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Time and Place: Eric Ravilious (1903-1942)

- November 27, 2013 in Art and Illustrations, Articles, engravings, Eric Ravilious, Painting, sussex, watercolours

In many countries around the world the works of Eric Ravilious have come out of copyright this year – he died when his aircraft went missing off Iceland while he was making war paintings. An artist in multiple disciplines, his greater legacy dwells in water-colours. Frank Delaney re-visits the work of this understated, yet significant figure.

Athanasius, Underground

- November 1, 2012 in Art and Illustrations, Articles, athanasius kircher, Books, dragons, earthquake, giants, History, hollow earth, mount etna, mount vesuvius, Science, volcanoes

With his enormous range of scholarly pursuits the 17th century polymath Athanasius Kircher has been hailed as the last Renaissance man and “the master of hundred arts”. John Glassie looks at one of Kircher’s great masterworks Mundus Subterraneus and how it was inspired by a subterranean adventure Kircher himself made into the bowl of Vesuvius. Just before Robert Hooke’s rightly famous microscopic observations of everything from the “Edges of Rasors” to “Vine mites” appeared in Micrographia in 1665, the insatiably curious and incredibly prolific Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher published what is in many ways a more spectacular work. Mundus Subterraneus (Underground World), a two-volume tome of atlas-like dimensions, was intended to lay out “before the eyes of the curious reader all that is rare, exotic, and portentous contained in the fecund womb of Nature.” There is an “idea of the earthly sphere that exists in the divine mind,” Kircher proclaimed, and in this book, one of more than thirty on almost as many subjects that he published during his lifetime, he tried to prove that he had grasped it. As a French writer put it some years later, “it would take a whole journal to indicate everything remarkable in this [...]

John Martin and the Theatre of Subversion

- July 12, 2012 in apocalypse, Art and Illustrations, Articles, History, john martin, Painting, Pictures, shelley, turner

Max Adams, author of The Prometheans, looks at the art of John Martin and how in his epic landscapes of apocalyptic scale one can see reflected his revolutionary leanings.

Detail from Henry Warren's 1839 portrait of John Martin, National Portrait Gallery. (Click for source)

John Martin, born in the week that the Bastille was stormed in July 1789, was an instinctive revolutionary. His generation may have suffered from a misty-eyed envy of new-found liberties in America and France, but they understood what practical revolution might mean at home and they strove to achieve liberation from repression and tyranny without bloodshed; very largely they succeeded. Martin has often, and wrongly, been seen as a religious fanatic by a comprehensive misunderstanding of his paintings and by false association with his schizophrenic arsonist brother. He has also been portrayed as a Luddite (by critics who should have known better) and by Ruskin, a late contemporary, as a mere artisan in lamp-black. Poor Martin. Despite his very evident technical deficiencies as a painter – he inevitably suffers by comparison with his friends and contemporaries Turner and Constable – he was equally adept at creating a theatrical sense of a world undergoing irreversible change, and more fervent than either in his desire to be an engine of that change. If there were dramatists better placed to portray the dilemmas of the human condition, and one immediately thinks of Shelley and Byron, of Delacroix and Dickens, no-one came closer than Martin to designing the perfect sets on which to act out the drama: he was the supreme architect and engineer of the sublime. To start at the curtain’s uncertain opening, we see Martin, a Geordie ingénue with a chip on his shoulder, arrive in London to find that its streets are not paved with gold but with beggars. He makes his debut in the greatest city on earth in 1806, the year in which Pitt the Younger and Charles James Fox die and in which Nelson’s pickled body is carried up the Thames in mawkish pomp. Martin struggles against more proficient competition: has insufficient imagination in his mental palette other than to paint the misty blue hills of his native Northumbria and dream of maidens in skimpy veils straight out of Ovid. By 1812 his mood has darkened: his radical friends the Hunts have been jailed for seditious libel (the Prince Regent was a fat, useless libertine, a drain on the treasury and a traitor to his Whig friends but saying so in the pages of the Examiner in such terms was asking for trouble); the first global war showed no sign of ending, nor did the horrors of wage-labour poverty. Caricaturists had a field day: they could not be imprisoned. Martin’s response was weightier, loftier. His Sadak of 1812 is a dark, portrait-format theatre flat of abysmal fire in which the struggling righteous loner (his friends the Hunts, the beggar, or Martin himself: take your pick) faces alpine odds in seeking the Waters of Oblivion.

Sadak in Search of the Waters of Oblivion from 1812. (Click for source)

From here on in Martin was on a mission to bring down the unjust from their lofty perches to the level of the populace. For him scale was everything: his deployment of trompe l’oeil devices, three-dimensional column-and-tunnel special effects and epic scales has often, and rightly, been seen as a forerunner of the Hollywood movie set of the 1920s and beyond. By 1821, when he produced his Old Testament masterpiece Belshazzar’s Feast (a thinly disguised libel on the self-same Prince Regent made more potent by his coronation as George IV and the grotesque accompanying feast) Martin was exploiting his audience’s familiarity with the Bible to recreate for them the immensity of its drama, its injustices and the majesty of the retribution which God (not Martin’s God – he was a sceptic) could and would visit on those who committed the sin of hubris.

Belshazzar's Feast (cropped) from 1820. (Click for source)

The Tate Gallery, which recently hosted the largest Martin exhibition for over a hundred years, hung his paintings wrong: that is to say, too low, with the viewer’s eye line directed into the centre of the picture when Martin’s intention, I am certain, was to force the viewer to look up, up at the crenellated towers of the tyrant, to be left in no doubt of the task required in bringing its monuments down. Martin liked to open his play right in the middle of the drama, just like a modern movie director: he drops us into the action so that we are part of it, believe we can be part of it. Martin is inciting us to tear down the house; but we are certain, as participants, that we start at the bottom, as Martin had. Shelley, whose sympathies were in tune with Martin and with Prometheus, the liberator of humanity, chose to set Ozymandias (1818), his own cameo drama of fallen tyranny, after the action had long finished, in the shapeless desert where two vast and trunkless legs of stone stood as a quiet, if profoundly eloquent, epilogue to Martin’s revolutions. Shelley was interested in what the world would be like after the revolution and, in describing his idealistic new world in Prometheus Unbound (also 1821) he offered a later Romantic poet and activist, Karl Marx, the blueprint for the real thing: a revolution every bit as fantastic as Martin’s. The mid-1820s witnessed a reformist lull in Britain and abroad: opposition emasculated by internal rivalry and suicide, the lassitude of once-fervent ideologues like Wordsworth and William Godwin (a friend of Martin’s); the announcement by critics like William Hazlitt of the passing of an age of action. Martin set himself to make money to support the realities of a large family and generous domestic establishment, and he was not the only one (he lost his first fortune to a dodgy banker). But the appearance of somnolence is an illusion, just like Martin’s various engravings of Paradise Lost during that decade. Britain’s creative revolutionaries were not done. The French have a phrase for it: reculer pour mieux sauter – draw back to take a running jump. In France itself dissatisfaction with the post-Napoleonic world would lead to revolution in 1830 and its diarist-in-oils, Eugène Delacroix, heavily influenced by Martin but more interested in the actors than the stage sets, has left us the supreme finale of the drama in Liberty Leading the People (1830), with its bare-breasted Amazonian heroine and her pistol-toting lieutenants climbing on piles of bodies to wave the Tricolore. It is virtually a curtain call. Not to be outdone, John Martin’s own brother Jonathan had been tried for his life after setting fire to York Minster in a suitably Promethean gesture and by 1830 was confined for life in Bedlam. Martin himself began to plan for a new world before the old had been brought down: he designed a new sewage system for London and evolved a curious idea for a circular underground railway to run beneath the streets of the capital: Babylon-on-Thames, as it was known in a public nod to his prescience.

The Bard, circa 1817. (Click for source)

More subtle revolutionaries – Michael Faraday and Charles Wheatsone making sparks in the laboratory, the Brunels with their tunnels, the Stephensons with their belching locomotives and railways – were busy forging a completely new symbolic lexicon of steam, electricity and subterranean sublimity for artists to work up on their canvases. Turner, as so often, was first on the scene. He was there, when the old Houses of Parliament burned down in 1834, to record the irony of a Reform Bill, passed the year before, which left Parliament more or less unreformed. He was there when the old warship Temeraire, a symbol of the patriotic Heart of Oak Royal Navy, was towed up the Thames by a steam tug to be scrapped. He was there, in spirit at least, to record the impression which the onrushing steam railway age left on a generation which had previously only known the pedestrian power of the horse and millwheel (Rain, Steam and Speed, 1844). In doing so he leaves us still physically reeling, as if the action is now so hot that we cannot, literally, focus on it. The stage has become a roundabout and we are dizzy, clinging on for dear life. A look at Martin’s later works, from 1838 (when he and his son Leopold visited Turner in Chelsea to watch progress on the Fighting Temeraire) and his overtly populist and tediously static Coronation of Queen Victoria, to the ethereal beauties of Solitude (1843) and Arthur and Aigle in the Happy Valley (1849) might give the impression that Martin, like Wordsworth, had become an old fogey, too comfortable or cynical or tired to light the touch paper for any further apocalypse. The impression is understandable; but it is quite wrong. One of the things I most admire about Martin is that, almost with his last breath, he had the guts to once more put on the costume of the grand ringmaster, crack his whip and serve up the greatest show on earth. Until The Great Day of His Wrath (1853) the victims of Martin’s retributive fury had always been tyrants or hubristic fools: Pharaoh; Lot; Belshazzar; Edward I, even. Now, as if to say ‘That’s all, folks!’ (and meaning just that) Martin took the set, the whole set, and burned it down, stage, proscenium arch, auditorium, theatre and all: the entire world is folded in upon itself in an unimaginable (by anyone but Martin) volcanic conflagration. Everything, everyone is terminally punished for every sin ever conceived. This is the Day of Judgement. The world ends. The End (and no curtain call).

