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The Collation

Engraving the Courtesan: Sex Work and “The Renaissance” in Victorian Books

Engraving of a woman from the torso up. She faces the viewer. She wears a broad hat with a feather on it and a dress with a low, square neckline.
Engraving of a woman from the torso up. She faces the viewer. She wears a broad hat with a feather on it and a dress with a low, square neckline.

In the late nineteenth century, ten copperplate engravings attributed to Wenceslaus Hollar were sold under the title Portraits of Celebrated Courtezans: from the Original Copper Plates engraved by W. Hollar in the Reign of Charles the Second. (fig. 1 and 2)

Printed title page of a 19th century book
Fig 1. Title Page from Portraits of Celebrated Courtezans, c.1825
Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts, University of Pennsylvania, Furness Collection NE628 .H6
thin book bound in dark leather lying on a table, showing the spine of the book with the title in gold lettering
Fig 2. Spine of Portraits of Celebrated Courtezans, c.1825

In A Descriptive Catalogue of the Works of Wenceslaus Hollar, 1607-1677 Richard Pennington finds no record of these plates prior to 1825. Questioning their authenticity, Pennington writes that “they are so heavily re-worked as to have lost their Hollar quality.”1 Indeed, even at a quick glance, the portraits are drawn in different artistic styles, suggesting multiple artists. Looking at a copy of this book housed at the University of Pennsylvania’s Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts, some of the costumes worn by women in the portraits postdate Hollar’s death in 1677. Yet, the most obvious way the Victorian “Hollar” prints differ in style from Hollar’s traditional portraits is that each of the plates includes a scribbled inscription that names the woman in the print, and includes price and the terms of sexual contact should she be hired as a “courtesan.”

The copperplate engravings printed in Portraits of Celebrated Courtezans are probably not all “real” Hollar images. However, the fact that such images were circulated as if they were authentic Hollar prints is interesting on its own, providing a window into how Victorian audiences were encountering, and manipulating, the early modern past. In this case, Portraits of Celebrated Courtezans connects the nineteenth-century artistic power of “The Renaissance” with contemporary, cultural ideas about gender, labor, and sex. By inscribing tags on the copperplates that read “Sopa B—m / 5 Guis p Nigt” (fig. 3) or “Phys J—n / 1 Crown” (fig. 4), viewers are encouraged to imagine women from the Stuart era as sexual commodities.

Engraving of a woman from the torso up. She is facing to the viewer's right, head tilted towards the viewer. her hair is pinned up with a few curls escaping, she is wearing a necklace and a very low cut dress that sits off her shoulder and low on her breasts.
Fig 3. “Sopha” detail from Portraits of Celebrated Courtezans
Engraving of a woman from the torso up. She faces the viewer. She wears a broad hat with a feather on it and a dress with a low, square neckline.
Fig 4. “Phys” detail from Portraits of Celebrated Courtezans

These representations tell us nothing about sex work or sex trafficking in Stuart England. But they do make implicit arguments about the culture of commodified sex in the Victorian-present. Each plate collapses the historical distance between the image and the text to create an illusion of consistency over time.

This illusion calls in the cliché that sex work is the “oldest profession”,2 and Greggor Mattson has described the phrase as an “anciency metaphor.” These metaphors paper-over historical difference and insists on social continuity.3 Similarly, these Hollar-like engravings suggest that the gendered, sexual, and economic position presented in the image is a historically stable, permanent, natural state rather than one crafted for Victorian audiences.

The brash inscriptions attached to each portrait is certainly intended to work as a kind of advertisement. However, by including a “price” alongside a woman’s name and likeness, no discussion of this document would be complete without accounting for its representation of women’s labor and economic power. Feminists have long examined how the suppression of women’s wages are connected to the presence of sex work, pornography, and sex trafficking. My choice to use the phrase “sex work” throughout this post is meant to reflect this strain of thought within Feminism. I seek to reemphasize how political and economic, as well as agency and consent, are top of mind when encountering erotic materials in the archive.

The phrase “sex work” originates with the feminist writer, artist, and sex worker Carol Leigh, who coined the term during 1970s debates within Feminism about pornography, consent, and exploitation. It is often forgotten that Leigh’s phrase also draws from the labor movement and was used to urge Feminists to consider how sex could be work, and how such workers are on “the front lines” of the “intersections of class, race, gender, and economic oppressions.”4 In a historic moment in which men had so much more economic and political power than women, and in which racism exacerbated inequity for people of color, it was not unusual for prominent Feminists to consider even married heterosexual relationships to be on a spectrum with prostitution.

Today, these inequities have hardly gone away, they may simply take a new form. In popular culture, there are countless mentions of sex work alongside a general sexualization of women who work. While these experiences not the same thing, they’re not entirely unrelated, either. As Amia Srinivasan has recently explained,

to understand what sort of work sex work is . . . surely we have to say something about the political formation of male desire. And surely there will be similar things to say about other forms of women’s work: teaching, nursing, caring, mothering. To say that sex work is ‘just work’ is to forget that all work—men’s work, women’s work—is never just work: it is also sexed.5

The Hollar-like Portraits of Celebrated Courtezans certainly provides one material example of how the “political formation of male desire” has been constructed over time. However, these plates also insist that sexualization of work, and the persistence of sex work, has also played a role.

