This engraving was published to illustrate a work written by compiler of histories and biographer Thomas Birch (1705-1766), titled ‘The Lives and Characters of Illustrious Persons’ (published 1743-52). The work was published by John and Paul Knapton of Ludgate Street, London, and featured portraits of 108 famous Britons from the time of King Edward III (reigned 1327-77) to contemporary figures. Each portrait was accompanied by Birch’s account of the sitter’s life.
Where possible, the engraved portraits were copies of existing paintings. Artists Charles and George Knapton (cousins of the booksellers and publishers John and Paul Knapton), artist and printseller Arthur Pond, and book illustrator and engraver Hubert-François Gravelot are all thought to have been involved in finding and copying the older portraits required for the project. The engraver and antiquary George Vertue was initially employed to engrave the plates but produced just nine before being dismissed for slowness and replaced by Dutch engraver Jacobus Houbraken, who worked from Amsterdam. The ornamental surrounds of the portraits were designed and engraved by Gravelot. The plates are in most cases dated, some as early as 1740.
George Vertue was born in the parish of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, London. His parents served in the court of James II and his father may have later become a tailor. He was first apprenticed to a silver engraver and later to Flemish engraver Michael Vandergucht. His early work includes plates after Kneller, whose academy he attended from 1711. Vertue served as official engraver to the Society of Antiquaries (1717-56). In the 1720s he concentrated on portrait frontispieces, producing over 120 in total. From 1727 he was engraver to Oxford University. Vertue was also a publisher and ran a print shop near Drury Lane. In 1712 he began gathering information for a publication on the history of art in Britain, which remained unfinished at his death.
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