The Great Day of His Wrath (cropped), circa 1851. (Click for source)



Max Adams was born in London in 1961 and after more than twenty years as an archaeologist turned to writing. His first major biography, published in 2005, aimed to rescue the reputation of a neglected naval hero, Admiral Collingwood (Weidenfeld 2004). His group biography of artist John Martin’s circle, The Prometheans was published in 2009 and was a Guardian Book of the Week. Max’s third neglected-Geordie biography, just completed, is a life of the first Englishman of whom one could write a biography: Oswald, the Dark Age Northumbrian king and saint. Max is a Royal Literary Fund Fellow at the University of Newcastle. His website: www.theambulist.co.uk/

Links to Works


A good selection of works by John Martin can be found here on Wikimedia Commons





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The Krakatoa Sunsets

- May 28, 2012 in Art and Illustrations, Articles, gerard manley hopkins, History, krakatoa, Literature, nature, Poems, poetry, richard hamblyn, Science, sunsets, william ascroft

When a volcano erupted on a small island in Indonesia in 1883, the evening skies of the world glowed for months with strange colours. Richard Hamblyn explores a little-known series of letters that the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins sent in to the journal Nature describing the phenomenon – letters that would constitute the majority of the small handful of writings published while he was alive.

Lithograph from 1888 showing the Krakatoa eruption, author unknown.

During the winter of 1883 the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins descended into one of his periodic depressions, “a wretched state of weakness and weariness, I can’t tell why,” he wrote, “always drowsy and incapable of reading or thinking to any effect.” It was partly boredom: Hopkins was ungainfully employed at a Catholic boarding school in Lancashire, where much of his time was spent steering his pupils through their university entrance exams. The thought that he was wasting his time and talents weighed heavily upon him during the long, brooding walks he took through the “sweet landscape” of Ribblesdale, “thy lovely dale”, as he described it in one of the handful of poems he managed to compose that winter. He was about to turn forty and felt trapped. Such was his state of mind when the Krakatoa sunsets began. The tiny volcanic island of Krakatoa (located halfway between Java and Sumatra) had staged a spectacular eruption at the end of August 1883, jettisoning billions of tonnes of ash and debris deep into the earth’’s upper atmosphere. Nearly 40,000 people had been killed by a series of mountainous waves thrown out by the force of the explosion: the Javan port of Anjer had been almost completely destroyed, along with more than a hundred coastal towns and villages. ““All gone. Plenty lives lost”, as a telegram sent from Serang reported, and for weeks afterwards the bodies of the drowned continued to wash up along the shoreline. Meanwhile, the vast volcanic ash-cloud had spread into a semi-opaque band that threaded slowly westward around the equator, forming memorable sunsets and afterglows across the earth’’s lower latitudes. A few weeks later, the stratospheric veil moved outwards from the tropics to the poles, and by late October 1883 most of the world, including Britain, was being subjected to lurid evening displays, caused by the scattering of incoming light by the meandering volcanic haze. Throughout November and December, the skies flared through virulent shades of green, blue, copper and magenta, “more like inflamed flesh than the lucid reds of ordinary sunsets,” wrote Hopkins; “the glow is intense; that is what strikes everyone; it has prolonged the daylight, and optically changed the season; it bathes the whole sky, it is mistaken for the reflection of a great fire.”

Gerard Manley Hopkins in 1866, detail from a photo by Thomas C. Bayfield. National Portrait Gallery

In common with most other observers at the time, Hopkins had no idea what was causing the phenomenon, but he grew fascinated by the daily atmospheric displays, tracking their changing appearances over the course of that unsettled winter. At the end of December he collated his observations into a remarkable 2,000-word document, which he sent to the leading science journal, Nature. The article, published in January 1884, was a masterpiece of reportage, a heightened prose poem that mixed rhapsodic literary experimentation with a high degree of meteorological rigour:
Above the green in turn appeared a red glow, broader and burlier in make; it was softly brindled, and in the ribs or bars the colour was rosier, in the channels where the blue of the sky shone through it was a mallow colour. Above this was a vague lilac. The red was first noticed 45º above the horizon, and spokes or beams could be seen in it, compared by one beholder to a man’s open hand. By 4.45 the red had driven out the green, and, fusing with the remains of the orange, reached the horizon. By that time the east, which had a rose tinge, became of a duller red, compared to sand; according to my observation, the ground of the sky in the east was green or else tawny, and the crimson only in the clouds. A great sheet of heavy dark cloud, with a reefed or puckered make, drew off the west in the course of the pageant: the edge of this and the smaller pellets of cloud that filed across the bright field of the sundown caught a livid green. At 5 the red in the west was fainter, at 5.20 it became notably rosier and livelier; but it was never of a pure rose. A faint dusky blush was left as late as 5.30, or later. While these changes were going on in the sky, the landscape of Ribblesdale glowed with a frowning brown. (from G. M. Hopkins, “The Remarkable Sunsets”, Nature 29 (3 January 1884), pp. 222-23)
Hopkins was a gifted empirical observer with a near-forensic interest in the search for written equivalents to the complexity of the natural world. Such interest in the language of precision was shared by many scientists at the time, science, like poetry, being an inherently descriptive enterprise. Anyone who reads the official Royal Society report on the Krakatoa sunsets (published in 1888) will find flights of poetic prose to rival those of Hopkins, who described such language as “the current language heightened and unlike itself,” a dynamic written form that was particularly suited to the expression of what he called “inscape”: the distinctive unity of all natural phenomena that gives everything in nature its characterising beauty and uniqueness. The force of being that holds these dynamic identities together he termed “instress”, instress being the essential energy that enables an observer to recognise the inscape of another being. These post-Romantic notions formed a kind of personal poetic creed, a logocentric natural theology that was rooted in the work of Duns Scotus, the medieval Christian philosopher.

Photograph taken in 1928 of the destroyed Krakatoa island resurfacing, forming what is known now as 'Anak Krakatau', or 'Child of Krakatoa'. Tropenmuseum of the Royal Tropical Institute (KIT).

For Hopkins, inscape and instress lay at the heart of his religious and poetic practice, as well as being vital means of apprehending the natural world. In a journal entry for 22 April 1871, for instance, he records “such a lovely damasking in the sky as today I never felt before. The blue was charged with simple instress, the higher, zenith sky earnest and frowning, lower more light and sweet.” Note that he felt the damasking as well as saw it, and note, too, his calibrated descriptions of the banded blues of the sky, the higher “earnest and frowning”, the lower “more light and sweet.” His journals are full of such poetic quantifications, which he used as notes towards a quintet of articles that he published in the journal Nature, all on meteorological subjects. The first two, published in November 1882 and November 1883, were letters describing anti-crepuscular rays (cloud-shadows that appear in the evening sky opposite the sun), while the following three were all on the subject of the Krakatoa sunsets, which had evidently furnished the melancholy Hopkins with a much-needed source of distraction. He was not alone in his interest; all over the world, writers, artists and scientists responded to the drama of the volcanic skies. The poets Algernon Swinburne, Robert Bridges and Alfred Tennyson (then poet laureate), wrote lengthy descriptive strophes prompted by the unearthly twilights, although, as the historian Richard Altick pointed out, “the only good poetry that resulted from the celestial displays is found in Hopkins’ prose” (Richard D. Altick, “Four Victorian Poets and an Exploding Island”, Victorian Studies 3 (March 1960), p. 258). This is a fair assessment, though I do have a sneaking fondness for Tennyson’s blank-verse approximation of the cadences of Victorian popular science:
Had the fierce ashes of some fiery peak
Been hurl’d so high they ranged about the globe?
For day by day, thro’ many a blood-red eve . . .
The wrathful sunset glared . . . (“St. Telemachus”, pub. 1892)
Visual artists also found themselves extending their colour ranges in awed emulation of the skies. Painter William Ascroft spent many evenings making pastel sky-sketches from the banks of the Thames at Chelsea, noting his frustration that he “could only secure in a kind of chromatic shorthand the heart of the effect, as so much of the beauty of afterglow consisted in concentration.” He exhibited more than five hundred of these highly-coloured pastels in the galleries of the Science Museum, in the repository of which they remain to this day, little known and rarely seen.

Three of the hundreds of sketches carried out by William Ascroft in the winter of 1883/4 - used as the frontispiece of The Eruption of Krakatoa, and Subsequent Phenomena: Report of the Krakatoa committee of the Royal Society (1888), ed. by G.J. Simmons.

