Book Reviews -- William Byrd II and His Lost History: Engravings of the Americas by Margaret Beck Pritchard and Virginia Lascara Sites

By Quitt, Martin H. | The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, July 1995 | Go to article overview

Book Reviews -- William Byrd II and His Lost History: Engravings of the Americas by Margaret Beck Pritchard and Virginia Lascara Sites


Quitt, Martin H., The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography


William Byrd II and His Lost History: Engravings of the Americas. By MARGARET BECK PRITCHARD and VIRGINIA LASCARA SITES. Williamsburg, Va.: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1993. xvi, 192 pp. $29.95.

CAST at the outset as an investigation into the provenance of an engraved copperplate that lay unused in the Bodleian Library from 1755 until 1929, when it proved invaluable to the Williamsburg restoration project, the book proceeds with a bifurcated analysis of a group of ten or eleven illustrations and the commercial, political, and literary careers of William Byrd II. The intersection between the two paths is the authors' theory that Byrd commissioned the engravings to adorn a history of America that he was writing or conceptualizing.

Although the authors say that they are offering "a reasonable hypothesis" regarding when, why, and for whom the engravings were struck (p. 18), their argument consists of a string of suppositions based on indirect evidence. First, they contend that the plates discovered in 1929 were part of the same series of images, the number of which is unclear. The book jacket states there are eleven; chapter two begins by referring to "all ten engravings" (p. 21); chapter one introduces seven plates, then brings in "three more prints that appear to be from the same series" (p. 4), and follows this reference with a mention of "three additional prints that relate to the seven copperplates" (p. 5). This led me to count seven plates and six prints; but, in light of the totals presented in the blurb and chapter two, thirteen is incorrect. Unless one is prepared to do his own bit of iconographic sleuthing by closely evaluating and tabulating the illustrations that appear in the book, he must rely on a text that is simply too muddled regarding what should be a straightforward fact.

Do the prints, however many there are, constitute the same series? Without having the names and copies of the full group of images before me, I must credit the authors' expertise on stylistic continuities and accept their assertion that the prints and copperplates are "part of one set of illustrations" (p. 6). The authors slide from positing the connectedness of the images to postulating that they were intended for a single book, not to accompany a series of pamphlets or to stand (or hang) as independent decorative objects. …

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