John Ballantyne. Albumen carte de visite by James Good Tunny.
Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London. Click on image to enlarge it

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bout the firm of John Ballantyne & Co. there is not much to say. John Ballantyne (1774-1821) was the younger brother of James Ballantyne, the printer of Walter Scott's works, and was first employed in his brother’s printing establishment. In 1808, in the wake of a dispute with Constable, his regular publisher until then, over a severely critical review of his work in The Edinburgh Review, Walter Scott essentially set up a publishing firm of his own, under the name of John Ballantyne & Co., with John Ballantyne as its manager.

One of the first works produced by the new company was the Edinburgh Annual Register, intended by Scott to be not only a competitor and rival of the Annual Register -- founded in 1758 under the editorship of Edmund Burke and offering copious records and analyses of the year’s major events, developments and trends throughout the world – but in some measure a conservative or Tory-inclined alternative to the liberal, Whiggish Edinburgh Review being put out by Constable. Scott had in fact first invited Constable to undertake publication of the new periodical and then excluded him from participation in it in response to Constable’s cautious and skeptical view of the proposal and in the wake of the two men’s falling out over the criticism of Scott in the Edinburgh Review.

The first volume, for the year 1808, appeared in 1810, and was largely overseen by Scott and Robert Southey, the latter being charged with the extensive historical sections or chapters. It is an impressive tome in two parts, the first part consisting of 459 pages devoted to the history of Europe in the year 1808, followed by a further 103 pages of “State Papers”; the second consisting of 240 pages devoted to a “Chronicle” of the year’s events, followed by a further 200 pages, a few devoted to prices of stocks and bonds, statistics of deaths from diseases, and notable births, marriages, and deaths, with longer sections devoted to “The Drama” (72 pages), “The Fine Arts” (16 pages), changes to the laws (31 pages), “The Physical Sciences” (44 pages), “The Living Poets of Great Britain” (written by Scott himself, 27 pages), original poetry by the Scottish poetess Joanna Baillie, Scott, Southey, several lesser known poets and a few anonymous pieces (48 pages). The volume closed on a 32-page list of “New Publications for 1808” arranged by topic (“Antiquities,” “Agriculture,” “Architecture,” “Arts and Sciences,” “Biography,” “Botany,” etc.), and including substantial sections on “Drama,” with 25 items listed, “Novels and Romances,” with 77 items listed, a fair number of them either in French or translated from the French by Mme de Genlis and Mme Cottin, and “Poetry,” with about 70 items listed, including a few in foreign languages.)

According to Kenneth Curry’s Sir Walter Scott’s “Annual Register” (1977),

Southey's contributions brought mixed reviews—expressions of disgust from Byron and Shelley, annoyance from Wordsworth, high praise from Coleridge (“the noblest specimen of recent and progressive History in the annals of Literature”) -- and a substantial income [of £400 a year], as well as the basis for much of his later History of the Peninsular War. For Scott the Register became a vehicle for such things as his enthusiasm for military strategy, in “Cursory Remarks upon the French Order of Battle,” and a bit of critical silliness in “Of the Living Poets of Great Britain,” identifying Thomas Campbell, Southey, and Scott himself (‘the minion of modern popularity’) as the greatest of living poets, compared to whom Byron is ignored, Coleridge is almost unmentionable (‘such a mixture of the terrible with the disgusting’), and Wordsworth is ‘an unsuccessful competitor for poetic fame.’ [pp. 25-27. Coleridge’s praise appears in a letter of May 16, 1812 to John Murray, quoted on p. 25. See also Rocky Mountain Review of Language and Literature 33 (Spring 1979): 85.]

From the start, however, the firm did not do well financially, a condition seriously aggravated, as Constable had foreseen, by the ambitious undertaking just described, and in 1813 Scott negotiated a bail-out with Constable, who agreed to take over Ballantyne’s stock, including the Annual Register, in return for a share in Scott's work and a pledge that the Ballantyne firm would be wound up as soon as possible. As part of the deal, it was agreed that Ballantyne was to have a share in the profits of the Waverley Novels. In addition, in 1820, Scott offered his services as editor of a Novelist's Library, to be published, for Ballantyne’s benefit, by the short-lived firm of Hurst Robinson in London and printed by brother James Ballantyne’s press in Edinburgh. Set up in 1818 by a former partner in Longman’s and the brother of a bookseller in Leeds, Hurst Robinson collapsed in the financial crash of January 1826, to which Constable also succumbed temporarily. In its brief existence, the firm did publish the Novelist's Library (1821-24) consisting of ten substantial volumes of about 800 pages each, with brief biographical and 20-30 pp. critical notices by Scott on each of the authors represented.

The first volume opened with an “Advertisement” (in the sense of the French “Avertissement”) outlining the aim and scope of the project.

It is intended to reprint, in the present form, the Works of the best English Novelists, together with selections from the German, French, and Italian (some of which are already translated and others in the course of translation), with Memoirs of the Authors’ Lives, and Criticism on their Writings prefixed. The Works of each Author will be published separately and complete, in a single volume, as in the present instance, or in two or more, as the length of the composition shall require.

Volume 1 (1821), The Novels of Henry Fielding, Esq. contained the texts of Joseph Andrews, Tom Jones, Amelia, and Jonathan Wild. Volume 2 (1821) was devoted to Tobias Smollett (Roderick Random, Peregrine Pickle, Humphrey Clinker); Volume 3 (1821) also to Smollett (Count Fathom, Sir Launcelot Greaves) and a translation of Cervantes’ Don Quixote; Volume 4 (1822) to Le Sage (Gil Blas and The Devil on Two Sticks [Le Diable boiteux] in Smollett’s translations) and Charles Johnstone (The Adventures of a Guinea); Volume 5 (1823) to Sterne (Tristram Shandy, A Sentimental Journey), Oliver Goldsmith (The Vicar of Wakefield), Dr. Johnson (Rasselas), Henry MacKenzie (The Man of Feeling, The Man of the World, Julia Roubigne), Horace Walpole (The Castle of Otranto), and the eighteenth-century novelist Clara Reeve (The Old English Baron); Volumes 6, 7, and 8 (1824) to “the novels of Samuel Richardson, Esq.” (Pamela, Clarissa, Sir Charles Grandison); Vol. 9 to Swift (Gulliver’s Travels), Robert Bage (Mount Henneth, Barham Downs, James Wallace), and Richard Cumberland (Henry); and Vol. 10 (1824) to Ann Radcliffe (The Sicilian Romance, The Romance of the Forest, The Mysteries of Udolpho, The Italian, and Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne).

The title page of the first two volumes carried the notice “London: Published by Hurst, Robinson, and Co. Printed by James Ballantyne and Company, At the Border Press. For John Ballantyne, Edinburgh.” The volumes published after John Ballantyne’s death in 1821, omit the reference to him and add “Edinburgh” to “At the Border Press.” The publishing house of John Ballantyne, such as it was, had clearly ceased to exist.

Spreading the Word: Scottish Publishers and English Literature 1750-1900


Curry, Kenneth. Sir Walter Scott’s “Annual Register”. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1977.

Last modified 25 September 2018