In Oslo, by contrast, the sunsets helped inspire one of the world’s best-known paintings: Edvard Munch was walking with some friends one evening as the sun descended through the haze: “it was as if a flaming sword of blood slashed open the vault of heaven,” he recalled; “the atmosphere turned to blood – with glaring tongues of fire – the hills became deep blue – the fjord shaded into cold blue – among the yellow and red colours – that garish blood-red – on the road – and the railing – my companions’ faces became yellow-white – I felt something like a great scream – and truly I heard a great scream.” His painting The Scream (1893), of which he made several versions, is an enduring (and much stolen) expressionist masterpiece, a vision of human desolation writhing beneath an apocalyptic sky, as “a great unending scream pierces through nature.” As it happens, the final eruption of Krakatoa on 27 August 1883 was the loudest sound ever recorded, travelling almost 5,000 km, and heard over nearly a tenth of the earth’s surface: a great scream indeed. As for Hopkins, the publication of his Krakatoa essay coincided with the welcome offer of a professorship in classics at University College Dublin. He left Lancashire for Ireland in February 1884, relieved to have made his escape. It didn’t last. Homesick, lonely and overworked, Hopkins succumbed to his worst depression yet, his misery traced in the so-called “terrible” sonnets of 1885 (“I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day”). He died of typhoid fever in June 1889 (aged 44), and was buried in an unmarked grave. Only his close friend Robert Bridges was aware of his greatness as a poet, and the bulk of his work remained unpublished until 1918. In fact, apart from a handful of minor poems that had appeared in obscure periodicals, the five Nature articles were the only works that Hopkins published in his lifetime.


Richard Hamblyn’s books include The Invention of Clouds , which won the 2002 Los Angeles Times Book Prize and was shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize; Terra: Tales of the Earth (2009), a study of natural disasters; and The Art of Science (2011), an anthology of readable science writing from the Babylonians to the Higgs Boson. He is a lecturer in creative writing at Birkbeck, University of London.

Links to Works








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Painting the New World

- April 24, 2012 in algonkin, algonquin, Art and Illustrations, Articles, colonialism, History, john white, lost colony, Painting, Pictures, richard grenville, Roanoke colony, settlers, virginia dare, walter raleigh, watercolours

In 1585 the Englishman John White, governor of one of the very first North American colonies, made a series of exquisite watercolour sketches of the native Algonkin people alongside whom the settlers would try to live. Benjamin Breen explores the significance of the sketches and their link to the mystery of what became known as the “Lost Colony”.

'The Flyer', a Secotan Indian man painted by John White in 1585. British Museum, London.

“As lucklesse to many, as sinister to myselfe.” Such was the Elizabethan colonist John White’s gloomy assessment of his tenure as the first governor of Britain’s fledgling colony on Roanoke Island, Virginia. As White lived out his final days on an Irish plantation in 1593, he struggled to come to terms with his ambivalent legacy in the “Newfound Worlde.” Just eight years earlier, White had set out for North America as part of an expedition lead by a fiery-tempered courtier named Sir Richard Grenville. This voyage was not without its challenges – White recalled laconically that in a battle with Spanish mariners he was “wounded twise in the head, once with a sword, and another time with a pike, and hurt also in the side of the buttoke with a shot.” Yet in this time White also witnessed natural marvels, helped build a new colony, and even celebrated the birth of his now-famous granddaughter, Virginia Dare, the first child of English/Christian parentage to be born on American soil. Ultimately, however, White’s ambitions ended in catastrophe, with the mysterious disappearance of the ninety men, seventeen women, and eleven children who comprised the Roanoke colony – a group that included his daughter and granddaughter. In the centuries since White’s death, his story has diverged in an interesting way. Generations of schoolchildren raised in the United States can probably recall reading about the “Lost Colony” at Roanoke in textbooks. In these simplified accounts, White and his fellow colonists typically figure as doomed but visionary pioneers in a larger narrative of British-American exceptionalism. Among professional historians, White is equally famous, but for rather different reasons. In recent histories of colonial British America, it is John White the artist, rather than John White the colonial governor, who takes center stage. This is because White was a watercolor painter of extraordinary talent whose works number among the most remarkable depictions of early modern indigenous Americans ever created. To be sure, many other European contemporaries of White offered up visual depictions of native Americans. Readers of André Thevet’s early account of Brazil Les singularitez de la France antarctique (Paris, 1557), for instance, could expect to be treated to renderings of Tupí Indians harvesting fruit, singing songs (complete with musical notation recorded by Thevet) and even munching casually on barbequed human thighs and buttocks.

Engraving of Tupí Indians harvesting cashew fruits in André Thevet's Les Singularitez de la France Antarctique; (Paris, 1557)

Yet White’s illustrations stood out among those of his peers. Rather than working via woodblock printing or engraving, White produced paintings in vivid watercolors. This allowed him to achieve a level of lifelike detail which printed illustrations couldn’t hope to match. One of the most striking examples of White’s eye for detail is found in his tender depiction of an Algonquian Indian mother with her daughter.

John White, "A cheife Herowans wyfe of Pomeoc and her daughter of the age of 8 or 10 years." (1585) British Museum, London.

In 1585, one of White’s companions in Virginia, a natural philosopher and inventor named Thomas Hariot, remarked that the indigenous children he encountered in America “greatlye delighted with puppets and babes which are broughte oute of England.” White’s painting actually offers a direct visual proof of this observation: in the hands of the woman’s child, one can spot a tiny female doll wearing Elizabethan dress. As the historian Joyce Chaplin notes in her book Subject Matter: Technology, the Body, and Science on the Anglo-American Frontier, 1500-1676 (Harvard University Press, 2003), this image was later recreated by the Dutch printmaker Theodore de Bry, who used White’s watercolors to create engravings for Thomas Hariot’s A briefe and true report of the new found land of Virginia (1590). De Bry’s depiction shows the Indian girl holding not only “an English doll in Elizabethan clothing,” but “an armillary sphere,” which served as “an instructional and decorative representation of the globe and heavens” (Chaplin 36).

Engraving by Theodore de Bry after John White's watercolour, from Thomas Hariot’s A briefe and true report of the new found land of Virginia (1590)

White also had a remarkable ability for “zooming out” from a scene to create an imagined isometric perspective. His painting of an Algonquian village stands out as one of the most detailed depictions of indigenous American village life to survive from the sixteenth century.

Village of the Secotan Indians in North Carolina, by John White in 1585. British Museum, London.

As the detail of the dancing circle in the lower right of this image suggests, White seems to have had a particular interest in Algonquian religious ceremonies. Another painting by White along similar lines gives a precious glimpse of pre-contact American Indian religious practice and daily life:

Ceremony of Secotan warriors in North Carolina. Watercolour painted by John White in 1585. British Museum, London.

What, then, was White’s final legacy? In a narrative first printed in Richard Hakluyt’s Voyages, White described his return to Virginia in 1590 in search of the colonists he had left at Roanoke (he had returned to England three years earlier in efforts to obtain “supplies, and other necessities”). His account evokes the haunted landscape of a ghost story, and its eerie details have made it part of American folklore ever since. On the 17th of August, White recalled, three ships under his command reached Roanoke, where they “found no man, nor signe of any that had been there lately.” The next evening, one of White’s sailors spied “a fire through the woods” and the men “sounded a Trumpet, but no answer could we heare.” The light of the next daybreak revealed that this was “nothing but the grasse, and some rotten trees burning.” Finally, however, White found evidence of the colonists’ wherabouts. In a tree, he discovered “three faire Roman Letters carved C. R. O.”: this was a pre-arranged maker which White understood “to signifie the place where I should find them”: Croatan. White’s suspicion was confirmed with the discovery of a scene that is now almost mythical:
We found no signe of distresse; then we went to a place where they were left in sundry houses, but we found them all taken downe, and the place strongly inclosed with a high Palizado [i.e. a palisade of wooden stakes], very Fortlike; and in one of the chiefe Posts carved in fayre capitall Letters C R O A T A N, without any signe of distresse, and many barres of Iron… and such like heavie things throwne here and there, overgrowne with grass and weeds…
Interestingly, White’s account here connects his two identities as governor and painter. He remarks that his men “found diverse Chests which had been hidden and digged up againe” surrounding the palisade. Among these chests, White was surprised to find objects which he knew “to be my owne”: “books” and “pictures” he had created in the years before, now “scattered up and downe…[and] spoyled.” In the end, White was unable to follow up on these strange clues: storms forced the expedition’s ships to turn back before reaching Croatan, and he returned to Britain with the mystery unresolved. The ultimate fate of the Roanoke colonists continues to be debated. Some have conjectured that White’s fellow colonists may have opted to join a local Algonquian Indian tribe and adapt themselves to the very different (and rather more effective) Amerindian methods of contending with the harsh American landscape. It is unlikely that we’ll ever know what happened – but if White’s daughter and granddaughter really did become incorporated into an Indian tribe, it would have made a strange sort of sense. Few sixteenth century Europeans looked upon indigenous Americans with anything other than a jaundiced and prejudiced eye. Yet White’s sensitive and humane portrayals of daily life among the Algonquians tell a different story, and suggest that his own stance toward the native peoples he encountered in the New World was rather more complex. In White’s sensitive depiction of the Algonquian woman and her child holding a European doll, perhaps we can discern a foreshadowing of the hybrid Euro-American fate of his own daughter and grandchild. The intertwined tales of the failed colony White governed, the family he raised, and the artworks he created offer one of the earliest examples of the mingling of cultures that would define the history of the Americas in the centuries to come.

