scott, which continued until death with little interruption, was attended by large results. The first work that was the harbinger of a series of literary productions destined to astonish the world was the Minstrelsy of the Xcottish Border, which appeared in January 1802, and the publication of which he shared with Messrs. Longman of London. This was afterwards followed up by the other poems, and by the Waverley Novels. Besides these there were books of a more solid and learned character which engaged his attention. Among them were that useful work of reference The Annual Register, and the philosophical and scientific works of Dugald Stewart, Brown, Playfair, and Leslie (all of whom were friends and habitues of the High Street rendezvous), and last, though not least, came the Encyclopcedia Brilannica, the copyright of which he purchased in 1812. This great work was as yet in its infancy, but he added six supplementary volumes containing the celebrated scientific dissertation by Stewart, Playfair, and Brande. He took special interest in Scottish literature, and issued many rare works in t,hat department including those of his friend Sir John Graham Dalzell, of whom Kay has given a biography in this volume. Passing over many other literary adventures, it may be sufficient here to notice one of his latest projects, Constable’s Miscellany, a work set on foot in 1825, and intended to popularise wholesome literature-a result it attained with no small measure of success. It was soon after this that the cloud of pecuniary difficulties which had been gathering overhead culminated and broke, obliging the firm to stop payment under a pressure of liabilities exceeding 3250,000. How such a calamity could have befallen so fair a structure it is difficult to conjecture. Possibly it can be accounted for by the supposition that the huge vessel was overweighted, and sunk under the burden of its precious cargo-a cargo the dismembered portions of which were sufficient to enrich others who succeeded to them. But the architect does not always live t,o see the accomplishment of his great design. So Constable was doomed to take the last view of his splendidly constructed business with feelings of disappointment. From this time his health gave way, the hitherto robust frame broke up, and he died of a dropsical complaint, from which he had for some time suffered, at his house in Park Place on the 21st July 1827. His death was felt as a great blow to Edinburgh, as shown by the numerous obituary notices which appeared after his decease, and from one of which we make the following extract :- “We are concerned to learn that Mr. Constable, our late eminent Publisher, who had for some time suffered severely under a dropsical complaint, expired suddenly, at his house in Park Place, on the afternoon of Saturday. This event has, we confess, excited in our minds a train of melancholy recollections and regrets ; and we cannot refrain from thus publicly expressing our respect for the memory of a man who, notwithstanding the disastrous termination of his professional career, must long be remembered as a liberal friend of literary merit, and active promoter of those literary enterprises which, during the last twenty-five years, have redounded so much to the advantage and fame of this city. We do not scruple to say, that we have nationality enough to have derived B lively satisfaction from seeing it become an object of desire among the literati of the south to contribute to its literary undertakings, and to resort to it as an advantageous mart of publication ; and, convinced BS we are, that this was in no small
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