Richard Mead – the sponsor of William Cowper’s Myotomia

On 18 April 1693, London-born physician Richard Mead registered at the University of Leiden to study medicine. It is likely that he arrived there several months earlier because he became a close acquaintance of Archibald Pitcairne, who had settled in Leiden as Professor of Medicine in the spring of 1692 and left abruptly in the summer of 1693. Mead lived in Pitcairne’s house for a time, along with Hermann Boerhaave, then also a student. Previously, he had studied classics at the University of Utrecht with Johann Georg Graevius whose Thesaurus antiquitatum Romanorum helped form Mead’s taste for collecting antiquities. Mead left Leiden early in 1695 without taking a degree, and went on a tour of Italy. He returned to London in 1696 to set up a medical practice in Stepney. He made a spectacular career and was elected to the Royal Society in 1703. Mead was a major collector of both books and art. He had a separate room built at the foot of the garden of his house on Great Ormond Street which housed his library and collections. The room also served as a meeting place for physicians, philosophers, and men of letters.

Mead had an extensive collection of medals and coins, as well as other antiquities, including Egyptian and Etruscan pieces. He possessed about 150 paintings, including landscapes by Rembrandt, Claude Lorrain, and Brueghel, and architectural pictures by Nicolas Poussin and Canaletto, and many portraits. His collection of miniatures was unrivalled. He also owned thousands of engravings and drawings by such artists as Dürer, Holbein, Michelangelo, Raphael, and others. His books numbered some 10,000 volumes, including 146 incunabula and many fine bindings. The auction of his goods over several weeks in 1754/5 was a major event. The books, catalogued in the Bibliotheca Meadiana, were auctioned in November 1754 and April 1755. The pictures, medals, and antiquities, catalogued in the Museum Meadianum, went under the hammer at the same time but in a different location.

Mead was an active patron of the printed word. He subscribed to an enormous number of books, including Henry Pemberton’s View of Sir Isaac Newton’s Natural Philosophy (1728) and John Ward’s Lives of the Professors of Gresham College (1740). He is particularly remembered for his sponsorship of the second and substantially enlarged edition of William Cowper’s Myotomia reformata (1724) which was hailed at the time by Bodleian librarian Thomas Hearne as the most beautiful book ever printed in England.