Mercurius Politicus

A blog (mostly) about early modern history

Category: art

From bullets to stones: the history of a woodcut

This woodcut is from the title page of A dog’s elegy, or, Rupert’s tears (London, 1644), and is probably familiar to anyone who knows about the life of Prince Rupert:

The woodcut shows Prince Rupert’s dog, Boye, being shot in a hail of bullets at Marston Moor as a witch stands by his side. Boye was reputed in various earlier pamphlets to have magical powers and to be impervious to shot, and his death did not escape the notice of London’s writers.

This particular account of Boye’s death was printed on 27 July 1644 by an unknown printer for the bookseller G. B. This may have been George Badger, based in St Dunstan’s near Fleet Street.

The woodcut must have been commissioned specifically for the pamplet, since it reproduces various details in the text such as beanfields, the city of York, and the witch who is alleged to have given birth to the dog.

Despite this, the image of the soldier may not be as new as it seems. A chance conversation on Twitter with Sir James Pennyman (@HistoryNeedsYou), a reenactor from Sir William Pennyman’s regiment, revealed a couple of details that I would never have spotted.

First, the musketeer’s helmet is a morion: a type of crested helmet common amongst foot soldiers in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. By the 1640s this was starting to become slightly old-fashioned, although it was still used by many soldiers in the civil wars and examples of surviving morions from the period do seem to exist. Nevertheless, it is a clue that all may not be as it seems with the image.

However, the big giveaway according to Sir James is that the musketeer is left handed and has his bandolier on back to front. If he fired in that position it would probably blind him or at the very least leave him burned. What seems most likely is that the artist has traced the image from another, earlier print onto the block, and it has been flipped into a mirror image when printed. Either he didn’t know enough about military equipment to spot the error, or he needed to produce an image of a soldier at short notice and speed, rather than accuracy, was his paramount consideration.

I haven’t yet been able to trace an original from which the artist may have copied this image. What I have traced, however, is a subsequent reworking of the image. This collage of woodcuts appeared thirty-seven years later in Strange and wonderful news from Yowel in Surry (London, 1681):

Printed for a bookseller called John Clarke, the pamphlet told the story of Joan Butts, who was alleged to be a witch and to have harrassed Elizabeth Burgess and her master Mr Tuers in Ewell in Surrey. The story starts in 1680 with a young girl called Mary Farborough who sickened and died. Meanwhile Joan called at the home of Mr Tuers begging for a pair of gloves but was turned away. Shortly afterwards lumps of clay flew from Elizabeth’s back and stones, dishes and candlesticks threw themselves at her. In 1682 Joan was put on trial but found not guilty: her fate thereafter is unknown.

What is interesting is how this pamphlet was able to be reworked. The witch on the left is Butts, and the bullets have become stones. None of the other details really match, but the parts that do have been deemed sufficient. The other woodcuts it’s been teamed with look like standard stock illustrations for ballads, although I haven’t yet been able to trace any of them. Intriguingly, the illustration are all on the inside front cover, not the title page. Instead, the title page is taken up with a lengthy précis of the contents. So they are not designed to draw the reader’s eye when on the bookstand. Perhaps they were there to clinch a sale for the browsing reader, or were being used to fill an otherwise empty page.

Where I draw a blank is how the woodcut came to be knocking around thirty-seven years later. Were the two pamphlets produced by the same printer? Was the block passed around printers or inherited by a junior partner in the business? At this point there is nothing I can find that gives any clues.

Recycled woodcuts, part 3

I have blogged in a couple of previous posts (1, 2) about the reuse of woodcuts by mid-seventeenth century printers and booksellers. Various names appear in both posts: printers like Jane Coe, Bernard Alsop and Thomas Harper, and booksellers like John Greensmith and  Thomas Bates. Inspired by Gavin Robinson’s recent post reconstructing the life and allegiance of a London merchant of the same period, I thought it might be interesting to post about the lives of a couple of these figures in more detail. Doing so can tell us a surprising amount about why woodcuts were being recycled at this time.