Watercolour by John White of Fort Elizabeth in Guyanilla Bay, Puerto Rico, where the colonists were based before going on to found the Ranoake Colony in North Carolina.


Further reading:
  • Michael Gaudio, Engraving the Savage: The New World and Techniques of Civilization(University of Minnesota Press, 2008)
  • Joyce Chaplin, Subject Matter: Technology, the Body, and Science on the Anglo-American Frontier, 1500-1676 (Harvard University Press, 2003)
  • Daniel Richter, Facing East from Indian Country (Harvard University Press, 2001)
  • Kim Sloan et al, A New World: England’s first view of America (University of North Carolina Press, 2007)



Benjamin Breen is a PhD candidate in the Department of History at the University of Texas, Austin. He is currently a Fulbright Fellow based in Lisbon, Portugal where he is conducting research toward a dissertation on the circulation of medicinal drugs and natural knowledge in the Portuguese and British empires. He blogs about premodern history and visual culture at resobscura.blogspot.com.

Links to Works



  • John White’s watercolours on Wikimedia Commons

  • A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia (1903, facsimile of original 1588 book) by Thomas Hariot
  • Sir Walter Raleigh’s lost colony. An historical sketch of the attempts of Sir Walter Raleigh to establish a colony in Virginia, with the traditions of an Indian tribe in North Carolina. Indicating the fate of the colony of Englishmen left on Roanoke Island in 1587 (1888), by Hamilton McMillan
  • Conquest of Virginia, the first attempt : being an account of Sir Walter Raleigh’s colony on Roanoke island, based on the original records, and incidents in the life of Raleigh, 1584-1602 (1924), by Conway Whittle Sams







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Richard Dadd’s Master-Stroke

- March 14, 2012 in Art and Illustrations, Articles, bethlem hospital, Elimination of a Picture and its Subject, fairies, Painting, richard dadd, tate, The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke

Nicholas Tromans, author of Richard Dadd: The Artist and the Asylum, takes a look at Dadd’s most famous painting The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke.

Detail of the main section showing the Fairy-Feller about to hew the nut - Source: Tate (Richard Dadd, The Fairy Feller's Master-Stroke c.1855-64, Tate)

Richard Dadd was a young British painter of huge promise who fell into mental illness while touring the Mediterranean in the early 1840s. He spent over forty years in lunatic asylums, dying at Broadmoor in 1886, but never gave up his calling, producing mesmerisingly detailed watercolours and oil paintings of which The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke is now the most well known. The picture’s history encapsulates the peculiar rise and, if not fall then the suspension, of its maker’s reputation, and indeed begs the question of what happens to any long-dead forgotten genius after they’ve been rediscovered. Among the symptoms of Dadd’s illness – which sounds today like a form of schizophrenia – were delusions of persecution and the receipt of messages from the Ancient Egyptian deity Osiris. Dadd was commanded to kill his father (or the demon who it appeared to him had taken his place) and did so with efficiency in the summer of 1843, not long after returning from his tour. After an equally well planned escape to France, the artist was eventually admitted to the Criminal Lunatic department of Bethlem Hospital in Lambeth (now the Imperial War Museum) and it was here that he painted the Fairy Feller. According to the inscription on the back of the canvas it took him nine years to complete, although Dadd qualifies this claim with “quasi” (“sort of”) which may mean he only worked at it on and off between 1855 and 1864. It is an exhaustingly complex image, with a substantial cast of characters, none of whom are doing much with the exception of the “feller” himself who is about to hew a hazelnut in half in order to provide the diminutive queen of the fairies, Mab, with a new chariot. Dadd’s starting point was evidently Mercutio’s teasing speech in Romeo and Juliet in which he imagines in excruciating detail the nightly wanderings of Mab as she seeds dreams in sleepers’ heads, nocturnal visions in which suppressed ambitions and desires reveal themselves. Dadd’s inscription further informs us that the picture was painted for the Steward of Bethlem, George Henry Haydon, and in a long poem (or at least rhymed catalogue) which the artist wrote in 1865, he gives a kind of cast-list as well as offering an account of how the picture came to be painted. It was apparently Haydon who suggested some “verse about the fairies” as a “point from which to throw” – presumably the Mercutio speech which may have been intended by the Bethlem official as a means of encouraging Dadd to revisit his early life before illness had struck, when he had made his reputation as a painter of Shakespearean fairy subjects. Victorian psychiatrists were in any case fond of writing on the “cases” described by the Bard, and Charles Lamb observed how, despite the extravagant imaginative leaps of his fairy scenes, Shakespeare himself presented a kind of inverse monomania, maintaining the thread of sanity even through the most outlandish journeys of the mind.

Photograph by Henry Hering (ca. 1856) of Dadd painting Contradiction: Oberon and Titania.

Having received the commission for a new fairy painting from Haydon, however, Dadd says inspiration failed to materialise. He took the idea of spiritual inspiration very literally, seeing indeed the work of spirits in all human endeavour. Individuals and entire cultures may aspire to noble achievements, but the help or hindrance of the spirit world was what counted and its genii were not inclined to submit themselves to human service for long. “What’s the use of attempting the enlightenment?” asked Dadd in some notes written in the 1850s. “What a number of times the destroying angel has triumphed over the different nations of the earth – sucking them up & knocking them down”. And equally for an artist seeking to pin down their genius and compel it to answer: “What a clever angel the genius of painting must be to escape from all these hot pursuits … but once free, not all the arts of any old fellow I suppose can lure back the pretty bird to its own disgrace and bondage.” Dadd’s theory of art was thus thoroughly pessimistic. The public were a waste of time, and “one might fancy pictures are like monks secluded from and very little noticed by the world so that after all what matters about its quality except to the few, the initiated”. This might at least allow that Haydon may have been a worthwhile patron, but as for the artist himself, “what more slavish than painting, what more hopeless?” So when seeking to make a beginning of the Fairy Feller, Dadd’s only strategy upon realising that “Fancy was not to be evoked / From her etherial realms” was to accept his passive role, to entirely empty his mind: “I thought on nought – a shift / As good perhaps as thinking hard.” Finally the method succeeded: “Indefinite, almost unseen, / Lay vacant entities of chance” and gradually the “Design and composition” evolved “Without intent”. Dadd’s description of the painting, which he styled Elimination of a Picture and its Subject, thus has a curious sense of disavowal about it, as if saying who is in it is all he can do, their significance being beyond his explanation. When Dadd comes to note the head of a man wearing a conical red cap, poking out of the landscape in the top-left of the picture, he tells us that “Of the / Chinese Small Foot Societee, He’s a small member. But / if Confucius sent him Now I can’t remember.”

“Of the / Chinese Small Foot Societee, He’s a small member. But / if Confucius sent him Now I can’t remember.” -Source: Tate (Richard Dadd, The Fairy Feller's Master-Stroke c.1855-64, Tate)

The characters of the Fairy Feller are mainly arranged in pairs and clusters. A group of men watch the feller intently while over the lead actor’s head is the Patriarch with epic beard, along the elongated brim of whose crown cavort a troupe of dancers apparently in Spanish costume, and indeed Dadd observes that “One is / dressed like to Duvernay”, that is Pauline Duvernay, a flamenco dancer famous on the stages of 1830s London. On either side of the Patriarch are pairs of maids and gallants, all showing an exaggeratedly gendered leg. Above the Patriarch are Oberon and Titania – rival monarchs to Mab who waits for her new chariot just below them to the left. She is, as Mercutio had described her, microscopic and yet painted by Dadd with an entirely convincing series of miniaturised impressionist touches. In the upper-left of the painting strange creatures summon further witnesses to the great moment of the splitting of the nut, and then Dadd offers – in the sequence of seven figures along the top of the picture – a version of the counting rhyme whereby boys allowed fate to choose them a profession, or girls a husband: soldier, sailor, tinker, tailor, ploughboy, apothecary, thief. If the Fairy Feller were a work intended for critical interpretation, which it probably was not, then we might talk of the suspended action with which the seed was to be split; the deferred moment of sex; the mutual isolation of the groups of figures suggesting the impossibility of generating a family or a community; and we might connect these themes to Dadd’s awareness of his own position as a long-stay patient in London’s high-security lunatic asylum where, “shut out from nature’s game” and “banished from nature’s book of life, because some angel in the strife had got the worser fate”, his lot was “in a paradise of fools [to] contented live.” But Dadd knew, given the workings of spirits, angels and fate, that autobiography was a vain fiction, and we should be wary of assuming that his most famous picture must somehow be his personal testament.

