Benjamin Franklin Papers

From Benjamin Franklin to Peter P. Burdett, 3 November 1773

To Peter P. Burdett

Copy:4 American Philosophical Society

London, Nov. 3, 1773.


I was much pleased with the Specimens you so kindly sent me, of your new Art of Engraving. That on the China is admirable. No one would suppose it any thing but Painting.5 I hope you meet with all the Encouragement you merit, and that the Invention will be, (what Inventions seldom are) profitable to the Inventor.

I know not who (now we speak of Inventions) pretends to that of Copper-Plate Engravings for Earthen-Ware, and am not disposed to contest the Honor of it with any body, as the Improvement in taking Impressions not directly from the Plate but from printed Paper, applicable by that means to other than flat Forms, [is] far beyond my first Idea. But I have reason to apprehend I might have given the Hint on which that Improvement was made. For more than twenty years since, I wrote to Dr. Mitchell from America, proposing to him the printing of square Tiles for ornamenting Chimnies, from Copper Plates, describing the Manner in which I thought it might be done, and advising the Borrowing from the Bookseller, the Plates that had been used in a thin Folio, called Moral Virtue delineated, for the Purpose. As the Dutch Delphware Tiles were much used in America, which are only or chiefly Scripture Histories, wretchedly scrawled, I wished to have those moral Prints, (which were originally taken from Horace’s poetical Figures) introduced on Tiles, which being about our Chimneys, and constantly in the Eyes of Children when by the Fire-side, might give Parents an Opportunity, in explaining them, to impress moral Sentiments; and I gave Expectations of great Demand for them if executed. Dr. Mitchell wrote to me in Answer, that he had communicated my Scheme to several of the principal Artists in the Earthen Way about London, who rejected it as impracticable:6 And it was not till some years after that I first saw an enamelled snuff-Box which I was sure was a Copper-plate, tho’ the Curvature of the Form made me wonder how the Impression was taken.

I understand the China Work in Philadelphia is declined by the first Owners. Whether any others will take it up and continue it, I know not.7

Mr. Banks is at present engaged in preparing to publish the Botanical Discoveries of his Voyage. He employs 10 Engravers for the Plates, in which he is very curious, so as not to be quite satisfied in some Cases with the Expression given by either the Graver, Etching, or Metzotinto, particularly where there is a Wooliness or a Multitude of small Points or a Leaf. I sent him the largest of the Specimens you sent containing a Number of Sprigs.8 I have not seen him since, to know whether your Manner would not suit some of his Plants, better than the more common Methods. With great Esteem, I am, Sir, Your most obedient humble Servant,

B. Franklin

[Note numbering follows the Franklin Papers source.]

4The letter, which is in Fevre’s hand, continued the correspondence of the previous summer, apparently inaugurated by Burdett; see BF’s letter to him above, Aug. 21.

5This was just the point that had worried Josiah Wedgwood in 1772. When he had been trying out Burdett’s process for transferring acquatints to pottery, as mentioned in the headnote on the letter just cited, he had feared that the use of printed designs might become known and impair the market for hand-painted ware. Ann Finer and George Savage, eds., The Selected Letters of Josiah Wedgwood (London, [1975]), p. 118.

6For Dr. John Mitchell see above, II, 415 n. None of the many references to him in early volumes of this series throws any light on the exchange of letters to which BF refers, and we have failed to identify Moral Virtue Delineated.

7No one else did. Bonnin & Morris had been forced out of business in 1772, and china-making was not revived in Philadelphia for half a century. Harrold E. Gillingham, “Pottery, China, and Glass Making in Philadelphia,” PMHB, LIV (1930), 117.

8Designs in the form of sprays, normally on textiles but in this case presumably on the borders of an aquatint; Burdett had clearly sent BF a selection of his prints as well as printed china. BF hoped to interest Joseph Banks in using the new medium for his plates, which illustrated Daniel Solander’s description of the specimens that he and Banks had brought back from their voyage with Cook in the Endeavour. We have no indication that Banks was interested. He continued to direct the work of engraving until soon after Solander’s death in 1782, and then tired of the project; it was never completed. See the anonymous and unpaginated introduction to Illustrations of Australian Plants Collected in 1770 … by the Right Hon. Sir Joseph Banks … and Dr. Daniel Solander … (3 vols., London, 1905); John C. Beaglehole, ed., The Endeavour Journal of Joseph Banks, 1768–1771 (2 vols., [London, etc., 1962]), 1, 120–3.

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