The Graver’s Strife

Banner - copper engraving burin - First Folio Droeshout engraver

· 26 April 2019 ·
[Was Martin Droeshout a lousy engraver?]

A few days ago I ran across someone on Twitter asking a perceptive question about Martin Droeshout’s First Folio image of Willy Shax:

Inspirational tweets re Droeshout engraving on Willy's birthday 2019

How come the writing was so good
back in Shakespeare’s day, but
everyone was shit at drawing?

I was tempted to reply, but the asker wasn’t one of my followers, and dead poetic earls from the 16th century appearing at random in one’s timeline can be unsettling. I also wanted to answer in some detail, and Twitter is no good for that. It’s why I began this blog in the first place. So I’m taking a short break from writing about Flanders, to address this.

I can’t speak for everyone being shit at drawing, and the drawing here is an engraving, grooves incised by sharp tools into a plate of copper (see the post banner for an example). But concerning Martin Droeshout’s skill as an artist, I can at least help you to judge for yourself.

Here’s a better image of the engraving. I dislike giving Willy this much space (that cetaceous forehead, those guilty eyes), but in this context it’s unavoidable.

Martin Droeshout First Folio title page - clumsy engraving of Willy

I won’t discuss whether Droeshout has portrayed a man (or a woman) wearing a mask, or whether the doublet has two left arms, or if the odd collar might be an inverted heraldic shield, and why does he have no neck, and so on. There is plenty of conjectural analysis out there. My interest is general: beyond doubt, this is a clumsy portrait.

I have written previously about Ben Jonson’s little poem which faces the engraving.

First Folio preface To the Reader by Ben Jonson - First Folio Droeshout engraver

If it seems that Slyboots Ben is telling you more than just what the words say, you aren’t the first to so intuit. Jonson’s ambiguous praise for Droeshout’s dubious cartoon is the point. See Ben’s less inscrutable do-over: To the Reader. Try Again.

And then there are these.

Droeshout engraving 01 Blount - First Folio Droeshout engraver· Mountjoy Blount, 1st Earl of Newport ·
line engraving, Martin Droeshout, c. 1618-1628
74×116 mm, 2.8×4.6 in
D43024, ©National Portrait Gallery, London

Droeshout engraving 02 Foxe - First Folio Droeshout engraver· John Foxe, Protestant martyrologist ·
line engraving, Martin Droeshout, 1620s-1630s
105×160 mm, 4.1×6.3 in
D25275, ©National Portrait Gallery, London

Droeshout engraving 04 GAdolphus - First Folio Droeshout engraver· Gustavus Adolphus, King of Sweden ·
line engraving, Martin Droeshout, 1631
105×170 mm, 4.1×6.8 in
D28555, ©National Portrait Gallery, London

Droeshout engraving 05 Donne - First Folio Droeshout engraver· John Donne, poet and cleric ·
[in his death shroud, not a tamale costume]
line engraving, Martin Droeshout, 1633
107×162 mm, 4.3×6.4 in
D25948, ©National Portrait Gallery, London

Droeshout engraving 06 Howson - First Folio Droeshout engraver· John Howson, Bishop of Durham ·
line engraving, Martin Droeshout, 1630s
158×218 mm, 6.3×8.6 in
D19250, ©National Portrait Gallery, London

Droeshout - Winter, lots of parsnips· Winter, from the series The Four Seasons ·
line engraving, Martin Droeshout, 1620s
195×138 mm, 7.7×5.4 in
1870,0514.1171, ©Trustees, British Museum, London
[oven-roasted parsnips are delicious]

Consider this statement:


Droeshout’s artistic abilities are typically
regarded as limited. The Shakespeare portrait
shares many clumsy features with
Droeshout’s work as a whole.

Unattributed and unsourced, this anonymous condemnation comes from Wikipedia’s entry for Martin Droeshout. Quelle surprise. Wikipedia’s Stratfordian editorial bias is blatant and pervasive. The entry trashes Droeshout as a literal chiseler, and blames him as if he, personally, snuck his Clumsy Willy into the book in a rogue act of literary sabotage.