The crown patriarch - Source: Tate (Richard Dadd, The Fairy Feller's Master-Stroke c.1855-64, Tate)


The as of yet uncracked nut with onlookers - Source: Tate (Richard Dadd, The Fairy Feller's Master-Stroke c.1855-64, Tate)

The Fairy Feller became Dadd’s most famous work because, in 1963, it entered the Tate collection where it was soon a popular favourite. It was presented to the Gallery by the then elderly poet Siegfried Sassoon, who had himself been given it by his mother-in-law, the daughter of the vastly wealthy connoisseur Alfred Morrison whose encyclopaedic collections included several Dadds. Sassoon had a special interest in the artist, having befriended, in the trenches, three brothers who were the grandsons of Richard Dadd’s elder brother. The Fairy Feller was presented to the Tate “by Siegfried Sassoon in memory of his friend and fellow officer Julian Dadd, a great-nephew of the artist, and of his two brothers who gave their lives in the First World War”, a dedication which always still accompanies the painting today. Sassoon of course had yet further personal reason for taking an interest in Dadd, having himself been a patient at Craiglockhart outside Edinburgh which functioned during the War as a hospital for shell-shocked officers.

Queen of the fairies Mab with her rival monarchs Oberon and Titania - Source: Tate (Richard Dadd, The Fairy Feller's Master-Stroke c.1855-64, Tate)

The arrival of the Fairy Feller at the Tate, allowing Dadd a substantial audience for the first time since the 1840s, could not have been timed better if Sassoon had planned it (which he hadn’t: he donated the picture to a public collection having taken fright at the underhand tactics of an art dealer keen to relieve him of it). This was the period during which a new intellectual consensus was fomenting against the inherited system of nineteenth-century asylums, a consensus embracing everyone from the radical historian of psychiatry Michel Foucault to Enoch Powell, then British Secretary of State for Health. Dadd, having been more or less (if never completely) forgotten since the onset of his illness, now appeared something of a hero – a brave survivor of a vicious system which (so went the new story) locked away all those with whom the Victorians could not cope, which was to say many. Dadd appeared as the dark unconscious which underlay mainstream Victorian painting with its floppy maidens (Dadd contrarily had a penchant for sturdy women) and limp-wristed draughtsmanship (Dadd’s taught line was admired by some critics even when the world at large had forgotten him). The notorious magazine of Sixties counter-culture, Oz, ran a spread on the artist in 1971 and in 1974 Freddie Mercury used text from the Elimination poem for lyrics to a song titled the Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke which appeared on Queen’s second album.

But also in 1974 there appeared the results of a more sober, academic approach to Dadd. Patricia Allderidge took up the new post of archivist to the ancient Bethlem Hospital in the late 1960s and was able to recover much of Dadd’s forgotten biography and oeuvre, publishing her findings in the still indispensible catalogue to an exhibition devoted to the artist at the Tate. At this point, in retrospect, it seems the romanticised “anti-psychiatry” Dadd on one hand, and on the other the history of Dadd written from within the hospital itself, effectively cancelled one another out. At least, only the slightest amount of new research was published on the artist for decades after 1974. There seemed nowhere he might confidently be placed in the history of either art or psychiatry. So: how to deal with a long-dead forgotten genius once they’ve been rediscovered? If the talent in question never fitted in when alive, there’s little chance a permanent plinth in the pantheon of their field will be found for them even once posterity has handed them their posthumous prize. Once the ghost is raised from obscurity, where can we lay it down again?

Nicholas Tromans teaches at Kingston University, London. He curated the Tate Britain exhibition “The Lure of the East: British Orientalist Painting” in 2008 and his book on Richard Dadd, The Artist and the Asylum, was published last year. He recommends to PDR readers this blog about the history of psychiatry – maintained by Bethlem Hospital.

Links to works


  • Elimination of a Picture and its Subject – called the Feller’s Master Stroke (1865) by Richard Dadd.
  • Various paintings of Dadd’s on Wikimedia Commons
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Navigating Dürer’s Woodcuts for The Ship of Fools

- October 25, 2011 in Art and Illustrations, Articles, Books, Dürer, early Dürer, narrenschiff, Religion, sebastian brant, teh ship of fools, woodcut

At the start of his career, as a young man in his twenties, Albrecht Dürer created a series of woodcuts to illustrate Sebastian Brant’s The Ship of Fools of 1494. Dürer scholar Rangsook Yoon explores the significance of these early pieces and how in their subtlety of allegory they show promise of his masterpieces to come.

Attributed to Albrecht Dürer, woodcut illustration for Chapter 85, “Not Providing for Death”.

The celebrated Nuremberg artist Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) spent part of his journeyman years, from 1492 to 1494, in Basel, working as a woodcut designer for some of the most eminent publishers of his time, including Johann Bergmann von Olpe, Johannes Amerbach, and Nicolaus Kessler. Basel, along with Strasbourg, Augsburg and Nuremberg, was a prosperous commercial town and a leading artistic and publishing center in the North of the Alps. Dürer’s journeyman experience here was crucial in his formation as a woodcut designer deeply engaged in the early publishing industry. The most important woodcut project that he was involved with during this time was the design of an extensive illustration cycle to accompany The Ship of Fools, the satirical verses composed in German by Sebastian Brant (1457-1521) and published by Bergmann von Olpe in 1494. This collection of moralizing stories was an instant best-seller; so much so that in that same year, five separate pirated editions appeared in Strasbourg, Augsburg, Nuremberg, and Reutingen. No doubt, its numerous whimsical woodcuts depicting various types of foolish and sinful human behavior contributed to its great success, as these illustrations were copied in all subsequent editions until the late sixteenth century. Nowadays, in general, about two-thirds of the 114 illustrations (counting 9 repeating ones) in the 1494 edition are attributed to the young Dürer, while the rest, which are found inferior in design and cutting, are ascribed to anonymous masters, such as the so-called Master of the Haintz Narr (named after the namesake scene in The Ship of Fools). A more conservative view, expressed by the art historian Erwin Panofsky in 1945, attributes only one-third of the illustrations to Dürer.

The Master of the Haintz Narr, woodcut illustration for Chapter 5 , “Of Old Fools”.

Attributed to Albrecht Dürer, woodcut illustration for Chapter 14, “Of Insolence toward God”.

Overall, the woodcuts Dürer made during his journeyman years are not as impressive as those he created later as an independent master in Nuremberg. For example, hatching lines used for modeling consist here only of simple parallel lines, and the contour lines during this early period are depicted crudely and overly thick without much variation. The artist presumably simplified his illustrations so as to accommodate the limited skills of block-cutters (Formschneider) who were in charge of cutting the woodblocks he designed. Nevertheless, Dürer’s woodcuts in The Ship of Fools already reveal seeds of his stylistic elements and motifs found later in his career. They also betray a greater understanding of the book’s narrative and allegorical content, suggesting that he worked closely with Brant, possibly responding directly to the author’s demands and instructions. Dürer’s intimate knowledge of Brant’s text can best be illustrated by examining the original title page designed by the Nuremberg artist, The Fools on a Cart and a Boatload of Fools.

Dürer's Fools on a Cart and a Boatload of Fools, the original title page.

This woodcut of Dürer’s occupies almost the entire title page and consists of two scenes that are vertically arranged. The upper compartment shows figures in fools’ caps — shaped like donkey’s ears and adorned with bells — riding a cart pulled by horses and being guided by fools. This uppermost register also has the book’s title, “The Ship of Fools” (“Das Narren Schiff”), carved on the same woodblock as the image. In the lower section, three boats of yelling and singing rowdy fools set out for their destination, “The Land of Fools” (“Ad Narragoniam”), as indicated in the caption. Attentive viewers may find it odd that two different allegorical subjects, both the multiple ships of fools and a single cart of fools, are juxtaposed in this original title cut of 1494. It differs greatly from the better-known title cuts of later years, all of which utilize the image of only a large ship of fools, thus visualizing the book’s title verbatim. This seemingly dissonant title cut of 1494, however, confirms that Dürer was indeed well aware of the structure and themes of Brant’s original German text at the time of its conception and original publication. Despite the book’s title, in Brant’s original text, the idea of a ‘ship’ is not central, but rather, incidental. As noteworthy as the ship is, it is only one amongst a number of diverse motifs including a cart, a dance, a wheel of fortune, a net, a mirror, and a bagpipe. The ship motif became the book’s foremost leitmotif only when, while being translated into Latin, Jacob Locher, Brant’s pupil, extensively rearranged and revised Brant’s text to give it a semblance of unity, which was found lacking in Brant’s original. This Latin edition, translated and edited by Locher and first published by Bergmann von Olpe in 1497, became the standard version of The Ship of Fools’ text that was repeatedly copied in all following editions and translations. Given all, at the time of the book’s first publication, Dürer’s title cut, with both the cart and multiple ships, advertise the book’s full content more adequately than its short, unilateral title. It complements the title words in communicating the book’s complex, multi-structural narrative elements to the reading public, and further, it mirrors the general structure of the book. The Ship of Fools, which consists of 112 chapters, is roughly dividable into two parts. In contrast to the first half of the book (that is, the first 61 chapters), where the metaphor of a ship plays a small role except in chapter 48 (“A Journeyman’s Ship”), the ship motif is disproportionately greater in the second half: the prologue (since it was written last) and chapters 103 (“Of the Antichrist”), 91 (“Of Prattling in Church”), 108 (“The Schluraffen Ship”), and 109 (“ Contempt of Misfortune”). We gather that Brant gradually realized its symbolic importance in the process of his writing. The significance of the ship in the second part is even more apparent when one examines the text illustrations. Even when the ship is only briefly mentioned, or even not mentioned at all, it is still visually depicted, sometimes as a tiny object floating on a lake (or a sea) in the background, and sometimes far more conspicuously. This can bee seen in chapters 68 (“Not Taking a Joke”), 72 (“Of Coarse Fools”), 75 (“Of Bad Marksmen”), 80 (“Foolish News”), and 81 (“Of Cooks and Waiters”).