Thomas Bates was a bookseller based in Bishop’s Court in the Old Bailey. A number of the pamphlets he sold reused woodcuts. His date of birth is unclear, but he was made free from his apprenticeship in 1619, which if he served the typical length of time would put his birth date around 1595. He was apprenticed to Michael Sparke, who would later go on to publish the books of the religious radical and martyr William Prynne. Before doing so, however, he seems to have spent some time in the 1610s as a journeyman, travelling the country selling his wares. Through this he was intimately linked to wider networks of chapmen and pedlars.

Sparke’s early career, and his later willingness to publish books no other bookseller would take on, may be significant to the choices that Bates made in his own career. By the 1640s, Bates was the member of a partnership of three booksellers: the other two members were Thomas Banks and Francis Coules, also based in the Old Bailey. Their typical product was the short, eight-page quarto pamphlet, often satirical or scandalous, and illustrated with a woodcut on the frontispiece. This kind of pamphlet was quick and cheap to print, and was clearly a popular product. As church and Parliamentary censorship waned during the 1630s then broke down in 1641, hundreds of pamphlets in this genre were produced.

The products the three partners sold may owe something to their links to the ballad trade. Ballads are exactly the kind of books that are likely to have been a staple of Michael Sparke’s sales as he travelled round the country. Bates’s links to his partners may well have come from the networks and knowledge that his master built up during this period. A more definite link can be determined with Francis Coules. He was the oldest of the three and, earlier in his career, he had along with Henry Gosson and Edward Wright been the junior member of a partnership of booksellers who had gradually bought up the copyright to popular broadside ballads. As the partners built up their stock of ballads, they also seem to have developed new methods of marketing them. During the sixteenth century, woodcut illustration was unusual: only one fifth of surviving ballads were illustrated. Slowly, the ballad partners began to change this. By 1640, five out of six surviving ballads were illustrated.

It seems likely that some link can be traced between the woodcuts used to illustrate such ballads and the pamphlets that Bates, Coules and Banks were selling. Selling satirical pamphlets in the early 1640s was not without its risks. All three were summoned to appear before Parliament at various points and Bates seems, according to various sources, to have served some time in prison on at least two occasions. However, Bates’s stock seems to have spanned a reasonably wide range of religious and political positions. Profit, not politics, was probably his primary motivation: and it is here that using illustrated title pages makes sense. In an increasingly saturated market, illustrated frontispieces stood out, and probably sold well. Indeed the amount of pamphlets with illustrations entirely unconnected to their content suggest that any illustration enhanced the selling-power of books. In that sense, the pamphlets on sale in Bates’s shop are the legacy of a trend that began with ballads.

But Bates and his partners were faced with a tension to resolve. They needed their books to stand out, and for that they needed illustrations: the fresher and more eye-catching, the better. But they also needed to preserve their bottom line. It is very difficult to reconstruct costs and profits for printers and booksellers without any sources, but here is a very rough and indicative attempt to do so, which at least may give an idea of the sort of margins Bates would have been working under. Booksellers in this period were typically the “undertaker” for pamphlets: which is to say they put up the capital, paid the printer, and took the risk if books didn’t sell.