Rather than accept the illusion of sex-work’s permanency created by these Hollar-like plates, we might instead look for all the anomalies that surround Portraits of Celebrated Courtezans. At the University of Pennsylvania, there is another version of this book with the same prints. This second copy belonged to Edwin Forrest, the nineteenth-century American actor who was famed for his Shakespearean roles (fig. 5, fig. 6). Forrest may have noticed how the costume in the portrait of “Cisy D—v” (fig. 7) is the same as that used in the Hollar portraits that were reproduced in the Thomas Duffet’s 1674 farce The Empress of Morocco (which I wrote about for The Collation in 2019).

View from above of two books lying side by side on a table. The one on the left is larger and bound in a blue cover. The one on the right is a little smaller and is bound in yellow marbled papers.
Fig 5. Left: Portraits of Celebrated Courtezans
Right: Edwin Forrest’s copy of copperplate engravings
Signature of Edwin Forrest in dark in on very yellowed paper
Fig 6. Detail of Edwin Forrest Signature
Engraved portrait of a woman form the torso up. She faces to the viewer's right. Her hair is in a bun and she wears a small headcovering. Her dress buttons up to her throat and has lace around the shoulders.
Fig 7. “Cisy D—v” Detail from Edwin Forrest Copy

Yet, Forrest’s copy is smaller and shabbier, and places the plates in a different order. Forrest’s copy also lacks a title page. There is no mention of Hollar nor is there an association with the “Reign of Charles the Second.” Without a title page insisting that the images are real, historic “courtesans,” the plates are more readily identified as fictions. They seem like a compilation of characters from Moll Flanders or Roxane, rather than real people.

The Hollar-like copperplates emphasize the role of sex and sexualization in the women’s economic history. How might economic concerns also inform our understanding of early modern gender, sexual agency, and exploitation? After all, most of the early modern lexicon on sex work tells as much about rank and status as it does about sex.

For instance, the early modern word “courtesan” first appears in English in the mid sixteenth century and is defined in the OED as a “woman who works as a prostitute, esp. one who has wealthy or upper-class clients.” Not only does the OED’s definition of “courtesan” include a class dynamic, but so too does the definition of its analogous term “prostitute.” “Prostitute” also came into English in the sixteenth century and could refer to selling sex, but was also associated with debasement and dishonor.

Shakespeare uses “prostitute” in this way in All’s Well That Ends Well, when the King refuses Helena’s treatment by saying that “we must not / So stain our judgement, or corrupt our hope, / To prostitute our past-cure malady” (2.1.137-139). Here, prostitution isn’t sex at all, but it is made parallel with words regarding reputation (“corrupt”) and appearance (“stain”). “Prostitute” also appears in Pericles when, in 4.6, Marina makes a wager with Bolt that he can “prostitute me to the basest groom” if she is unable teach virtue in the city (196). Marina’s “prostitution” is all about debasement and the collapse of her status. Rather than denote sex acts, sexual knowledge, or sexual transactions, both “courtesan” and “prostitute” invoke a fall from power. Themes of political subjection also inform how Shakespeare’s plays use the Old English word “whore,” such as in Hamlet’s menacing thought that Claudius “hath killed my king and whored my mother” (5.2.72). And we should remember that a common slang term for sex workers was “quean,” or a corruption of the highest political rank a premodern woman could hold as a sovereign.

For working-class women, sex, sexuality, and sexualization are often yoked with economic power. Portraits of Celebrated Courtezans encourages us to see how the representation of early modern women, and of early modern gender politics, had an enduring shelf life. At the Folger, I look forward to finding other documents that encourage us to rethink assumptions that we may have about working women in the past. Materials that misrepresent, misattribute, and manipulate the past provide an opportunity to rethink the past and the effects of those distortions.

  1. 1944A. “Celebrated Courtezans”. Richard Pennington, A Descriptive Catalogue of the Work of Wenceslaus Hollar, 1607-1677 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 310.
  2. A phrase that itself originates even later than this text. The earliest attested usage in the OED is 1922. Rudyard Kipling, in his short story “On the City Wall” from the collection Black and White (1889), called it “the most ancient profession in the world”.
  3. Geggor Mattson, “The Modern Career of ‘the Oldest Profession’ and the Social Embeddedness of Metaphors,” American Journal of Cultural Sociology 3, no. 2 (2015): 192.
  4. Carol Leigh, “Carol Leigh, a.k.a. Scarlet Harlot,” Radical History Review 2022, no. 142 (January 1, 2022): 170.
  5. Amia Srinivasan, The Right to Sex: Feminism in the Twenty-First Century (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021).