Attributed to Albrecht Dürer, woodcut illustration for chapter 103 , “Of the Antichrist”.

Attributed to Albrecht Dürer, woodcut illustration for chapter 75, “Of Bad Marksmen”.

The motif of a cart of fools is treated as a principal theme only twice in the book, once in chapter 47 (“On the Road of Salvation”) and another time in chapter 91 (“Of Prattling in Church”), where both the cart and the ship are addressed simultaneously. Less emphatically, the cart motif is mentioned once again in chapter 53 (“Of Envy and Hatred”). However, Dürer’s depiction of the cart, along with ships, on the title page serve well as metaphors for land- and sea-going vehicles carrying the fools, thus conveying the universality of all the fools described by the text. With the editorial changes made to Brant’s text by Locher, who utilized ‘the ship of fools’ as the leitmotif throughout, not only in the first Latin edition of 1497 but also in all subsequent publications (both authorized and pirated), the book no longer reproduced or imitated the original title page design by Dürer. Instead, after 1497, a different woodcut, rendering only a large ship laden with fools and attributed to the Master of the Haintz Narr, repeatedly served as the title cut prototype. In 1494, the Master of the Haintz Narr’s woodcut originally appeared as the frontispiece on the verso of the title page, and also can be found as an illustration accompanying chapter 108, “The Schluraffen Ship.” As the concept of the ship became the most significant motif of the book, this woodcut became the most fitting image for the title cut, as it visualizes the two principal ideas of the book and its title — namely, both a ship and fools. However, it is Dürer’s original title cut for the 1494 edition which represents the book’s original structure and thematic concerns much more faithfully and allegorically.

Master of Haintz Narr, the frontispiece of the 1494 edition which became a popular choice for title page in later editions.

Throughout his career as a successful independent master in Nuremberg, Dürer continued to create woodcuts that were meant to accompany texts. He provided numerous humanist friends and Nuremberg publishers with woodcuts to illustrate their new publications. Best known works, of course, are his own illustrated books, such as the Apocalypse (1498; the second edition in 1511), the Large Passion (1511), the Life of the Virgin Mary (1511), and the Small Passion (1511). Here, the primary features are the woodcuts themselves, rather than texts, and significantly, he self-published them by hiring printers. Dürer’s later productions of such high caliber, innovation, and audacity cannot be fully understood without taking into consideration his invaluable journeyman experience in the large publishing companies and his participation in executing extensive illustration cycles such as The Ship of Fools in Basel.

Rangsook Yoon is Assistant Professor of Art History at Central College in Pella, Iowa, specialising in Dürer’s early career as a print-maker and self-publisher. She is currently working on several articles dealing with Dürer’s woodcuts during his apprenticeship and journeyman years, as well as a book about the Apocalypse.

Links to Works


For Alexander Barclay’s 1874 English translation (but with illustrations from the 1497 Latin version) see here and here.

Robert Fludd and His Images of The Divine

- September 13, 2011 in alchemy, Art and Illustrations, Articles, Books, kabbala, Philosophy, Religion, robert fludd, Science, Utriusque cosmi

Between 1617 and 1621 the English physician and polymath Robert Fludd published his masterwork Utriusque Cosmi, a book split into two volumes and packed with over 60 intricate engravings. Urszula Szulakowska explores the philosophical and theological ideas behind the extraordinary images found in the second part of the work. Robert Fludd was a respected English physician (of Welsh origins) employed at the court of King James I of England. He was a prolific writer of vast, multi-volume encyclopaedias in which he discussed a universal range of topics from magical practices such as alchemy, astrology, kabbalism and fortune-telling, to radical theological thinking concerning the inter-relation of God with the natural and human worlds. However, he also proudly displayed his grasp of practical knowledge, such as mechanics, architecture, military fortifications, armaments, military manoeuvres, hydrology, musical theory and musical instruments, mathematics, geometry, optics and the art of drawing, as well as chemistry and medicine. Fludd used the common metaphor for the arts as being the “ape of Nature,” a microcosmic form of the manner in which the universe itself functioned. Fludd’s most famous work is the History of the Two Worlds (Utriusque Cosmi … Historia, 1617-21) published in five volumes by Theodore de Bry in Oppenheim. The two worlds under discussion are those of the Microcosm of human life on earth and the Macrocosm of the universe (which included the spiritual realm of the Divine). Fludd himself was a staunch member of the Anglican Church. He was educated in the medical profession at St. John’s College in Oxford. In 1598-1604/ 5 he set out for an extended period of travel on the continent. He spent a winter with some Jesuits, a Roman Catholic order deeply opposed to Protestantism who, nevertheless, tutored Fludd on magical practices. Fludd, however, always claimed to have worked out the theological and magical systems in his first volume of the Utriusque Cosmi … Historia, concerning the Macrocosm (1617), during his undergraduate days at Oxford. In this work Fludd devised a lavishly illustrated cosmology, based on the chemical theory of Paracelsus, in which the materials of the universe were separated out of chaos by God who acted in the manner of a laboratory alchemist. Fludd was a deeply convinced adherent of the medical and magical practice of the German doctor, surgeon and radical theologian, Theophrastus Paracelsus von Hohenheim. This loyalty led Fludd into severe conflicts with the established British medical profession. His later publications described a medical practice, almost devoid of chemical remedies but which depended almost solely on prayer and the use of the name of Jesus on the model of the first apostles of Christ. This devotional medicine was supported by a theology derived from the secret mystical teaching of Judaism, the kabbalah, which Fludd employed in a Christianised form derived from the ideas of the German philosopher, Johannes Reuchlin. In his medicinal incantations Fludd used the Hebrew form of the name of Jesus which, he claimed, possessed immense magical potency. He equated Jesus Christ with the kabbalistic angel Metattron, the heavenly form of the Jewish Messiah, (UCH, 2 1621: 2-5). He was said to be the soul of the world, pervading it through-out (“anima mundi”), or Anthropos (UCH, 2 1621, Tract II, Sect I: 8-9). Fludd states that “Hochmah” (Wisdom in the kabbalistic Tree of Life) is the same as the “Verbum” (the “Word” in the Christian Gospel of John who is identified with Jesus Christ). The Christian “Word” is the same as the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, “Aleph. This Christian Messiah is the most potent medicine for all human ills. The “Verbum”, or Metattron-Christ-Messiah, is the form of God himself, residing in the the sun. In Fludd’s medical theories the operation of the aerial nitre, or quintessence, in the human body was of critical importance to health. It was said to originate in the tabernacle of the aerial spirit which was the sun. The essence of the aerial nitre was celestial light. It was breathed in by the lungs and carried to the heart, where it was separated from the air and dispersed as the vital spirit through-out the body. In his short text, the “Tractatus de Tritico” (the “Tractate on Wheat”) , which re-appeared in his Anatomiae Amphiteatrum (1623) and also in the Philosophia Moysaica (1638), Fludd described the distillation of the aerial nitre from the wheat using the heat and light of the sun’s own rays. Fludd claimed that this distilled spirit was the universal panacea, whose generative celestial fire had been drawn out of the sun. All of Fludd’s treatises were lavishly illustrated with extraordinary engravings, unique in their form and subject-matter, which have the visionary quality of a genuine spiritual seer and which exerted an influence on his contemporary occultists such as Michael Maier, Jacob Boehme and Johannes Mylius. Fludd himself designed these images and they were engraved by the artisans employed at his publishers. (Some of his own original drawings still exist for the first volume of the Utriusque Cosmi … Historia, 1617). Fludd’s concepts of the creative and healing forces of light were illustrated by diagrams, the principles of light and darkness being represented by two intersecting cones, or pyramids. The base of the “pyramidis formalis” was placed in the Empyreum of God, signifying rays of divine light, while the base of the “pyramidis materialis” was located on the earth pointing upward towards God. Fludd described these diagrammatic forms as “pyramides lucis”, “cones of light,” claiming to have invented them himself, although they seem to be based on antique and medieval optical theory. Within the lozenge shape created by the intersection of the downward and upward pointing cones, Fludd placed the sun, since the nature of this sphere balanced the oppositions of spirit and matter, male and female, sulphur and mercury. From the outset in the “Macrocosm” (UCH, 1617) Fludd’s cosmogony was based on the three generative principles which were those conceptualised by Paracelsus in his own alchemy, namely, those of light, darkness and water, from which emerged the three primary elements that constituted matter, that is, Salt from darkness (as the “prima materia”), Sulphur from light (as the soul) and Mercury from water (as the spirit). These, in turn, produced the four qualities of antique and medieval physics, the qualities of heat, cold, dryness and moistness. Fludd’s alchemical cosmology was explained by a series of intricate geometrical diagrams of great power and beauty. In the third book of the “Macrocosm” Fludd also offered another interpretation of the structure of the universe, complementing his earlier alchemical visualisations, but expressed musically. He analysed what he claimed to be the “Musica Mundana”, the musical forms that pervaded and structure universal creation based on the musicology and mathematics of the ancient Greek, Pythagoras (UCH, 1, 1617, pp. 79-81). The fifth chapter of the “Musica Mundana” included an illustration of a cosmic lyre. Fludd achieved a certain notoriety in his own time for his early support of the “Rosicrucian Manifestos” in his treatise the Apologia (1616) (expanded into the Tractatus Apologeticus, 1618). The two texts, which came to be called the Rosicrucian Manifestos, consisted of the Fama which appeared in 1614, followed by the Confessio in 1615. They were published anonymously in Kassel and they have been the subject of extensive debate in regard to their origins and authorship (see Donald R. Dickson, The Tessera of Antilia (Leiden: Brill, 1998), pp. 32-36). The authors never revealed themselves but they called for supporters to join the Rosicrucian movement, claimed to have been in existence for centuries. Those who responded by publishing letters to the Rosicrucians were a heterogeneous group of Protestants, mostly of a radical reformist character, as well as adherents to antique philosophy and magic (kabbalists, followers of Hermes Trismegistos – a mythical Egyptian sage, as well as practitioners of magic on the model of Cornelius Agrippa (a sixteenth century German sage) and of Paracelsus.v The Manifestos seem to have been written to counteract the re-conversionary activities of the Jesuit order in central Europe. Said to be supporters of a legendary figure of the fourteenth century, Christian Rozenkreutz, there never did exist in reality any such entity as the Rosicrucian Order in the seventeenth century. It could be said, however, that there did exist a popular Rosicrucian movement whose supporters developed the original ideas of the founders and in which Fludd’s influence was a dominating factor.