Whoever wrote the statement wants to dismiss the portrait, get it out of sight, turn the page on it as quickly as possible, and get you to do the same. Short-circuit thoughtful inquiry into why this large (6.1×7.4 in, 156×188 mm) depiction of the nominal author on the title page of such an important publication should be so obviously awful.

That is the question.

The 1623 First Folio was no back-alley effort cobbled together on a shoestring. It was the work of many hands, a thoroughly planned, expensive, limited-edition art book, the first of its kind. FoliosFolio comes from the Latin folium, meaning leaf. A folio was made by folding one sheet of paper in half after both sides were printed in the press. The result was two leaves, four printed pages. In book terms, a folio was a bound assembly of these once-folded sheets. were big, and the format was usually reserved for religious and reference works. If you owned one at all it was probably the family Bible. My Geneva Bible, hidden away at the Folger, is a folio.

First Folio open to preface and title page

Folio specs vary because each set of sheets was cut and bound to suit the purchaser’s preference and pocketbook. Some have narrower margins than others, but a reasonable average for the page dimensions would be 21×33 cm, 8.25×13 in. About 900 pages (half that many leaves), weighing somewhere around four kilos, almost nine pounds. It’s a massive book.

First Folio open to Hamlet display image

Was Martin Droeshout the finest engraver ever? My vote goes to Dürer. What matters here is that Droeshout did work far superior to the Folio engraving, and some of that work was done at and near the same time. Clumsy Willy was an anomaly.

Once you’ve done your homework as we just have, and you see for yourself that Droeshout’s “work as a whole” is not clumsy while only the First Folio engraving is, it becomes reasonable to conclude that the one-off clumsiness was intentional. Directed, even. Droeshout was a hired hand who produced what was desired by the people who employed and paid him. If they hadn’t been happy with the result, his copper plate would never have seen ink and paper. It did, ergo they were.

How you interpret Droeshout can assist you in interpreting Jonson, and vice versa. Jonson contributed both To the Reader and a lengthy elegy, To the Memory of my Beloved, The AUTHOR, etc, also found in the preface. To the Reader was just his warmup.

Project Gutenberg has a transcribed First Folio. You can leaf through and download images from the Bodleian’s copy, the one I used to measure the engraving. The Internet Archive has one posted with a colour PDF and high-res JP2 files. There are others online as well, see the note below. The internet is a gift.

Look with open eyes and mind at the First Folio as a whole. Think about its format, its purpose, its market, its producers. The more you can learn about Ben Jonson, the better. Think about the Folio’s significance in its own time. Read its dedication to Bill and Phil Herbert, The Most Noble And Incomparable Paire Of Brethren, Earls of (respectively) Pembroke and Montgomery. Phil was my son-in-law, husband of my youngest daughter Susan. Half the playsThe Tempest, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Measure for Measure, The Comedy of Errors, As You Like It, The Taming of the Shrew, All’s Well That Ends Well, Twelfth Night, The Winter’s Tale, King John, Henry VI Part 1, Henry VIII, Coriolanus, Timon of Athens, Julius Caesar, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, and Cymbeline. in the book had never been published before. Do you choose to call this an irrelevant coincidence, close your eyes to it, turn the page? Many people do, but you don’t have to be one of them.

Looke Not on the Picture, but the Booke. That’s when it gets interesting. And the plays aren’t bad either.

  • •   The five Droeshout engraving images from the National Portrait Gallery are used under a BY-NC-ND 3.0 Creative Commons licence, while the one from the British Museum is used under BY-NC-SA 4.0.
  • •   If you’d like to see what some Oxfordians have to say about the First Folio, download the following PDF from the SOF. I note pages 69-87, First Folio Fraud by Katherine Chiljan, and 89-93, “Bestow, When and How You List”: The de Veres and the 1623 Folio by Roger Stritmatter in particular. The whole thing is worth the read, though I’m not fond of the title. Minority status is irrelevant. Alternative would have been the better word.

VERO NIHIL VERIUS