Are these manuals I spy in the workshop?
It is impossible to read the spines of the books in the illustration of an artist’s workshop in Salomon de Caus’s 1612 La perspectiue: auec la raison des ombres et miroirs. They are stored in early-modern fashion, with their fore-edges facing outward. Was their content actually taught in the workshop? How did their directions on paper translate to the reality of the worktop?
And if they were neatly shelved away from the hustle and bustle of the workshop, then why are so many of the artistic manuals held in the collection of the Folger Shakespeare Library covered in paint stains, ink spills, compass point holes, and grubby fingerprints? To put it shortly—how did the manual professions read professional manuals?
The Folger Shakespeare Library collection holds over 60 manuals that set out to teach the art of drawing and color use. Early modern drawing lessons could be found copied, repackaged, and specialized in manuals of architecture, perspective, and surveyance, in military instructions as well as in books of secrets.Recipes for colors had an even greater diffusion, appearing not only in heraldry tomes but in herbals, husbandry manuals, and even almanacs, since color-making was essential to many craftsmen and also had household uses.
“What, indeed, is the relationship between writing and making?”1 One of the goals of my time at the Folger was to compile these traces of use, from annotations and visual marks to accidental stains, in such drawing manuals. Their abundance made it possible to start investigating a mass of nameless readers. This compilation might not draw the readers’ photofit, but it can recover their habitual gestures and community practices. As to the question of where the reading took place, the compilation points to the workshop.
How-to books have been dismissed as “amateur,” and damned for their condensed lesson plans. This belittles the readers into mere learners, ignoring the interactive relationship between the manual’s page and its reader. Anyone working in children’s or educational literature will recognize this obstacle, in part because the visual marks that are the most noticeable are often those that jar, rather than the more proficient ones. The doodle of the reclining figure copied from the window pediment is distinctly slipshod in William Fisher’s 1669 translation The mirrour of architecture. However, the expert ink and lead corrections to most of the plates—rectifying measurements or adding labels—improve the manual seamlessly and can go unnoticed.
Many of these manuals were produced by compilers, printers, and publishers who did not have practical experience of the art advertised—hence the errors littering both text and figures. But most of the written marginalia found in the Folger manuals point out these faults, compensate for elided knowledge, or cross-reference to other manuals. A lot more can be learnt from these hybrid manuals of manuscript and print than from the pristine copies of how-to books.
They testify to an accomplished use by a tight-knit community of practitioners—not only well-read, but reading quite well.
Visual marks of practice:
These visual marks often perform the text’s directions, ranging from coloring, to drawing and transfer techniques.
Color samples can stand as the equivalent to a “probatum est.” In the margin of the recipe “To make white letters in a blacke feilde,” a message in white letters made of a resinous mix of fig tree sap and gum water shines through black ink in a 1558 edition of The secretes of the reuerende Maister Alexis of Piemount.
In a 1635 edition of John Bate’s The mysteries of nature and art, a swatch of red is brush-stroked under the recipe for a cheaper alternative to cinnabar, vermilion, and lake red color. The reader here validates knowledge that the author himself admits he has “never tried.”
Finally, the coloring and washing of the plates could show that the manuals’ instructions had been mastered, as this title page to Henry Peacham’s 1627 edition of The compleat gentleman demonstrates proudly.
Artists’ manuals also gave instructions on how to copy, scale to size, and transfer designs. These left marks of practice on the pages, such as indented surfaces that show readers traced contours with a blunt pin, or inked contours in order to press when still fresh the design on another page. A plate of the 1668 Excellency of the pen and pencil is comically ruined by the reader having a go at pin-pricking the design present on the reverse plate, a low-tech transfer method taught in many other manuals.
The manuals’ authors anticipated such interactive reading. This is why the plates of John Bate’s 1634 The mysteryes of nature, and art do not correspond to the practice spelt out by the text:
I thought fitting to give you a word or two, wherefore I have not made the cross pricked lines to passe through the figures. The reason is, 1 because the figure would have beene thereby somewhat defaced; 2 because some chuse rather to draw without such rules; 3 for others with a ruler and black lead plummet they may crosse the figures through, and with white bread crums take out the same againe at pleasure. [call number: STC 1577.2, p.  unpaginated.]
The manuals propose key steps but rarely finalized outcomes. Plates are filled with templates or show the step from outlined to shaded—but examples remain out of context, just as the readers’ doodles remain isolated from any composition on the white space of the margin.
A few of the visual marks committed to paper show increased proficiency as in the 1697 edition of Albert Durer revived in which a first attempt at copying a profile is reattempted with more success.
Practicing while reading was evidently common but should be understood as a first step in a process. How does one learn to draw and color from “virtual paper-academies?”2 Our perception of proficient the reader was, and how effective the manuals were, should not be based solely on the outcomes of these visual marks in the margins. As studies in experiential learning have demonstrated, though learning is not always evidenced in performance, it does occur through the course of connected experiences. The margins of manuals are full of these connections between text and practice. The fact that their plates displayed only bits and pieces of an ideal final composition also stemmed from a pedagogical pledge: learning is the process of constructing rather than transmitting knowledge.
An archeology of reading gets messy—literally and figuratively—when dealing with accidental marks. The Folger manuals are littered with spills, stains, and inadvertent brushstrokes. They make up close to 60% of all recorded marks in the 12,000 Folger pages entered in my data collection. Evidently, the books were kept at hand and opened to referred to as the reader moved to larger surfaces of experimentation such as loose paper or canvas.
The strokes, splatters, smudges, and slashes evidence different tools being used—quill, pencil, brush, rulers, and compass. These accidental marks of reading allow us to conceive of a world of practice that the intentional doodles and rough sketches in the margins only hinted at.
Traces of wet media such as wash, paint, ink, as well as glossy splashes of binder medium and flecks of gold coating, tend to have resisted time (and the booksellers’ zealous cleaning) better than dry medium such as sanguine, crayons, lead, charcoal, and pastels. But all of these cohabit on the page.
The sheer diversity of the media recorded should be contrasted with the difficulties associated in the early modern period with the production, handling, sourcing and preserving of artistic material, tools and pigments. These marks evidence for example the readers’ skills in using pigments—such as grinding them or mixing them with gum water. Clearly, the term amateur and learner should be used with care when discussing these drawing manuals.
So much information can be teased out of visual marks in books—they might not help us to uncover their author’s name for the Hamnet catalogue, but they can give evidence about the physical setting, the available materials, and the activities concomitant to reading. And these visual marks have much to tell us about how early modern readers read—which should always be approached as a measure of how they learned and mastered, for all marginalia show the close reading and active learning processes of past users.
- Pamela H. Smith, “In the Workshop of History: Making, Writing, and Meaning,” West 86th: A Journal of Decorative Arts, Design History, and Material Culture 19.1 (2012): 8.
- Ann Bermingham, Learning to draw: studies in the cultural history of a polite and useful art (New Haven, 2000), p.42.
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