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James Barry, Portrait of Francis Douce, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.

In 1866, the Scottish journalist William Jerdan began his entry on Francis Douce (1757-1834) in his book Men I have known with the following words:

Great authors, antiquaries, and philosophers are often very odd fellows. Their learning, industry, or genius does not restrain, but rather precipitates them into the now almost obsolete class of “original characters”. They entertain odd notions and queer fancies, and propound opinions on men and things quite peculiar to themselves, and as if they could hardly discern the difference between a hawk and a hand-saw. I had little familiar acquaintance with Mr. Douce –few people had much; but I met him occasionally in the society of the elder D’Israeli, Archdeacon Nares, and other literary celebrities of that time, who formed a sphere many-coloured and pleasing to behold as it floated on the atmosphere of intellectual light.

By the time Jerdan wrote this, Douce and his fellow antiquaries had become curiosities from a bygone era. Regarded as colourful eccentrics produced by the gaudy world of Georgian Britain, they are the likely originals after whom Charles Dickens and Walter Scott modelled their Pickwicks and Oldbucks.

Douce socialised and corresponded with some of the most fascinating characters of his time, from chess genius François-André Danican Philidor to radical political writer William Hone. He helped and encouraged young scholars, authors and artists, who found his portfolios of prints and drawings invaluable as a visual repository that furnished their dissertations with erudite footnotes and their historical novels with ‘local colour’.

This blog draws on all aspects of Douce’s activities as a collector, with special emphasis on his works on paper, now kept in the Department of Western Art of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. Our main aim is to make Douce’s collection as widely available as he wished it to be. But it first needs to be catalogued and researched, a process that has started recently and that will be documented here. We welcome your participation and invite you to rummage through the images from his portfolios that will be posted as we get along.

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