  • The cheapest paper – ‘pot paper’ – sold in the 1620s for between 3s. 4d. and 4s.6d. a ream. A ream contained 500 sheets, and an eight-page quarto pamphlet was made from one sheet. Thus one ream would have supplied 500 copies of the books Bates was typically selling.
  • Print runs at this time are also hard to estimate, but the limitations of presses and working practices at this time suggest runs somewhere between 250 – 1,500 copies for a short quarto book. If we assume a very high print run of 1,000 copies, two reams would be needed to provide the paper. That suggests a cost of about 10s.
  • Paper was between half and three quarters of the cost of a book, so the cost to Bates’s printers for an unillustrated book might have been about 20s.
  • The printer would then have sold his work to Bates. In 1655, John Sturgeon paid the radical printer Richard Moone 40s. for 1,000 copies of A Short Discovery of his Highness the Lord Protector’s Intentions. Whether this is a good comparison is hard to say. In both cases the printer would have been producing works that put him at some risk, but the risks during the Protectorate were probably rather higher. If we assume a lower price of, say, 30s., that still allows for some profit to the printer.
  • Bates also needed to make a profit. Again, estimating book prices accurately at this period is very hard, but assuming his eight-page quartos sold for 1d., that would mean potential revenue of £4, and a potential gross profit of £2 10s. This is of course a best-case scenario, assuming that every copy of a relatively high print-run sold.
  • Net profit, after deducting operational costs of running a bookshop, is even harder to estimate so I won’t attempt it here.

Adding a freshly-cut woodcut to this process would inevitably have eaten into the margins of printers and booksellers. Assuming the printer absorbed the cost, he would have passed it on to the bookseller. So you can imagine discussions between the bookseller (who would generally have owned the copyright), the printer and the author about whether to use a woodcut, and if so whether to reuse an old one. If Bates had money to spare, he might have decided to get the printer to commission a bespoke woodcut. If cash was tight, he might have asked for an old to be reused. It’s possible that some woodcuts, like those with “speech bubbles” left blank, were designed to fulfil both purposes.

Amongst the printers that Bates used was Bernard Alsop. He had been apprenticed to Humphrey Lympenny in 1601, then transferred in 1603 to the mastership of William White. By 1616 he had gone into partnership with Thomas Creed, who seems to have either retired or died the next year. Alsop inherited his press, type and ornaments, and was still using them in the 1640s: Creed had already got good use out of them, so by the outbreak of the civil wars they were getting pretty tired. Indeed Alsop’s work is often identifiable by reuse of a small number of ornaments (perhaps the only ones still in good condition), or by particularly worn type.

In 1626 Alsop went into partnership with Thomas Fawcett, and together they published a number of literary works by the playwrights Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher, the poet and playwright Thomas Dekker, and the writer Robert Greene; as well as numerous religious books. In 1641, though, their surviving output starts to change. They still published big, literary works by authors such as Ben Jonson. But they also started picking up a number of short satirical quarto pamphlets of exactly the kind sold by Thomas Bates. Like Bates, they also started to get into trouble with the authorities and were hauled before Parliament a number of time for printing scandalous texts. Their poor quality type and sloppy workmanship may have made it somewhat easier for the authorities to identify their works. They also moved into publishing newsbooks – typically one or two sheet quartos – as they were invented in 1641 and then became popular in the subsequent years.

What prompted this switch in their output is not clear. Perhaps it is symptomatic of wider changes in the tastes of the reading public, perhaps it was where the money was. But you can easily imagine Alsop being concerned to protect his profits, and fighting his own corner with booksellers: trying to recycle a woodcut commissioned by one bookseller for the book of another, while still charging as much as he could get away with. Equally, booksellers may have demanded that he use specific woodcuts. The famous picture of a preacher in a tub that inspired this series of posts may have generated good sales, and prompted rival booksellers to request it for their pamphlets as well.

So little trace of this kind of commercial back-and-forth survives that we can only guess at what negotations took place between printers like Alsop and booksellers like Bates. What does seem clear, though, is that a complicated set of personal, commercial, political, or religious transactions lay behind the use of every woodcut. Looking at the lives of Alsop and Bates gives at least a sliver of insight into what those transactions may have been.

The illustrations to this post are woodcuts by the Swiss artist Jost Amman, depicting a woodcut artist, a printer and a bookbinder respectively, and taken from his Das Ständebuch (1568).

Recycled woodcuts, part 2

A while ago I posted about a woodcut of a nonconformist preacher, which was reused for five different pamphlets in 1641. There I wondered whether the recycling of the woodcut could be explained by two printers, Bernard Alsop and Thomas Fawcett, trying to recoup the investment they had put into commissioning the woodcut.

