Publishing Paradise: The Rise of Jacob Tonson

Publishing Paradise: The Rise of Jacob Tonson


“All our learning will be locked up in the hands of the Tonsons and the Lintons[1] of the age, who will set what price upon it their avarice chuses to demand, till the public become as much their slaves, as their own hackney compilers are.”[2]



by Sir Godfrey Kneller, Bt, oil on canvas, 1717
by Sir Godfrey Kneller, Bt, oil on canvas, 1717

Fig. 1 – A portrait of Jacob Tonson I by Sir Godfrey Kneller. Here, Tonson is holding a copy of Paradise Lost, the book that Tonson said had made him the most money in his career.

(c) National Portrait Gallery, London. NPG 3230. On display in Room 9 at the National Portrait Gallery.

Use of this image on this website is kindly provided by the National Portrait Gallery under the terms of the National Portrait Gallery’s Creative Commons licence :


The period from the late seventeenth to early eighteenth centuries – the era during which Jacob Tonson happened to be publishing – was an exciting time to be a bookseller. The Licensing Act of 1662 finally lapsed in 1695 and the press became free of censorship, and the Statute of Anne in 1710 granted 14 years of legal protection to booksellers who owned the copyright to a book, a law which Tonson used to his advantage. The number of books published Jacob Tonson, one of the most important booksellers of his time, is estimated at over 800 volumes, though an exhaustive count would require its own volume. He found great wealth in the bookselling industry, and despite his status as a merchant, was deeply involved in one of the most powerful political clubs of his time, the Whig-dominated Kit-Cat Club. He owned the rights to English classics by John Milton and Shakespeare, but also worked closely with some of the most renowned authors of his day, including Matthew Prior, Joseph Addison, and John Dryden, with whom he had a long-standing partnership. There is no evidence that he married or had children, instead passing on his well-established publishing business to a nephew also named Jacob Tonson. The incredible rise of Jacob Tonson from humble merchant to a figure many have called “the father of modern publishing” is an impressive one that this exhibit aims to chart through a selection of Tonson books present at the Worth library.


Early Life and Influences


Little is known about Tonson’s personal life during his most prolific publishing years, and most accounts of Tonson’s life are cobbled together from his vast amounts of correspondence with promient authors and other influential figures. He was born in 1655, and records indicate that he was baptized at St. Andrew, Holborn, on 12 November 1655. Both his father Jacob and grandfather Richard were also tradesmen, both shoemakers. His mother was Eliizabeth Walbancke, whose father Matthew had a successful bookselling and publishing business for over 40 years at Gray’s Inn. Matthew Walbancke mostly specialized in law books to meet the needs of the Gray’s Inn barristers but had varied interests, and was likely an important influence on Tonson. Jacob Tonson was the fourth of five children; little is known about his sisters, and his brother was also a bookseller, though Jacob was to be the most famous of the Tonsons.


Though no definitive records exist, later letters written by Tonson suggest he had a good education. Unlike Bernard Lintot, one of his bookseller contemporaties who had no knowledge of French, Latin, Greek, and Italian, Tonson had a refined taste and at least some language skill. On 6 June 1670, a few months before his 15th birthday, Jacob was apprenticed to Thomas Basset, a well-known publisher at the George. His 8 years of apprenticeship were formative and gave him an opportunity to gain knowledge about books and to build relationships with a wider circle of booksellers and publishers. Basset at times published with 20 or more other booksellers with whom he shared copyright, so Tonson probably was acquainted with many booksellers at the time.


Tonson was admitted to the freedom of the Stationers’ Company on January 7, 1678, and at once began publishing at the Judge’s Head in Chancery Lane using his father’s legacy of 100 pounds. His brother Richard was already a successful bookseller at Gray’s Inn. Tonson first published jointly with other publishers, but soon broke out on his own as he formed important relationships with authors old and new. In the early 1700s, he took on his nephew, also named Jacob Tonson, as an apprentice, but did not himself cease publishing until 1718.


Tonson-Dryden Partnership


With leering Looks, Bull-fac’d, and Freckled fair,
With two left Legs; and Judas-colour’d Hair,
With Frowzy Pores, that taint the ambient Air.[3]



Tonson was only 24 when he first published for John Dryden, and his partnership with the aging author became one of the defining relationships of his career. It is unclear exactly how the two met, but starting in 1679, when Tonson and Abel Swalle jointly published Dryden’s Troilus and Cressida, Dryden worked almost exclusively with Tonson until his death in 1700. Their partnership was mutually beneficial; Dryden needed Tonson’s youth and encouragement, and Tonson benefitted greatly from Dryden’s prestige and connections. With the help of Dryden, Tonson published an enormously popular series of “Miscellanies,” collections of poetry and other works that made Tonson a good deal of money.


