Early Modern Studies Research Visual Thinking

Presence and Absence: Visual Artifacts and Cultural Memory

I’ve been thinking a lot lately (all right, again) about transmission of visual artifacts in early modern England and how access – and lack thereof – would have informed perceptions of place and people. I’m not sure where I want to go with this, but here are three examples of what’s swirling in my head:

Screenshot of a panel from Saxton's Atlas (Hartforshire)
Screenshot of a panel from Saxton’s Atlas (Hartforshire)

Screenshot of a panel from Saxton's Atlas (Hartforshire)
Screenshot of a panel from Saxton’s Atlas (Hartforshire)
1) Christopher Saxton’s Atlas of the Counties of England and Wales: as I continue to think about ways in which Londoners would have perceived England in the late 16th century, and how that perception might have had an impact on how the Queen’s Men might have planned their regional tours, I’ve been looking at scans of Saxton’s Atlas. While I wait for the high res scans to arrive from the Folger (yay!) it’s important for me to remember that access to this atlas would have been incredibly limited – I believe only some one thousand copies were printed – and the odds that a Queen’s Man would have been able to consult such an atlas would have been remote. So the atlas as an artifact is really only a weird semiotic imposition of modern understanding of space upon an early modern and very personal imagined England. At best it can suggest how a traveler might have thought about and anticipated topography at the point of planning for a trip. How might he have accounted for forests along the route (gone through or around)? Would he have considered a route as a direct line between contractual engagements, or would he have envisioned that space as one to negotiate more fully by thinking about potential – and potentially lucrative – performance opportunities at towns and private homes more generally along the way? The artifact was certainly less valuable to *him* than to me (I’m going to find Boot Hall if it kills me!) But what does its existence, and its role in propagandistic Elizabethan nation-building, tell us about the relationship between place and imagined or envisioned space?

2) Henry VIII, theatre, and portraiture: One could argue that my dissertation was predicated on discovery of this image:

Title page from Samuel Rowley’s “When You See Me You Know Me,” 1613 edition

Back in 2005, in Kathy Acheson’s Early Modern Visual Rhetoric course, I dug up the title page of When You See Me You Know Me and proposed that the representation of iconic Henry VIII was associated in some way with performance because of the suggestion of a stage (drapes, floor boards), and that it might suggest a mode of characterization for the actor playing Henry (similarly, David Nicol proposed that the woodcut on the title page of The World Toss’d at Tennis featured the members of the Prince’s Men troupe, and that the character of Simplicity, performed by William Rowley – Samuel’s brother – was identifiable because of his fat legs.1 Kathy quickly disabused me of any idea that the When You See Me .. woodcut could have been directly related to the play’s performance for two reasons: (1) that the incorporation of drapery was a widely-used convention for portraiture, and (2) that this image of the iconic Henry had been circulating across genre in popular print since the painting of Holbein’s series of portraits of Henry.

The Walker Portrait, painted by an unknown artist after Hans Holbein the Younger.

And so Henry VIII did not make it into my dissertation (although I think he made a surreptitious appearance in my introduction). But here’s the thing: this painting, and several others, were derivative of the dynastic Tudor mural at Whitehall Palace, which was destroyed when the Palace burned down in the 17th century. The mural would most likely have hung in the Privy Chamber, and a curator at the National Museums Liverpool asserts that “the artist had access to the designs or patterns used by Holbein. This explains the strong similarities between the Walker portrait and the Whitehall mural.”2 But if the mural was in the Privy Chamber, and the Walker Portrait was commissioned by a courtier (most probably to be hung in a private home), how did the Holbein pose make its way into the public visual lexicon? Were Holbein’s cartoons for the mural published (in other words, the rough sketches for the mural)? What cultural capitol would this particular pose hold for a contemporary public, let alone one that was consuming printed images 80 years later? Why is this image invoked along with a play title that so clearly associates sight and recognition … that the audience will recognize Henry in the play by his appearance as a fat, overly confident middle-aged man?3 And how did this particular pose become so burned into our cultural memory that it is all but impossible to think today of Henry without associating him with this pose?

A woodcut of Richard Tarlton, wearing his distinctive clown’s costume and performing one of his theams with pipe and drum.

3) Richard Tarlton and The Three Lords and Three Ladies of London: In case you haven’t noticed, I think about Tarlton a lot. I’ve given papers on the relationship between Tarlton’s distinctive mode of clowning and how visual representations resonated for Londoners for decades after his death (Scottowe’s Alphabet, the woodcuts affixed to several editions of Tarlton’s Jests, possibly the costume and pose of the Miles character in the 1638 edition of Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay – not to mention stories about a Tarltonesque figure on Shoreditch pub signs and on jakes doors (!) into the 18th century. Tarlton therefore served as a unique nexus for theatre and performance, popular print, and societal engagement for well over 100 years. The best example of this is the intertextual, metatheatrical scene in The Three Lords and Three Ladies of London. A close reading of the play reveals an extended eulogistic reference to Tarlton as a superlative humorist and citizen of the City, “O it was a fine fellow as ere was borne, there will neuer come his like while the earth can corne. O passing fine Tarlton I would thou hadst lived yet.” This is spoken by Simplicity, a ballad-seller who is accosted by several young pages who engage him in a game of wits while Simplicity tries to sell them his wares. If Richard Tarlton played Simplicity in the play’s 1583 prequel The Three Lords of London (c. 1583), and this play was performed after his death in 1588 (but no later than 1590, when it was published), then this reference made by an actor in the Queen’s Men company (of which Tarlton was the lead member) teases out a sort of popular grief shared between actors and audience. But where the intertextuality really comes into play is when Simplicity asks one of the pages, “wil you buy this picture for your Lord?” In the printed play text, this request is followed immediately by the stage direction “Shew Tarltons picture.” 4 In an essay I’m writing on the Tarlton Project and how these types of engagements enhance our understanding of forms of popular entertainment in the late 16th and early 17th century, I posit that this does more than acknowledge the variety of modes of communication at the time. If the original production was performed using a facsimile of a broadside ballad incorporating a recognizable image of Tarlton, this production element becomes a piece of metatheatre that effectively and seamlessly links the theatre and the ballad in a mutually beneficial relationship rather than a confrontational one.

And with that, Dear Reader, I’m off to play in the fields of purely textual collation.


  1. “The Title-Page of The World Tossed at Tennis: A Portrait of a Jacobean Playing Company?” Notes and Queries, June 2006, 158-9.
  2. About the Artwork.” National Museums Liverpool website.
  3. 17th century theatre goers were not unaccustomed to such forms of meta-cultural invocation: The King’s Men were supposed to have purchased Conde de Gondomar’s distinctive black clothing and sedan chair and used them to great effect in their production of A Game at Chess at the Globe; the allegorical representation of Gondomar as the Black Knight was brought home for audiences through this visual identification.
  4. Transcribed from the 1590 edition available on Early English Books Online.

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