Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Ames, Joseph (1689-1759)

AMES, JOSEPH (1689–1759), bibliographer and antiquary, was descended from the old Norfolk family of that name, and was the eldest child of John, a master in the merchant service, the latter being the sixth son of the Captain Joseph Ames, R.N., whose life is recorded above. Joseph Ames was born at Yarmouth 23 Jan. 1688–9, and was educated at a small grammar school in Wapping. He lost his father when twelve years old, and three years later was apprenticed to a plane maker in King Street or Queen Street, near the Guildhall, in the city of London. He is said to have served his time in a creditable manner, but does not appear to have taken up his freedom. He moved to Wapping near the Hermitage, where his father had previously settled, and where he entered into business either as a shipchandler, according to Walpole (Cat of Engravers, p. 3), as a plane-iron maker (Mores, Diss. upon English Typogr. Founders, p. 85), a patten maker (Cole's MSS. vol. xxx.), or an ironmonger (see letters so addressed in Nichols's Illustrations, iv.). He continued the business, which must have been of a lucrative character, until his death. In 1712 his mother died, and was buried in Wapping church near her husband. Two years later Ames married Mary, daughter of William Wrayford, a merchant in Bow Lane. She died in 1734, after bearing six children, of whom only a daughter survived her.

Ames owed his taste for learned studies to the Rev. John Russel of St. John's, Wapping, and the Rev. John Lewis of Margate, the well-known antiquary, to whom he was introduced by Mr. Russel. At some period before 1720 Ames made the acquaintance, while attending Dr. Desaguliers's lectures, of Mr. (afterwards Sir) Peter Thompson, a Hamburg merchant and member for St. Albans, and a man of marked character and considerable acquirements. The three friends exercised much influence upon the bookish career of Ames. Lewis had long been making collections for a history of printing in this country, and at least as early as 1730 suggested to Ames that he should undertake the work and make use of his notes. These appear to have been sent to Ames from time to time, and were carefully preserved and bound into a volume, which may now be seen in the British Museum (Add. MS. 20035). They include lists of printers and facsimiles of their marks, copies of title-pages, extracts, &c. The national collection also contains another volume of original papers used by Ames (Add. MS. 5151). Ames at first declined the offer, as a printer of the name of Samuel Palmer was then passing a similar work through the press. This appeared in 1732 under the title of ‘The General History of Printing … particularly its introduction, rise, and progress here in England,’ London, 1732, 4to. Palmer died before the publication of his work, which was then completed by the industrious pen of the impostor, George Psalmanazar. A continuation in manuscript by Palmer, devoted to the practical part of the art, was sold among Ames's collections. The book proved so poor a performance that Ames decided at last to undertake the great work by which his name will always be held in honour among bibliographers, and which was to form the chief object of his life. In the year 1739–40 he circulated a preliminary list of English printers from 1471 to 1600, which included 215 names, most of them being those of London men, with the announcement: ‘As the history and progress of printing in England, from 1474 to 1600, is in good forwardness for the press; if any gentleman please to send the publisher, Jos. Ames in Wappin, some account of these printers, or add others to them, or oblige him with what may be useful in this undertaking, the favour will be gratefully acknowledged.’ The fine volume of engravings descriptive of the cabinet of coins belonging to the Earl of Pembroke, and known as the ‘Numismata Antiqua,’ was brought out in 1746 without a syllable of letterpress. To remedy the defect, Ames printed for private distribution an index of four leaves, which he said ‘may be put into the book altho' it is bound.’ It consists merely of a transcript of the names of the coins as shown upon the plates. In 1748[7] he printed a ‘Catalogue of English Heads,’ being an index to the collection of 2,000 prints, bound in ten volumes, belonging to Mr. John Nicholls or Nickolls, F.R.S., a quaker antiquary of Ware in Hertfordshire. It forms the first attempt at a general description of English engraved portraits, a work resumed by Granger twenty years later. The arrangement is alphabetical, but is wanting in method, the same individuals appearing in different parts, and titled persons being entered sometimes under titles and sometimes under family names. The Rev. William Cole has left in manuscript (see his Papers, vol. xxx., in British Museum) an amended alphabetical index.

