Esdall, James (d. 1755), printer, publisher, and bookseller, was born in Dublin. His parents' names are not known but various members of the Esdall (often spelt Esdale, Asdill, or Esdill) family in Dublin were involved in printing and drawing from at least the 1720s. An ‘Esdale’ was apprenticed to Stephen Powel, printer, in 1722. ‘John Esdall’ gave drawing classes in the 1730s and made proposals for an academy of art. A number of engravings in volumes from the 1740s, including one of the printing house at TCD, are attributed to ‘Esdall’. James Esdall was apprenticed to the printer George Faulkner (qv), Dublin, and was admitted to the Guild of St Luke in 1743. In the same year he set up his own shop ‘over against Smock Alley, Fishamble Street’ (the location given on the books he printed), probably in a run-down medieval building known as ‘the Priest's Chamber’. In 1744 he launched two newspapers: James Esdall's The Flying Post was intended for Dublin readers who wished to hear the latest news ‘immediately after the arrival of the packet [vessels]’; The General News-letter (known as Esdall's News-letter 1745–55) followed the conventions of other news sheets and carried international news columns on the front page, followed on the second page by Dublin news and then advertisements. There was very little difference between the two publications and the Flying Post was closed within a few months. By the end of 1745 he had moved his shop to the ‘corner of Copper Alley, Blind Quay’. From there he sold books (especially poetry, plays and fiction), prints, and stationery and published his News-letter.
His association with Charles Lucas (qv) goes back to at least 1744 when he published Divelina libera. In 1749 a whole barrage of Lucas-inspired pamphlets were printed by Esdall and others (often using the pseudonym ‘Frank Somebody’). In June 1749 Esdall launched a Saturday newspaper called The Censor, or Citizen's Journal and The Censor Extraordinary with both including substantial contributions from Lucas. By this time Lucas's views on the aldermanic interest and perceived corruption in parliament was becoming a huge embarrassment to Dublin Castle. In October 1749 the Irish house of commons considered certain paragraphs in six numbers of the Censor, one number of the News-letter, several editions of the Free Citizens and Freeholders of the city of Dublin, and the Great Charter of the liberties of the city of Dublin to be ‘factious, scandalous and seditious libels’ (Dublin city archives, MS 31). In order to escape prosecution Esdall fled to London. During his absence the printing shop was run by his wife Anne Esdall (c.1718–c.1795), printer, publisher, and bookseller. Anne (née Middleton ) married James Esdall on 31 August 1745. He kept away from Dublin for at least a year, during which time she endured great financial and emotional distress. Despite the pressures of supporting a household with four children she managed to keep the News-letter going. It was unusual for women to be involved in the print trade during the eighteenth century, although a small number of businesses were run by widows. In December 1749 she was examined by the Irish house of commons and asked to reveal the identity of the author of ‘scandalous’ paragraphs in her husband's publications. Copies of the Censor and other works penned by Lucas were publicly burned and the Guild of St Luke was cautioned for not having a tighter rein over its members.
When James Esdall returned to Dublin (1750) he had not lost his appetite for publishing controversial works such as The case and tryal of John Peter Zenger (1750) but his health seems to have been affected by the Lucas case. He died on 24 March 1755 and an obituary written in the Dublin Journal by Faulkner recalled that ‘he suffered very much in health and fortune by certain people’. Anne Esdall intended to carry on the business but in June 1755 she sold the shop stock, household furniture, and printing materials. The News-letter was taken over by her husband's apprentice Henry Saunders (qv) in 1755 (and thereafter called Saunder's News-letter). James and Anne Esdall were among a handful of printers in Dublin in the 1740s and 1750s who were fiercely independent and not prepared to submit to government censorship. It was mainly through the medium of printed pamphlets and news sheets that Lucas was able to get his message across to the citizens of Dublin. But whereas Lucas was to be rehabilitated (elected MP for Dublin City in 1761) printers such as Esdall suffered long-term hardship as a result of their actions. In 1768 Anne petitioned her late husband's guild for relief and in 1795, then aged 77, she was again in ‘distressed circumstances’ and granted three guineas (£3.15). She probably died soon after this date.
James and Anne had four children, including William Esdall (c.1750–1795), artist and engraver. In April 1763 he was apprenticed to Henry Saunders with the consent of his legal guardian ‘W. Goodwin, carpenter’. He entered the school of figure drawing and the school of landscape and ornament at the Dublin Society Schools in 1767 and was awarded a studentship (his brother James entered the school of landscape and ornament drawing in 1769). In 1772 he exhibited a ‘drawing in Indian ink’ at the Society of Artists in Ireland, and was living on Mary Lane, Dublin. From the early 1770s he started to contribute engravings to a variety of printed books. These were mainly in the form of title pages, vignettes, tailpieces, and other ornaments. From 1775 he contributed regularly to the Hibernian Magazine and Exshaw's London Magazine. In 1777 he was admitted to the Guild of St Luke. John Walker, the scientist and engraver, began his training under Esdall in 1779 and also contributed plates to the Hibernian Magazine. Esdall could turn his hand to a wide range of subjects: a portrait medallion in a volume of poems by Goldsmith (1777), a picturesque waterfall near Russborough for the Post-Chaise Companion (1786), Minerva introducing poetry, music and design to Hibernia for the Hibernian Magazine (1775), Tahitian natives rowing boats (Exshaw's London Magazine (1778), prize certificates for schools, and tickets for concerts in Dublin. Among his most charming engravings are those in Samuel Hayes's (qv) A practical treatise on planting (1794); the end-pieces consist of rustic garden buildings, garden clippers, and other implementa. Virtually all the works that are signed ‘Esdall Sculp’ (a large proportion of his engravings were probably not signed) were copied from drawings by other artists such as J. J. Barralet (qv), J. Ballard, and W. Hodges. But he seems to have carried on drawing his own designs, for in 1784 a Dublin newspaper recorded that he tried to make a sketch of a ‘tarring and feathering’ incident at Tenterfields, Dublin. The crowd apparently mistook him for a government reporter and attacked him before they realised their mistake.
For two decades Esdall's copperplate engravings were a familiar sight in two popular magazines. The absence of many of his best plates in surviving volumes suggests that some contemporaries framed them in preference to having them bound up with the text. He was particularly strong at depicting the tonal qualities of clothes and trees in classical scenes, reminiscent of the work by Richard Westall. He married (1 May 1775) Elizabeth (née Levinge); they are known to have had at least one son. In 1776 his address was 11 Mary Lane, he then moved (1777) to Temple-Bar Court, and finally to 3 Gordon's Lane, Ranelagh (1781). He died in March 1795. It was noted in an obituary that he suffered for many years from asthma (perhaps worsened by the vapour from the chemicals used in the engraving process) and that he endured considerable stress looking after his blind son. In his will he left all his working tools and copper plates to Samuel Close, his junior engraver, on condition that he completed the work then in hand for Jonathan Fisher (qv).