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Robert & Andrew Foulis, the Foulis Press, and Their Legacy

by George Fairfull Smith

GO TO  examples of Foulis Press books 
examples of books illustrated by former pupils of the Foulis Academy
examples of prints reproduced in the 20th century after works engraved in the Foulis Academy

Glasgow University Library’s Special Collections Department houses one of the largest collections of books printed and published by the Foulis Press which was founded in the city in the 18th century. At that time Glasgow was a prosperous, bustling, and flourishing town, and was described by Daniel Defoe in the 1720s as the ‘cleanest and beautifullest and best built’ of cities in Britain, with the exception of London.

The University, or College as it also was known, was located on the High Street. One English visitor considered it to be ‘the chief ornament of the Town’. Its renowned professors included Francis Hutcheson (1694-1746), Adam Smith (1723-90), John Anderson (1726-96), and Robert Simson (1687-1768), and in their introduction to The Glasgow Enlightenment, 1995, Richard B. Sher and Andrew Hook declared that it was ‘one of the leading academic centres of the Enlightenment in eighteenth-century Europe’.

Among those who studied there were Robert (1707-76) and Andrew (1712-75) Foulis, the sons of Andrew Faulls, or Faulds, a barber and maltman in the town. The brothers changed their surname in the 1730s. Robert Foulis trained as a barber, and subsequently attended Francis Hutcheson’s classes at the University. It was that great professor of moral philosophy who encouraged him to become a printer and bookseller.

The portrait of Robert Foulis, shown to the left, was made by James Tassie who studied at the Foulis Academy; it bears the inscription ‘R. FOULIS ACAD. GLAS. TYPOG. ELEGANT. ART . AMATOR ET FAUTOR. 1776’. Another impression, an example of which is owned by the Mitchell Library, is simply inscribed ‘ROBERTUS FOULIS’. Duncan’s text provides the history of the Foulis Press and the Academy.

John Horsburgh, after James Tassie, Robert Foulis,
 engraved for William J. Duncan Notices and Documents
 Illustrative of the Literary History of Glasgow ...
 Maitland Club, 1831 (Sp Coll Mu24-c.2)

McCulloch, Andrew Foulis, oil on canvas,
Hunterian Art Gallery,
University of Glasgow (GLAHA 44209)

Andrew Foulis studied Humanity (Latin) at the University, and later taught Greek, Latin and French in Glasgow. 

In 1738 Robert and Andrew toured England and France, and in Paris an introduction to Chevalier Andrew Ramsay (1686-1743), a native of Ayr who tutored Prince Charles Edward Stuart, gained them access to some of the city’s finest libraries. While there they purchased a number of books which they exported to Britain, and successfully sold in London. In 1741 Robert Foulis established a bookshop at the College in Glasgow, ten years before John Smith opened his first shop in the city.

It was not long before Robert Foulis began to publish books. At first they were printed by other firms, but he had his own press in 1742. The following year he was appointed the University’s printer. He soon established a reputation for high quality works which were mainly classical and literary. 

Artist unknown Alexander Wilson, oil,
 Hunterian Art Gallery,
 University of Glasgow 
(GLAHA 44340).

For the type he turned to Alexander Wilson (1714-86) who provided high quality faces. Wilson began type-founding in St. Andrews in 1741. He formed a partnership with John Bain, and their success made them move to Camlachie near Glasgow. The partnership was dissolved in 1747, and the following year Wilson was appointed type-founder to Glasgow University. In 1760 he was made Professor of Astronomy, and the foundry was moved to the University where it remained until 1834. The painting shown to the left is based on the anonymous portrait of Wilson which is owned by the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh.

Andrew joined Robert in partnership, and the brothers dominated the Glasgow book trade. They earned an international reputation for their magnificent editions of the classics such as Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey (1756-58). The brothers were lauded as ‘the Elzevirs of Britain’, after the famous family of Dutch printers. However, they also published ordinary editions of classical and modern authors, including Francis Hutcheson, Robert’s mentor. Their achievement, as described by Richard B. Sher and Andrew Hook, ‘was to translate into print culture the values of the classical, aesthetic, moralistic, Hutchesonian Enlightenment in Glasgow’.

