The Graver’s Strife

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

The other day I ran across a tweet containing the iconic Droeshout image of Willy S, accompanied by a question:

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

I was tempted to jump in with a reply, but this chap wasn’t one of my followers and I didn’t want to be presumptuous. Dead poetic earls from the 16th century appearing without introduction in one’s timeline can be disconcerting. I also wanted to illustrate my point, 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 Flanders sweater to address the question. I cannot answer for everyone being shit at drawing, and the First Folio portrait is actually a copperplate engraving, but where Martin Droeshout’s skill is concerned I can at least help you to judge for yourself.

Here is the portrait on the title page of the 1623 First Folio. I dislike giving Willy this much face-space, but in this context it’s unavoidable.

I won’t discuss whether Droeshout has portrayed a man (or 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.

If it seems to you that Sly Boots Ben is telling us 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 the post for Ben’s unequivocal do-over: To the Reader. Try Again.

And then there are these.

· Mountjoy Blount, 1st Earl of Newport ·
line engraving, Martin Droeshout, c. 1618-1628
D43024, ©National Portrait Gallery, London

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

· Gustavus Adolphus, King of Sweden ·
line engraving, Martin Droeshout, 1631
D28555, ©National Portrait Gallery, London

· John Donne, poet and cleric ·
[in his death shroud, not a tamale costume]
line engraving, Martin Droeshout, 1633
D25948, ©National Portrait Gallery, London

· 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.

Unsourced and unattributed, this anonymous condemnation comes from Wikipedia. Quelle surprise. It dismisses Droeshout as a (literal) chiseler, and blames him as if he personally snuck Willy’s bad portrait into the book as an act of artistic vandalism. The statement’s intent is to discourage inquiry into why the portrait on the title page of such a thoroughly planned and exceptional volume should be so awful. The First Folio was no back-alley pamphlet slapped together on a shoestring budget. It was the large, expensive, limited-edition, coffee-table art book of its day.

Was Martin Droeshout the finest engraver ever? Hardly. I vote for Dürer. But what matters is that Droeshout did other work far superior to the Folio portrait, and some of that work was done at and near the same time.

If the above examples, or others you can find for yourself, convince you that Droeshout’s “work as a whole” is not clumsy, while Willy’s portrait is, it then becomes reasonable to conclude that the clumsiness was intentional. Droeshout produced what was desired by the people who hired him. If they hadn’t been happy with the result, that engraving would never have been used. It was, 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 book’s 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 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 and publishers. The more you know or can learn about Ben Jonson, the better. Think about the Folio’s significance in its own time. Read its dedication to the most noble and incomparable Herbert brothers, Bill and Phil, the Earls of Pembroke and Montgomery. They were the brother-in-law (Bill) and husband (Phil) of my youngest daughter, Susan. Do you choose to close your eyes to this connection, call it an irrelevant coincidence, sweep it under the rug? 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.

  • • There are several other First Folios online, beyond the ones mentioned above. Here’s a good starting place to find them []. Some are easier to deal with than others. Nice work, much appreciated, Ms Werner.
  • • A couple of years ago I got within a pane of what I assumed was bulletproof glass’s proximity to a First Folio, when I took the photograph of the book shown above. I told the tale in my post 393 Years of Printing: Plays to Pancakes on a Pilgrimage. My phantom fingers still ache to turn those pages.
  • • If you’d like to see what some (other) noteworthy 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, but the whole thing is worth the read.