A few years later Ames distributed a prospectus and specimen, the price to subscribers being fixed at a guinea; and at last, in 1749, the ‘Typographical Antiquities’ appeared, a handsome quarto of over 600 pages, dedicated to Lord Chancellor Hardwicke. The original proposals contemplated only 200 copies, but 301 were subscribed for, and the list shows that the book was supported by the leading antiquaries and printers of the day. It was warmly received, and the entire edition appears to have been soon sold off. However imperfect Ames's work may be considered in the light of modern criticism, it is undoubtedly the foundation of English bibliography. An eloquent testimony to its merit lies in the fact that it was used as the basis of the more elaborate histories of Herbert and of Dibdin, the latter of whom says (see his ed. i. 15): ‘Every impartial living antiquary, whatever may be his opinion of the literary attainments of the author, must cheerfully acknowledge his obligation to Ames's work.’ One cause for the excellency of the ‘Typographical Antiquities’ may be found in the statement of the preface: ‘I did not chuse to copy into my book from catalogues, but from the books themselves.’ Ames owed much to the investigations of other students, and acknowledges (Preface) his ‘obligations to most of [his] subscribers who, besides their subscriptions, have kindly assisted [him] with their manuscripts and observations.’ A portion of his extensive bibliographical correspondence with Ducarel, Anstis, Lewis, Bishop Lyttleton, Rawlinson, &c., is given by Nichols. The libraries of Lord Orford, Sir Hans Sloane, Mr. Anstis, and other friends, were always open for his researches. Oldys's ‘Diary’ supplies many proofs of Ames's ardour in searching for rare English books. His last undertaking was to edit, or perhaps to compile entirely, the ‘Parentalia, or Memoirs of the Family of the Wrens,’ which appeared in 1750. It is now a rare and costly volume.

Ames was elected a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries in 1736, and was appointed secretary five years later; he held the function until his death, the Rev. William Norris being associated with him in 1754. Ames appears to have been an active official, as is shown by the numerous letters preserved by Nichols. A copy of the minutes of the meetings of the society (1717–51) in Ames's handwriting is in the British Museum (Egerton MSS. 1041–2). He was elected F.R.S. in 1743. It may be mentioned, as an instance of the esteem in which he was held by the president, Sir Hans Sloane, that he was one of the trustees under the will of the latter. The solitary contribution of Ames to the ‘Philosophical Transactions’ consists of a letter relating to a case of ‘plica polonica’ in 1747. Ames made no pretence to literary merit, but he was an excellent antiquary according to the lights of the day. His position in the Society of Antiquaries made him some enemies. The caustic Mores describes him (op. cit. p. 85) as ‘an arrant blunderer … a plane-maker and lived at the Hermitage. … He was unlearned but useful; he collected antiquities, and particularly old title pages and the heads of authors, which he tore out and maimed the books: for the first of these crimes he made some amends by his “Typographical Antiquities,” and for the second by his “Catalogue of English Heads.”’ The accusation of tearing out title-pages was well deserved. In the sale of Ames's effects appeared a collection ranging between 1474 and 1700 in three folio volumes, besides several bundles and two more folios of title-pages alphabetically arranged according to places of printing. Other personal details of an equally ill-natured kind have been left by Grose (see Olio, 1796, pp. 133–5): ‘He was a very little man, of mean aspect and still meaner abilities. The history of printing published under his name was really written by Dr. Ward, professor of Gresham College, though perhaps the materials were collected by Ames.’ Cole accused him of being ‘as illiterate as one can conceive. I have received many letters from him which are not English, and are full of false spelling, yet he was a very curious and ingenious person, and to his dying day kept a sort of patten or hardware shop at Wapping, where I have often called upon him to look over his old books and prints, and have bought many pounds' worth of English heads of him, for he would sell anything. He was an independent by profession, or anabaptist, but a deist by conversation’ (in Nichols, Illustrations, viii. 581). Oldys (British Librarian, p. 374) acknowledges his obligations to Ames, whom he styles ‘a worthy preserver of antiquities.’ Ames made a large collection of portraits, especially those of printers, although many were of doubtful authenticity. He also collected coins, ‘natural curiosities,’ inscriptions, and antiquities, which were sold after his death by Langford, 20 and 21 Feb. 1760. The rare English books and manuscripts were disposed of by the same auctioneer between 5 and 12 May at good prices for the time. Many of the books were annotated by their former owner, and the manuscripts included a number of valuable historical transcripts. In the library was an interleaved copy of the ‘Typographical Antiquities’ in two volumes, with a great quantity of manuscript additions by the author. The lot, which included plates, blocks, and copyright, was purchased by Sir Peter Thompson for 9l., and afterwards sold by him to Herbert, who made use of it for his edition. Dibdin states (see his ed. i. 46): ‘This book is now in my collection, although considerably shorn of its former honours. … It is no doubt a very curious and valuable interleaved copy, although ⅞ parts of it have been published.’ Dibdin paid 50l. for the copy, which is now in the British Museum.

