ost of the copies of Holbein's dance of death found on the Net are in fact produced by Douce. The blocks were cut for a dissertation published by Douce in 1833.
Francis Douce was an English antiquarian and collector, who in 1830 bequeathed his collection consisting of over 19,000 printed books (including 479 incunabula), 420 manuscripts, 27,000 prints, 1,500 drawings and thousands of coins, tokens and medals to the Bodleian Library in Oxford.
The Bodleian Library managed to catalogue Douce's books within 5 years. The task was greater than expected, because to the consternation of the librarians Douce hadn't written any inventory — evidently he knew his books by heart. On the other hand he had written cross references and comments at the back of most of the books. Cataloguing his many prints and drawings took a deal longer: In 1863 the bulk of them were transferred to the Ashmolean Museum but they weren't catalogued until 1913 — after 79 years.
In the preface to the catalogue, the librarians pointed out the odd fact that a man of so much reading and learning hadn't written more books himself, »It may appear perhaps strange, that a man of so much general reading and of such vast information should not be more known to the world by his published writings; for when we have enumerated the Illustrations of Shakspeare, the Dissertation upon the engraved figures attributed to Holbein and others representing the Dance of Death, added to a few articles in the Archaeologia, we have little remaining upon which to rest his fame as an author«.
The reason was that Douce's book about Shakespeare from 1811 had generally received favourable reviews, but was bashed by The Edinburgh Review, who called the book a collection of »tedious dissertations« and »laborious trifling«, while Douce was called »very feeble and very dull«. This negative review was probably caused by a feud between the newspaper and Douce's publisher, Longman. Nonetheless Douce seems to have taken it personally, and he abstained from writing any books for the next 25 years. The best explanation is the simple fact that he was a very sensitive person.
One might wonder why Douce's colossal collection had to be transported the long way from London to Oxford instead of to the British Museum in London. The reason he gave was that he wished for his collection to retain its identity instead of the individual artifacts being assimilated into the rest of the library's collections. Thus all that Bodleian's Librarian had to do in order to receive this enormous collection was to dedicate a room and write "Douce" above the door.
The librarians at the Bodleian Library wondered why Douce hadn't authored more books, but they comforted themselves in the hope of finding such writings in the box that Douce had deposited at the British Museum: »But it seems probable that the result of his reading, although lost to the present generation, remains yet to be enjoyed by their posterity. We allude to his Note Books and other Manuscript Collections deposited in the British Museum, not to be unsealed until the first of January 1900«.
The Museum had inherited a sealed strong box with letters and unfinished essays not to be opened before the year 1900. And here it must be noted that there might have been one more reason behind Douce's decision: He had worked for the British Museum 1807-1811, but the anti-authoritarian Douce had left his position in disgust, and submitted a list of 13 reasons for his departure, among which was: »Their fiddle faddle requisition of incessant reports, the greatest part of which can inform them of nothing, or, when they do, of what they are generally incapable of understanding or fairly judging of«.
Now the Museum was made to wait for 66 long years, and this is what they found according to the newspapers of the day (see also the clips to the right and left):
A BRITISH MUSEUM HOAX: Francis Douce, a famous antiquary, who died in 1834, bequeathed a box to the British museum trustees, stipulating it should not be opened until 1900.
At a recent meeting of the trustees the box was solemnly unsealed and unlocked by the curator of the museum, when it was found to contain nothing but old fragments of paper, torn bookcovers and other rubbish, with a note from Douce saying that, in his opinion, it would be wasting any more valuable or interesting objects to leave them to persons of the average intelligence and taste of the British museum trustees.
ack in 1794 Douce had written an essay about dances of death — as a preface to an new edition of Hollars etchings. Thus his book from 1833, »The dance of death exhibited in elegant engravings on wood: with a dissertation on the several representations of that subject but more particularly on those ascribed to Macaber and Hans Holbein« with the woodcuts, can be regarded as an extension of his forty years old work.
And his work was truly extended. As William Chatto(1) remarks: »Scarcely a cut or an engraving that contains even a death's head and cross-bones appears to have escaped his notice«. One thing that hadn't changed between 1794 and 1833 was that Douce still refused to believe that the woodcuts were created by Holbein. Hence the title, »dance of death […] ascribed to […] Hans Holbein«.
Douce had a point, of course: Why did all of the Trechsel-brothers' editions of the dance of death refrain from mentioning the name of this famous artist? Why was it claimed in the preface of the first edition from 1538 that the artist was dead, whereas Holbein didn't die before several years later?(2) It has been suggested that this was done to protect Holbein because of the woodcuts' heavy criticism of worldly and ecclesiastical powers, but why would the Trechsel-brothers go to this extent to protect Holbein, who was at this time living safely in England, while openly using their own names?
Nevertheless hardly anybody had ever thought that Holbein's dance of death wasn't by Holbein, before Douce wrote his essay. As Chatto remarks, about Douce: »He is at once sceptical and credulous; he denies that any poet of the name of Macaber ever lived; and yet he believes, on the sole authority of one T. Nieuhoff Picard, whose existence is as doubtful as Macaber's, that Holbein painted a Dance of Death as large as life, in fresco, in the old palace at Whitehall«.
Douce writes in 1794 (page 26) that he has seen a dance of death alphabet, which at the bottom is signed " Hans Lützelburger Formschneider in Basel". In that case this exemplar is different from the ones in Dresden's Staatliche Kunstsammlungen (picture to the left) and in British Museum. But the HL-mark, which Douce reproduces is the same that has been cut into the bedpost of the duchess. Douce therefore grudgingly had to admit that Lützelburger might have cut "some" of the blocks for the great dance of death, and he was also willing to acknowledge that Holbein has designed the alphabet. But Douce still used all of his vast learning and massive double-think to prove that Holbein was not the originator of the great dance of death.
There is no reason to repeat here why everybody else but Douce agrees in ascribing the dance of death to Holbein. Yes, Holbein was anonymous, but so was Douce himself in his 1794-preface. Yes, the 1538-preface claims that the artist was dead, but this might have been a reference to Lützelburger who cut the blocks and who died in 1526. Besides it's hard to have too much confidence in the chirpy preface, which is anonymous and addressed to a »moult reverende abbesse«. Did this "much reverend abbess" really exist? Can one imagine that she would have appreciated Holbein's picture of the abbess, who is dragged screaming away by Death, away from the life that she long ago has sworn to renounce?
Douce's book was republished 25 years later in 1858, and this editor evidently didn't have much reverence for Douce's theories. The book was bound together with a reprint (from 1830) of Holbein's cuts for the Old Testament, and not only that: The new title of Douce's lifework was now »Holbein's Dance of death exhibited in elegant engravings on wood«.
Douce's book about dances of death is often referred to on the present site. E.g.:
Footnotes: (1) (2)