Douce, Bonner & Byfield

M ost of the copies of Holbein's dance of death found on the Net are in fact produced by Francis Douce. The blocks were cut for a dissertation published by Douce in 1833.

It is not entirely clear, who cut the blocks for Douce's dissertation in 1833. Douce himself wrote (page vi in the preface) »a set of fac-similes of the abovementioned elegant designs, [...] have been executed with consummate skill and fidelity by Messrs. Bonner and Byfield, two of our best artists in the line of wood engraving. They may very justly be regarded as scarcely distinguishable from their fine originals«. In other words the two woodcutters were George Wilmot Bonner (1796-1836) and John Byfield (1788-1841).

Original Holbein: Shock
The countess' chambermaid
Douce: Annoyance and anger
The countess' chambermaid

Later on in the same book — on page 253 just before the 49 woodcuts are presented, Douce writes: »The Copies have been made by Mr. Bonner«. So maybe Byfield has only contributed to the other woodcuts that adorn Douce's book, but not to the dance of death itself?

But other experts want to pin the badge of honour on John Byfield as well. For instance Joseph Cundall writes in A brief history of wood-engraving from its invention (1895, page 82): »they have been copied on the Continent many times, and were reproduced in England in perfect facsimile and in the very best manner under the superintending care of Francis Douce, a celebrated antiquary, by John and Mary Byfield and George Bonner, all excellent engravers. Accompanied by a learned dissertation by Mr. Douce, the work was published by William Pickering in the year 1833«.

Original Holbein: Round cheeks
The preacher
Douce: Narrow face with heavy lipstick
The preacher

So according to Joseph Cundall, who was also the author of Holbein and his Works, not only had John Byfield worked on the dance of death, but his sister Mary Byfield (1795-1871) had contributed as well. Cundall continues (page 125): »Among the other celebrated wood-engravers of the latter half of this century were John and Mary Byfield, who engraved the facsimile cuts of Holbein's 'Dance of Death' and 'Scenes from Old Testament History' for Pickering's editions of these celebrated works«. Once again John and Mary are lauded for the work on the dance of death (no mention of Bonner this time), but in the same breath the author mentions the reprint of Holbein's illustrations for the Old Testament.

Holbein's woodcut woodcuts for the Old Testament were indeed copied by the two siblings because according to the preface of this book from 1830 (page vii): »It only remains to observe, that the ensuing Cuts are as faithful representations of the originals as can well nigh be conceived : that they are the united efforts of a Brother and a Sister* engaged in the laborious profession of WoodCutters - with whose talents the Public have been a long time gratified« and a footnote explained that the brother and sister were John and Mary Byfield. This preface is signed T.F.D., who wasn't Francis Douce, but Thomas Frognall Dibdin, Douce's good friend, fellow antiquarian and author of Reminiscences of a Literary Life, from which the picture at the top, right corner of the present page has been taken.

Original Holbein: Surprise
Douce: Sneer and detestation.

To sum up: A strict literal reading of Douce's book tells us that Bonner was alone in working on the dance of death, while John Byfield presumably has done "something else". Others claim the opposite: that John Byfield and maybe even his sister contributed, but their claims may have been influenced by a conflation of the dance of death with the cuts for the Old Testament.

The woodcuts have often been copied and have almost taken over the place of the original cuts. Partly because they are much sharper, and partly because Holbein's blocks have disappeared long ago. But one still has to remember that they are only copies, and the difference is greatest in the facial expressions. To quote Chatto once more: »Mr. Douce observes, of the forty-nine cuts given in his Dance of Death, 1833, that "they may be very justly regarded as scarcely distinguishable from their fine originals." Now, without any intention of depreciating these clever copies, I must pronounce them inferior to the originals, especially in the heads and hands«.

Read more about Francis Douce, the 1858-edition and the dance of death alphabet.


Douce 1833: Creation
The Fall
Douce 1833: The Fall
Douce 1833: Expulsion
After the Fall
Douce 1833: After the Fall
Bones of All Men
Douce 1833: Bones of All Men
The Pope
Douce 1833: The Pope
Douce 1833: Emperor
Douce 1833: King
Douce 1833: Cardinal
Douce 1833: Empress
Douce 1833: Queen
Douce 1833: Bishop
Douce 1833: Duke
Douce 1833: Abbot
Douce 1833: Abbess
Douce 1833: Nobleman
Douce 1833: Canon
Douce 1833: Judge
Douce 1833: Lawyer
Douce 1833: Senator
Douce 1833: Preacher
Douce 1833: Priest
Douce 1833: Monk
Douce 1833: Nun
Old woman
Douce 1833: Old woman
Douce 1833: Physician
Douce 1833: Astrologer
Rich man
Douce 1833: Rich man
Douce 1833: Merchant
Douce 1833: Sailor
Douce 1833: Knight
Douce 1833: Count
Old man
Douce 1833: Old man
Douce 1833: Countess
Douce 1833: Noblewoman
Douce 1833: Duchess
Douce 1833: Peddler
Douce 1833: Peasant
Douce 1833: Child
Judgment Day
Douce 1833: Judgment Day
The escutcheon
Douce 1833: The escutcheon
Douce 1833: Soldier
Douce 1833: Waggoner
Douce 1833: Gambler
Douce 1833: Robber
Blind man
Douce 1833: Blind man
Douce 1833: Beggar
Douce 1833: Drunkard
Douce 1833: Fool
Douce 1833: Scabbard
Douce 1833: Block
Douce 16
Douce : Douce 16
Francis Douce
Douce 1803: Francis Douce
Douce 112
Douce : Douce 112

Other interpreters of Holbein's dance of death


Hans Holbein (1526) - so-called proofs
Hans Holbein (1538) - the originals
Heinrich Aldegrever (1541)
Heinrich Vogtherr (1544)
Vincenzo Valgrisi (1545)
Arnold Birckmann (1555)
Juan de Icíar (1555)
Valentin Wagner (1557)
Jiří Melantrich (1563)
Georg Scharffenberg (1576)
Leonhart Straub (1581)
David Chytraeus (1590)
Peter Paul Rubens (ca. 1590)
Fabio Glissenti (1596)
Eberhard Kieser (1617)
Rudolf and Conrad Meyer (1650)
Wenceslaus Hollar (1651)
De doodt vermaskert (1654)
Thomas Neale (1657)
Johann Weichard von Valvasor (1682)
Erbaulicher Sterb-Spiegel (1704)
Salomon van Rusting (1707)
T. Nieuhoff Piccard (1720)
Christian de Mechel (1780)
David Deuchar (1788)
John Bewick (1789)
Alexander Anderson (1810)
Wenceslaus Hollar (1816)
"Mr. Bewick" (1825)
Ludwig Bechstein (1831)
Joseph Schlotthauer (1832)
→ Francis Douce (1833) ←
Carl Helmuth (1836)
Francis Douce (1858, 2. edition)
Henri Léon Curmer (1858)
Tindall Wildridge (1887)

The senator was changed in the 1858-edition.
Douce reprint, Senator
The countess was changed in the 1858-edition.
Douce reprint, Countess