The Graver’s Strife

Banner - copper engraving burin - First Folio Droeshout engraver

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

A couple of 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 almost tempted to reply, but this person wasn’t one of my followers, I didn’t want to be presumptuous. Dead poetic earls from the 16th century appearing unexpectedly in one’s timeline can be unsettling. I also wanted to illustrate my 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 my in-progress Flanders post to address this.

I cannot answer for everyone being shit at drawing, and the ‘drawing’ here is actually an engraving, grooves incised by sharp tools into a plate of copper (see the banner above for an example). But where Martin Droeshout’s skill as an artist is concerned, 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 Sly Boots 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 my post for 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
D43024, ©National Portrait Gallery, London

Droeshout engraving 02 Foxe - First Folio Droeshout engraver· John Foxe, Protestant martyrologist ·
line engraving, Martin Droeshout, 1620s-1630s
D25275, ©National Portrait Gallery, London

Droeshout engraving 04 GAdolphus - First Folio Droeshout engraver· Gustavus Adolphus, King of Sweden ·
line engraving, Martin Droeshout, 1631
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
D25948, ©National Portrait Gallery, London

Droeshout engraving 06 Howson - First Folio Droeshout engraver· John Howson, Bishop of Durham ·
line engraving, Martin Droeshout, 1630s
D19250, ©National Portrait Gallery, London

The images come from the National Portrait Gallery via this Creative Commons licence. I didn’t bother to dig up more of Droeshout’s work; these serve my purpose quite well enough.

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, their Shakspere bias is pervasive. The entry trashes Droeshout as a (literal) chiseler, and blames him as if he, personally, snuck his clumsy image of Willy into the book in some rogue act of literary sabotage.

The statement’s intent is to dismiss the embarrassing portrait, get it out of sight, turn the page as quickly as possible. Short-circuit any inquiry into why this large depiction of the nominal author, 156×188 mm, 6.1×7.4 in, staring at the reader from the title page of such an important and thoroughly planned publication, should be so obviously awful.

That is the question.

The First Folio of 1623 was no back-alley pamphlet cobbled together on a shoestring. It was a big, expensive, limited-edition, coffee-table art book, the first of its kind. A folio was an exceptional formatFolio comes from the Latin folium, meaning leaf. A folio was made by folding one large 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. Compare with a twice-folded quarto, half the size of a folio, which had four leaves, eight pages per printed sheet. Quarto pages had to be trimmed or sliced open after they were bound, hence the purpose of paper-knives., 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

The First Folios shown above and below are not the same copy. Folio specs vary because every set of sheets was bound to suit the purchaser’s preference and pocketbook. Some were cut smaller than others and there is no single standard, 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 kg, almost nine lbs. 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 other work far superior to the Folio engraving, and some of that work was done at and near the same time. Awful 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 warm-up.

Here is a transcription of the entire First Folio at Project Gutenberg. Or 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 too, 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, the husband of my youngest daughter Susan. Half of 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.

  • • 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.