Fig. 2 - Juvenal and PersiusFig. 2 – A copy of Dryden’s translations of Juvenal and Persius, two Roman satirists, in the Worth library. Jacob Tonson published this edition in 1693. For more information on this volume and the Tonson-Dryden partnership, please see the upcoming Book of the Month in September 2015.



Dryden and Tonson’s correspondence – and the poem fragment that begins this section – reveal some tension in their relationship. Dryden was older, and his relatively long career was suffering a rough end. He was left out of favor with the court after refusing to pledge allegiance to the new monarchs, William and Mary, and replaced in his office of Poet Laureate. However, their relatioship was quite often amicable, and Dryden helped Tonson solidify his reputation.


Tonson’s Contemporary Authors


Tonson had a penchant for finding talent, and he worked with and cultivated the talent of several prominent poets. One of these was Matthew Prior, the most popular poet of his time. He was first published by Tonson in 1692 with An Ode in Imitation of the Second Ode of the Third Book of Horace.


 Fig. 3 - Prior title pageFig. 3 – A copy of Matthew Prior’s Poems on Several Occasion, published in 1718, at the Worth library.


Despite Prior’s literary talent, he had several political downfalls and faced trouble due to his Tory allegiances. Despite Tonson’s longstanding association with the Whigs, he did not cease publishing Prior’s works, proving the importance of his publishing business to him.


 Fig. 4 - Worth subscriber pageFig. 4 – Dr. Edward Worth’s name on the subscription list for Poems on Several Occasions, published by Jacob Tonson in 1718. Though Tonson did not invent the subscription method, he greatly popularized its use.


Tonson’s productions were markedly different from others of his time in that he published almost exclusively English poetry and drama. The majority of the London book trade at this time, however, was concerned with producing didactic, religious, and political tracts. Tonson is regarded as one of the creators of the English literary canon, largely due to his focus on English vernacular literature.


 Fig. 5 - Suckling title pageFig. 5 – The Works of Sir John Suckling, containing all his Poems, Love-Verses, Songs, Letters, and his Tragedies and Comedies, by John Suckling. Suckling was famous for his love poetry, and is an excellent example of Tonson’s focus on English vernacular literature.


Other English poets he worked with include William Congreve, Joseph Addison, Richard Steele, Alexander Pope, and John Hughes. Congreve, Addison, and Steele were all in their early twenties when Tonson began working with them, and Prior was in his late twenties. Tonson helped to give them a wider audience of readers and cultivated their talent.


Milton, Shakespeare, and the English Literary Canon


Tonson did not just work with authors from his own time; he also acquired copyrights to classic English works and produced immensely popular versions of these works that

Tonson attempted to call on Milton about 1673, near the end of Milton’s life when he was selling some of his library, according to his letters. Jacob Tonson played an essential role in establishing Paradise Lost as a central part of the English literary canon. In 1683 he purchased half of the copyright for Paradise Lost from Brabazon Aylmwe, and seven years later he bought the remaining half. Tonson published his first edition of Paradise Lost in 1688, and the beautiful illustrated edition, a copy of which is present at the Worth library, came a few years later. This edition is the first to contain significant notes and comments on the text of Paradise Lost, and also includes a reference table to help guide readers. When asked, Tonson said that Paradise Lost and Milton’s works were the most lucrative productions of his career.


 Fig. 6 - Paradise Lost title pageFig. 6 – A copy of The Works of John Milton, published 1695. For more information about this edition of Paradise Lost, please see the Book of the Month for July 2015.


Before the Statute of Anne was enacted in 1710, Tonson had previously acquired the rights to most of Shakespeare’s works, and the Statute protected his right to exclusively publish those works. Over the next few years, Tonson published popular editions of Shakespeare edited by Nicholas Rowe, Alexander Pope, and Samuel Johnson. Tonson is seen as an important contributor to the field of Shakespearean scholarship, as these edited editions contained not just the text, but also the discussion of the context of the bard and his works. Tonson also played a huge role in bringing Shakespeare to the public by publishing large quantities of cheap Shakespeare plays.


Tonson’s Sterling Reputation


Tonson prided himself on accuracy and quality; a book with the Tonson name printed on the title page was of a guaranteed high standard.