(All images in the public domain, courtesy of Deutsche Fotothek)

Urszula Szulakowska has been a lecturer in the History of Art at Sydney University, Queensland University, Bretton Hall College and the University of Leeds (1977-2011). Currently she is Visiting Research Fellow in the School of Fine Art, History of Art and Cultural Studies at the University of Leeds. She has published extensively on the history of art and alchemy including monographs: The Alchemy of Light (Brill: 2000), The Sacrificial Body and the Day of Doom (Brill: 2005) and Alchemy in Contemporary Art (Ashgate: 2010), as well as many learned articles and papers in scholarly sources.

Links to Works


  • Images from Utriusque Cosmi
  • Utriusque cosmi maioris scilicet et minoris metaphysica, physica atqve technica historia : in duo volumina secundum cosmi differentiam diuisa (1617)

Accuracy and Elegance in Cheselden’s Osteographia (1733)

- August 22, 2011 in anatomy, Art and Illustrations, Articles, Books, Osteographia, Science, William Cheselden

With its novel vignettes and its use of a camera obscura in the production of the plates, William Cheselden’s Osteographia, is recognized as a landmark in the history of anatomical illustration. Monique Kornell looks at its unique blend of accuracy and elegance. A lavishly illustrated and particularly elegant book of human and comparative osteology in large folio size, Osteographia, or the Anatomy of the Bones, was published in London in 1733 by William Cheselden (1688-1752). However highly it is esteemed today, it was a financial failure for its author, unlike his earlier, less expensive and more general work, The Anatomy of the Humane Body (1713), which went through numerous editions. Cheselden, a successful surgeon based in London, first won fame for his perfection of the lateral method of lithotomy, or “cutting for the stone”. At the time of publication of the Osteographia, he was already well established in his career. Surgeon to Queen Caroline, to whom the book is dedicated, he was also a Fellow of the Royal Society, surgeon at St. Thomas’s hospital and the first foreign member of the newly founded Royal Academy of Surgery in Paris. Work was under way for the Osteographia already by 1726 when Cheselden states in the preface to the Anatomy of the Human Body that he would have replaced illustrations from the first edition:
if I had not been so much engaged about an Osteology in which every plate is twenty one inches long, and fifteen broad. All the bones will be done so large as the life, and the bones of the limbs and trunk, with sceletons as large as the plates will admit of; And besides these there will be some plates of the cartilages, ligaments and diseased bones; and every chapter will have a distinct head-piece and tail-piece, which will be chiefly made of the sceletons of different animals.
The Osteographia eventually appeared in 1733 with a double set of plates, 56 lettered and 56 unlettered, “to shew them in their full beauty” (ch. 8). Part of the delay was that the initial drawings for the plates were abandoned when Cheselden, in his desire for the greatest accuracy in the rendering of the skeleton, had his artists, Gerard Vandergucht and Jacob Schijnvoet, employ a camera obscura, the use of which is illustrated in a vignette on the title page. As described in chapter VIII, the artist drew upon a roughened glass set six inches inside; a sliding lens allowed him to adjust the scale. The resulting image was then traced on to paper. Many of the preparatory drawings survive in the collection of the Royal Academy, London.

Camera obscura vignette, Title page, Osteographia, 1733

In the production of the plates, Cheselden took a markedly active role. He chose the poses for the skeletons and oversaw each stage of the production, stepping in when necessary to correct both drawings and plates: “where particular parts needed to be more distinctly expressed on account of the anatomy, there I always directed; sometimes in the drawings with the pencil, and often with the needle upon the copper plate.” Cheselden was also attuned to the different effects that could be brought about in the engraving, and he comments that the use of unhatched, single lines to evoke the smoothness of the ends of the bones “was also my contriving”. Cheselden’s close involvement in making the plates and his desire for accuracy through mechanical means, as well as in the great expense incurred, parallel the contemporaneous efforts of the Dutch anatomist, Bernhard Siegfried Albinus, who had his artist, Jan Wandelaar, view anatomical preparations through a grid system of ropes. An early influence upon Cheselden’s attention to illustration was the surgeon and anatomist William Cowper, with whom Cheselden resided while studying anatomy. Cowper was also a remarkable draftsman and provided illustrations for his own works and those of others. Cheselden then attended the first St Martin’s Lane Academy of Art in 1720 and would himself later contribute accomplished plates for his addendum to the translation of Le Dran’s Operations in Surgery (London 1749). Much of the charm of the Osteographia lies with the vignettes of the animal skeletons, which are frequently depicted in lifelike poses. A cat with an arched back is startled by a dog; a young, antlered deer stops suddenly and turns to the viewer; a crane picks up a fish with its beak, yielding the conceit of a skeleton bird seeking nourishment from the bones of a fish. Cheselden’s comment concerning the skeleton of a bear indicates the care he took in the poses of the animal skeletons: “This skeleton being put together with stiff wires, I could not alter it into a properer posture” (ch. VIII). The pose of the chameleon skeleton, set on a branch with its tail wrapped around a twig, seen at the head of the fifth chapter, was adapted from an illustration first published by Charles Perrault in 1669. The inventiveness seen in the vignettes is likewise found in the decorated initials and the plates of entire human skeletons. Inspired by the meditative skeletons of Vesalius, Cheselden offers a lateral view of a skeleton kneeling in prayer (Tab. XXXVI), the pose chosen in order “to represent the figure in a larger scale.” In the Anatomy of the Human Body of 1740, the figure has been adapted for Tab. X and is shown with his arms tied behind his back.

Skeleton praying, tab XXXVI, Osteographia, 1733, and Skeleton bound, tab. X, The Anatomy of the Human Body, 1740

The influence of Vesalius is also evident in the low-set Italianate landscape seen in some of the full-size skeleton plates, such as Tab. XXXII. Here the viewpoint manages to confer a monumental sense of scale to the skeleton of a year-and-a-half-old child, who is shown walking toward the viewer while brandishing an adult humerus. This bone serves as a comparison of scale but fails, nevertheless, to dwarf the skeleton in any way. The print that follows offers a comparison of scale and of species as well, as a skeleton of a boy of nine years is seen leaning against the skull of a horse, almost half his height. The frontal views of a male and a female skeletons are both after classical statues, the Apollo Belvedere and the Medici Venus. Cheselden has altered the pose of the latter, turning her head and placing her left arm out to the side rather than in the original “pudica” position, thus allowing for a better view of the pelvic bones.