After dining with his old friend, Sir Peter Thompson, from whose materials Gough compiled the memoir of the typo-historiographer, the latter was seized with an attack which caused his death the same evening, 7 Oct. 1759, in the seventy-first year of his life. He was buried in the churchyard of St. George-in-the-East.

His works are: 1. ‘A Catalogue of English Printers, from the year 1471 to 1600, most of them at London, 4to (without date or place), 4 pp.; the copy in the Society of Antiquaries Library is inscribed, ‘Presented by Mr. Ames, 20 March 1739–40.’ 2. ‘An Index to the Pembrokian Coins and Medals’ (without date or place, ?1746), 4to, 8 pp., with device. 3. ‘A Catalogue of English Heads, or an account of about two thousand prints describing what is particular on each; as the name, title, or office of the person, the habit, posture, age or time when done, the name of the painter, graver, scraper, &c., and some remarkable particulars relating to their lives,’ London, 1748, 8vo: the Soc. of Antiq. copy dated by Ames ‘15 Oct. 1747.’ 4. ‘Typographical Antiquities, being an historical account of printing in England, with some memoirs of our antient printers, and a register of the books printed by them, from the year 1471 to 1600, with an appendix concerning printing in Scotland and Ireland to the same time,’ London, 1749, 4to. The next edition was ‘considerably augmented, both in the memoirs and number of books, by William Herbert, of Cheshunt, Herts,’ London, 1785–6–90, 3 vols. 4to. Dr. T. F. Dibdin commenced another edition ‘greatly enlarged, with copious notes, and illustrated with appropriate engravings,’ London, 1810–12–16–19, 4 vols., 4to. As the latter was never finished, it does not entirely supersede Herbert's edition. 5. ‘Parentalia, or Memoirs of the Family of the Wrens, viz. of Matthew, bishop of Ely, Christopher, dean of Windsor, &c., but chiefly of Sir Christopher Wren, late surveyor-general of the royal buildings, P.R.S. &c., in which is contained, besides his works, a great number of original papers and records on religion, politics, anatomy, mathematics, architecture, antiquities, and most branches of polite literature, compiled by his son Christopher; now published by his grandson, Stephen Wren, Esq., with the care of Joseph Ames,’ London, 1750, folio.

[Gough's Memoir of Ames in the editions of the Typogr. Antiquities by Herbert and Dibdin; Nichols's Literary Aneolotes and Illustrations; Farmer's Essay on Learning of Shakespeare; Oldys's Memoirs and Diary by W. J. Thoms; Bigmore and Wyman's Bibliography of Printing; Notes and Queries, 1st ser. vol. i., 2nd ser. vol. xi., 4th ser. vol. iv., 5th ser. vol. iv.]

H. R. T.