While looking at early modern book illustration in the undergraduate seminar on Friday, we got to talking about the false assumption that copperplate illustrations always indicate better-quality publications, while woodcuts are inherently lowly. True, the raw material is more expensive: copper plates cost more than wood blocks. True, it’s possible to produce finer lines in copperplate illustrations than in woodcuts, allowing for more detail. But sometimes copperplate illustrations simply aren’t that great. Pamphlets published by Thomas Jenner in the 1640s and 50s make a good example.
Beheading of the Earl of Strafford
On page 8 of this copy of Former ages never heard of, and after ages will admire. Or, A brief review of the most materiall parliamentary transactions from 1656, the rolling-press printer didn’t manage to center the poorly-inked copper plate in the gap left for it by the type-setter, so the bottom overlaps a line of text. The etching itself is crudely executed (if you’ll pardon the pun), and the lettering at the top of the plate has been imperfectly removed. Originally, it said “The Earle of Strafford for treasonable practises beheaded on the Tower-hill” and was part of a double illustration:
Beheading of the Earl of Strafford; Fleeing of Sir Francis Windebank et al.
The illustration seen above, before the plate was cut in half, comes from the 1646 pamphlet A sight of ye trans-actions of these latter yeares emblemized with ingraven plats, which men may read without spectacles, though it had already appeared in 1642 as an illustration in All the memorable & wonder-strikinge Parlamentary mercies effected & afforded unto this our English nation. This time it’s properly centered on the page, but smudges on the right and lower edges show that the excess ink wasn’t properly wiped off before it went through the press.
After the plate was cut in half, the lower image also re-appeared in other Thomas Jenner publications. In the 1656 edition of Former ages never heard of, and after ages will admire. Or, A brief review of the most materiall parliamentary transactions shown at the start of this post, it comes eight pages after its former mate:
"The King Escapes out of Oxford in a disguised maner"
Notice that although the picture itself is unchanged – five people on horseback gallop down a street – it now illustrates something else. In 1642 and 1646 it showed “Sr. Francis Windebank, Sr. Iohn Finch, the Lord Digbie, Iermin, etc. fly for their lives beyond the sea” but now it’s “The King Escapes out of Oxford in a disguised maner.”
Needless to say, these pamphlets are very useful for making the point that plates belonged to the publisher, not the artist. The artist simply did work for hire. But which artist created these illustrations? The etchings came from none other than Wenceslaus Hollar, who turned to dashing off pamphlet illustrations after his aristocratic patrons fled to the Continent during the Civil War. By 1644, Hollar gave up and moved to Antwerp himself, but not before finishing one of his most famous sets of etchings, “The Four Seasons” represented by beautifully-dressed women. Setting aside my qualms about women’s bodies being displayed as allegorical fodder, I think Summer is a particularly amazing etching. Click on the image below for a zoom-able version in the Folger’s digital image database:
"Summer" from Wenceslaus Hollar, The Four Seasons
I especially admire the way Hollar represents the diaphanous black veil that provides protection from the sun. Also worth noting: if you zoom in on the right, you can make out the Holbein Gate and the Banqueting House (which still stands in Whitehall today), and behind them, old Saint Paul’s.