Samuel Johnson, the distinguished literary figure, visited the city in 1773, and James Boswell recorded that the Foulis brothers upset their ‘famous guest’ by arguing with him and answering back.

The majority of their books were intended for scholars, but some were produced specifically for collectors of select works. A number were printed on large and fine paper, vellum, linen and satin, and a few were miniatures. Prices of their books varied, and fine-paper copies were top of the range. They also published works in different issues thus offering the reader, and collector, a wider choice in the format and appearance of the finished work. Advertisements for many of them can be found in contemporary Glasgow newspapers. The brothers continued to import books and bought manuscripts, and regularly held auctions in the town. Copies of some of their catalogues survive, and they reveal the broad range of material offered for sale.

One historian commented on the books that ‘when published their chief merits were careful editing, convenient size, good paper, artistic appearance, and cheapness’. They were ‘much sought after as admirable specimens of typography, and are noticeable for their severely plain elegance’. The standard of proof reading was meticulous, and great care was taken in the choice of paper and type. The firm established a standard on the layout of the title-page which had become increasingly cluttered. Their improvements and refinements ‘achieved a classical simplicity which was copied by many of their contemporaries’.

Andrew Foulis died in 1775. Robert survived until 1776, and his son Andrew (d. 1829) took over the business which was faced with financial difficulties. There was a brief resurgence in the 1780s but the famous Press finally expired in 1800.

In 1913 the Glasgow Bibliographical Society mounted a major exhibition on the history of the Foulis Press which led to the publication of The Book of the Foulis Exhibition, and included David Murray’s Robert and Andrew Foulis and the Glasgow Press with some account of the Glasgow Academy of the Fine Arts. A further exhibition, which featured manuscripts, books, and prints by the Academy’s pupils, was mounted by Glasgow University in 1958 to commemorate the silver jubilee of the British Records Association. The two editions of Philip Gaskell’s A Bibliography of the Foulis Press, 1964 and 1986, provide further information on several hundred of their books, as well as those printed and published by Robert Foulis’s son Andrew. James Maclehose’s The Glasgow University Press 1638-1931, 1931, is another valuable source.

Robert Foulis’s achievements were not confined to printing and publishing books. He also established a school of art and design in Glasgow. It opened at the University in 1753, fifteen years before the Royal Academy in London, and has been described as ‘the single most influential factor in the development of eighteenth-century Scottish art’. It became known as the Foulis Academy.

David Allan The interior of the Foulis Academy of Fine Arts, oil, Hunterian Art Gallery, University of Glasgow (GLAHA 43390).

In addition to the books and manuscripts relating to the Foulis Press and Academy in Glasgow University Library, there is further material in Glasgow University Archives, and other institutions such as Glasgow’s Mitchell Library, and Edinburgh University Library. The Hunterian Art Gallery at the University has some engravings produced by the Academy’s pupils. The Mitchell, which has the largest holding of Foulis Press books, and also an unique collection of engravings produced by the Academy’s pupils, is mounting the first major exhibition devoted to the history of the school. The Foulis Academy: Glasgow’s eighteenth-century School of Art and Design opens at the Mitchell Library, North Street, Glasgow, on 25 April 2001 and runs through to 15 September. For further information contact the Library’s History and Glasgow Department, tel. 0141 287 2937. A book to accompany the exhibition will be published in the summer of 2001; for further information contact:


GO TO  examples of Foulis Press books 
examples of books illustrated by former pupils of the Foulis Academy
examples of prints reproduced in the 20th century after works engraved in the Foulis Academy

Text by George Fairfull Smith & web editing by Julie Gardham April 2001

Return to main Exhibitions Page

With thanks to the Hunterian Art Gallery for permission to reproduce images.