Skeleton of a year-and-a-half-old child holding an adult humerus, tab. XXXII, and Skeleton of a 9-year-old child leaning on a horse's skull, tab. XXXII

In addition to developmental plates of the bones, there are several excellent plates with cross-sections of the bones and depicting cartilages and ligaments. The seventh chapter and the last nine plates of the book are devoted to diseased bones, dealing with cases from Cheselden’s own practice and those of his colleagues. The preparation of the bones of the left arm, showing a congenital ankylosis of the elbow joint, which was sent to Cheselden by “Mr Goodwin” and survives today in the Hunterian Museum, London, is depicted in Tab. LXV, fig. 2. The fused “crooked skeleton” of Tab. XLIII is described as having been “dug out of a grave”. In the Osteographia as well as in his other works, Cheselden favored a reliance on the image for elucidation rather than lengthy description: “I thought it useless to make long descriptions, one view of such prints shewing more than the fullest and best description can possibly do” (Address to the Reader). For example, in discussing the intricate bones of the foot he concludes the fifth chapter by saying that “for what remains see the plate, which makes a farther description needless”. The brevity of the text is certainly one valid criticism of the many made by John Douglas, a rival lithotomist, in his querulous pamphlet, Animadversions on a late pompous book, intituled, Osteographia…by William Cheselden (London 1735). Curiously, his brother James Douglas, the anatomist and physician, was a valued friend and collaborator of Cheselden’s. The brevity of the text, the decorative vignettes and the luxurious production of the Osteographia was aimed at attracting a wealthy, general audience for the book. It is for this same potential market that Cheselden had earlier designed a course of anatomy, given with Francis Hawksbee, which was advertised in The Daily Courant of 21 March 1721 as, “chiefly intended for Gentlemen, Such Things only will be omitted as are neither Instructive nor Entertaining and Care will be taken to have nothing Offensive.” From an advertisement in Cheselden’s Anatomy of 1740, we learn that only 97 of the 300 copies of the Osteographia printed had been sold. In an attempt to recoup his expenses, 83 of the remaining copies were cut apart so that the prints could be sold separately. In addition, 100 prints had been struck for a projected Latin or French edition. Some of these were used for an undated edition of the unlettered plates, issued without the text. The plates of the Osteographia are magnificent and worthy of their fame. They are of a far finer quality than the crude depictions of skeletons, originally made for James Douglas, that appeared in Cheselden’s first edition of his Anatomy of 1713. Cheselden’s original plan, laid out in To the Reader, was for a three-volume work on human anatomy, all similarly decorated with plates of comparative anatomy. It is regrettable that the Osteographia did not meet with the financial success necessary to allow the completion of the project.

(All images are in the public domain, courtesy of the National Library of Medicine)


Monique Kornell (Ph.D. Warburg Institute) is an independent scholar of anatomical illustration and of the study of anatomy by artists. She has written on works from the 16th to the 19th centuries and has previously published on Cheselden’s Osteographia in the catalogue to the exhibition she co-curated, The Ingenious Machine of Nature: Four Centuries of Art and Anatomy, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, 1996, pp. 190-193.

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Labillardière and his Relation

- August 15, 2011 in Art and Illustrations, Articles, Australasia, Books, botany, d'Entrecasteaux, History, Labillardière, Lapérouse, Oceania, tazmania

When the French explorer Lapérouse went missing, a search voyage was put together to retrace his course around the islands of Australasia. On the mission was the naturalist Jacques Labillardière who published a book in 1800 of his experiences. Edward Duyker, author of Citizen Labillardière: A Naturalist’s Life in Revolution and Exploration (1755-1834), explores the impact of his pioneering work. Jacques-Julien Houtou de Labillardière’s Relation du voyage à la recherche de La Pérouse (1800) is a personal account of an attempt to solve a mystery which began in March 1788. After a five week sojourn–following up on James Cook’s discoveries, investigating reports of a new British colony and undertaking scientific work – the French explorer Jean-François Galaup de Lapérouse sailed out of Botany Bay, New South Wales, and was never seen again by Europeans. His disappearance was a matter of great national concern in France. Just before mounting the scaffold of the guillotine, Louis XVI is said to have asked: ‘Is there any news of M. de Lapérouse?’. In 1791, when the French National Assembly decided to send a rescue expedition, probably the first humanitarian mission on a global scale in world history, Admiral Antoine Raymond Joseph Bruny d’Entrecasteaux was chosen as the commander of its two ships: Recherche and Esperance (‘Search’ and ‘Hope’). We know now that Lapérouse’s expedition was wrecked off Vanikoro in the Solomon Islands. Although d’Entrecasteaux sailed very close to Vanikoro, he failed to discover the fate of Lapérouse and ultimately perished during the voyage. Nevertheless, his expedition made a number of significant geographical discoveries. In Tasmania these discoveries included Recherche Bay, the D’Entrecasteaux Channel (between the mainland and Bruny Island) and the estuaries of the Huon and Derwent Rivers. In Western Australia, d’Entrecasteaux discovered Esperance Bay and surveyed the Archipelago of the Recherche. He also discovered islands in the d’Entrecasteaux group off New Guinea and named and surveyed the Huon Peninsula. Furthermore, his expedition was of considerable significance in the history of geophysics, for it returned with the first survey of global magnetic intensity, proving that it strengthens away from the equator to both north and south. D’Entrecasteaux’s voyage also yielded significant natural history collections and ethnographic observations – including some of the earliest recorded observations of the Aboriginal people of Tasmania. The most valuable contributions in these areas was made by the naturalist Labillardière. His Relation du voyage à la recherche de La Pérouse – one of the classic works of French travel literature – published by the printer and bookseller H.-J. Jansen in the rue des Maçons, was accompanied by an atlas of impressive engravings based on sketches of scenes by Jean Piron, but also of plants by the great Pierre-Joseph Redouté and of birds by Jean-Baptiste Audebert. Labillardière’s Relation proved to be an international best seller. There were several French editions and in 1817 the Atlas was reprinted. Four English editions quickly appeared between 1800 and 1802, and German editions were published in Hamburg (1801) and Vienna (1804). Through his authorship of the Relation du voyage à la recherche de La Pérouse, Labillardière helped to usher the southern continent into the European imagination and may even have helped precipitate British pre-emptive settlement of Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania). Labillardière would also produce what in practical terms was the first published flora of Australia: the magnificent two-volume Novae Hollandiae plantarum specimen (1804–06) containing 265 copperplate engravings. Labillardière has the distinction of having named the floral emblems of Tasmania (Eucalyptus globulus) and Victoria (Epacris impressa), as well as the genus Anigozanthus to which the floral emblem of Western Australia belongs. Later he published the first flora of New Caledonia, Sertum austro-caledonicum (1824—1825), which unlike his earlier works was not organized on Linnean lines.

Born in Alençon, Normandy, in 1755, Labillardière was the son of a lace merchant. After studies at Alençon’s Collège Royale, he studied botany and medicine at Montpellier under Antoine Gouan (a correspondent of Linnaeus), Reims and then in Paris where he came under the influence of Louis-Guillaume Le Monnier, Professor of Botany at the Jardin du Roi. He visited England in 1783 and met Sir Joseph Banks. On his return to France, Labilllardière travelled in the Alps with Dominique Villars and later Carlo Antonio Bellardi. In 1787—8, with the assistance of Le Monnier and Foreign Minister Vergennes, he collected in Cyprus, Lebanon and Syria—travels which provided the foundations for his important early work on the botany of the Near East: Icones plantarum Syriae rariorum (1791—1812). He was selected to join d’Entrecasteaux’s expedition in 1791. Labillardière was a supporter of the French Revolution and was known for his difficult temperament. After the disintegration of the d’Entrecasteaux expedition, on royalist and republican lines in the Dutch East Indies, he suffered the indignity of internment and having his natural history specimens confiscated. Fortunately for posterity, these precious collections were returned through the gracious intervention of Sir Joseph Banks.

Although the Relation hints at sympathy for the ‘transmutationist’ ideas of Lamarck, Labillardière did not develop any evolutionary notions based on his field research­. Nevertheless, his books and articles had considerable taxonomic, systematic, biogeographic and morphological significance, and it was upon such foundations that later evolutionary ecology was built. In an age when the discovery of new species and genera was often seen as the apogee of botanical pursuit, Labillardière was accorded ample kudos. Even today, some fifty of the plant genera he established survive. However, in his Relation and in a number of scientific papers, Labillardière ventured beyond a mere cataloguing of nature. He had a strong interest in applied botany and his writings contain numerous observations on subjects such as timber, plant fibres, food crops and herbal pharmacology. They also include studies of significant aspects of animal behaviour and physiology. And aside from his commercial-military strategic perceptions — such as the advantages offered by the D’Entrecasteaux Channel for a trading maritime power, or the value of cultivating New Zealand flax for naval cordage – Labillardière’s applied observations often had enduring ethnological significance. Furthermore, as an ethnographer he attempted to apply empirical methods to record the customs and social structures of indigenous communities he encountered in Australia and the Pacific. Arguably his vocabularies of native languages, as keys to cultural understanding, also beg comparison with his systematic botanical descriptions, representing as they do a necessary ordering of the natural world on the threshold of modern ecological and evolutionary understanding. In the wake of Napoleon’s victories in Italy, Labillardière was appointed a special commissioner by the French government and to his discredit was involved in the plunder of Italian museums and libraries for France. In 1799 he married Marthe Goudes Desfriches, the twice-widowed daughter of a military surgeon, but they had no surviving children. He was elected a member of the Institut de France in 1800. Labillardière died in Paris on 9 January 1834 and is buried in Père Lachaise Cemetery. The English botanist Sir James Edward Smith named the genus Billardiera in his honour.




Edward Duyker is the author of Citizen Labillardière: A Naturalist’s Life in Revolution and Exploration (1755-1834), Miegunyah/Melbourne University Publishing, Melbourne, 2003. This biography won the New South Wales Premier’s General History Prize in 2004. He is Adjunct Professor of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Australian Catholic University, and Honorary Senior Lecturer in the Department of French Studies, University of Sydney. In 2007 he was elected a fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities.

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