Fig. 7 - letter to the reader

Fig. 7 – A letter from Tonson to the readers, prefacing a copy of Poems Upon Several Occasions by George Granville, Baron Landsdowne. This letter from Tonson serves as a promise of the high standards he strove to uphold in all of his books.


In Tonson’s time, there were several deceitful publishers who reproduced incorrect editions of a work, often without authorial consent. The most noted of these publishers was Edmund Curll, who published an edition of Prior’s poems without the poet’s consent, making Prior quote unhappy. Tonson alludes to these crooked booksellers in his letter to readers in the above photo. These unauthorized editions, the source of much consternation for writers at the time, were sometimes shorter than the author had desired and often contained ridiculous errors.


 Fig. 8 - Rochester torn pageFig. 8 – Photo of a copy of Poems, On Several Occasions: with Valentinian; a Tragedy, by the Right Honourable John Wilmot, Late Earl of Rochester.

Excerpt of Missing Page:


For this matter the Publisher assures

us, he has been diligent out of measure,

and has taken exceeding Care that

every Block of Offence shou’d be re-


So that this Book is a Collection of

such pieces only, as may be received in

a vertuous Court, and not unbecome the

Cabinet of the Severest Matron.


Tonson refused to print obscene or libellous materials and kept his record clean, one of the reasons he was respected by fellow publishers, authors, and the general public alike. This volume of works by Rochester in the above photo is largely based off a hastily printed 1980 collection, but presents a more polished and complete front, with previously unpublished manuscripts and an elegy to the late Earl. Publishing Rochester’s poems presented a problem for Tonson, as Rochester was known to write obscene poems and reportedly led a life replete with debauchery. This preface, written by noted critic Thomas Rymer, explains Tonson’s attempts to censor Rochester’s works.


Kit-Cat Club


Tonson was undoubtedly one of most powerful literary figures of his day, but his influence extended far beyond the publishing industry. He was the secreatary of the Kit-Cat Club, the most famous political club of its day, and often hosted meetings. The Kit-Cat Club was composed of many of the leaders of the Whig party in the reign of William and Mary, and Anne. It was a political club which took on social characteristics and had strong literary ties. Reportedly, Tonson was called “an amphibeous mortal, Chief Merchant to the Muses,” by his fellow Kit-Cat members, who were very fond of him. In a poem called from his work Faction Displayed William Shippen describes Tonson at a Kit-Cat meeting:

Now the Assembly [Kit-Cat Club] to adjourn prepar’d,

When Bibliopolo [Tonson] from behind appear’d
As well describ’d by th’ old Satyrick Bard,
With leering Looks, Bull-fac’d , and Freckled fair,
With two left Legs; and Judas-colour’d [red] Hair,
With Frowzy Pores, that taint the ambient Air.
Sweating and Puffing for a-while he stood.
And then broke forth in this insulting Mood:

I am the Touchstone of all Modern Wit,

Without my Stamp in vain your Poets write.
Those only purchase everliving Fame,
That in my Miscellany plant their Name.

Perhaps, as Shippen implies, Tonson knew his own importance, or perhaps thought too highly of himself. It is remarkable that Tonson, a merchant with a humble background, rose through the ranks to become a powerful and influential figure, closely associated with some of the most important politicians and writers of his day.




Bernard, Stephen. “Henry Herringman, Jacob Tonson, and John Dryden: The Creation of the English Literary Publisher.” Notes and Queries. Vol. 62.2, 2015. 274-277. Accessed 8 July 2015.


Gaba, Jeffrey M. “Copyrighting Shakespeare: Jacob Tonson, Eighteenth Century English Copyright, and the Birth of Shakespeare Scholarship.” Journal of Intellectual Property Law. Volume 19.21, 2011. 21-63. Accessed 8 July 2015.


Hamm, Robert B. “Rowe’s Shakespear (1709) and the Tonson House Style.” College Literature. Volume 31.3, 2004. 179-205. Accessed 10 July 2015.


Lynch, Kathleen. Jacob Tonson, Kit-Cat Publisher. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1971. Print.


Papali, G.F. Jacob Tonson, Publisher: His Life and Work. Auckland: Tonson Publishing House, 1968. Print.


Walker, Keith. “Jacob Tonson, Bookseller.” American Scholar. Volume 61:3, 1992. 424-431. Accessed 9 July 2015.


This exhibition was curated by Ms Brianna Mac Gregor, third year student, Department of English, Harvard.



[1] The Lintons were another well-known family of booksellers from Tonson’s time.

[2] From the copyright trial Donaldson v. Beckett.

[3] A fragment of a poem written by Dryden about Tonson, illustrating their sometimes tense relationship.

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