There are many examples of woodcuts being recycled in this way during the 1640s and 1650s. Here for example is the frontispiece to The Wrens nest defil’d (London, 1640):

Here is a slightly different version from Articles ministred by His Majesties Commissioners (London, 1641):

This is a good example of a woodcut which was designed to be used more than once. The speech bubbles could be filled with type and modified to suit the content of each pamphlet for which the woodcut was used. In the first version, the ecclesiastical figure on the left is Bishop Wren. In the second, the figure up the ladder is John Gwin, vicar of Cople in Bedford. The bird-like noise he is making, punning on his name, is an extension of the many bird-related jokes against Wren and Finch that appear in print in the early 1640s.

Here is one of Alsop and Fawcett’s woodcuts, from A new play called Canterburie his change of diot (London, November 1641):

Shortly after being used in this way the woodcut also appeared, despite bearing little resemblance to the pamphlet’s subject matter, in A Prophecy concerning the earle of Essex (London, December 1641):

It then appeared again in The Welsh-mans propositions to the Arch-Bishop of Yorke (London, 3 August 1646):

Again it had very little to do with the pamphlet’s contents. Recycling in this way perhaps suggest that illustrations helped to sell pamphlets. In a saturated marketplace, they may have helped to catch the customer’s eye while hanging up in the book stall, and would have stood out compared to titles with densely packed text on their front page.

What is interesting about this woodcut is that it remained unused, so far as we can tell, for five years before being dug out and put to use again. It suggests that printers were happy to store woodcuts for long periods of time, in case they could be used again. Five years was by no means the shortest time a woodcut stayed on a shelf before being taken down and covered with ink once more. Below is a woodcut from the title page of A Nest of serpents discovered (London, September 1641):

Nine years later the same woodcut, slightly modified, appeared on the front of The ranters religion (London, 11 December 1650). Adamites had become Ranters:

But this was not the only time this image was reused. It also appeared on the front of A sermon preached the last fast day in Leaden-Hall Street (London, 4 March 1643):

And it appeared as well on the front of Love one another (London, 25 December 1642):

The continuity between imagined sectarian others, over nearly a decade, is not the only interesting thing about this woodcut. Another intriguing aspect is the fact that, at first sight, it does not seem to have stayed with the same printer. On the second page of A Nest of serpents is a woodcut initial of the letter T.  A similar T also appears in A sermon preached. A very similar T appears in The apprentices warning-piece (London, October 1641), whose title page declared it to be printed and sold by Henry Walker:

Meanwhile The ranters religion had a different letter T. This is the same woodcut initial used in A discovery of the notorious proceedings of William Laud (London, 15 October 1641) – also printed and sold by Henry Walker.

A Nest of serpents could, possibly, be a Walker product. The subject matter is not really something one would associate with him, but he was running an illicit press during the second half of 1641 so could have printed it for someone else purely to make money. However, A sermon preached seems unlikely given that its author was Walker’s enemy John Taylor. And The ranters religion is almost certainly not his. By 1650 Walker had made the shift into newsbook writing and was involved with editing various titles, principally Severall Proceedings.

So what is going on here? I can think of two possibilities. One is that Walker sold his stock, and by 1650 bits of his equipment were being used elsewhere. But I think it’s more likely that Walker didn’t properly “own” a press in 1641 at all, and was borrowing or buying use of one but claiming on his frontispieces that it was his.

Instead, I suspect the woodcuts all belonged to Bernard Alsop. The ranters religion was the first of many anti-Ranter pamphlets that appeared over a short period in 1650 and 1651. Alsop was responsible for many of them, which followed a similar pattern of an eight-page quarto illustrated on the front with a vivid woodcut. Here for example is the woodcut from Alsop’s The routing of the ranters (London, 19 November 1650):

Here is his woodcut from The Ranters Ranting (London, 2 December 1650). This was subsequently cut into four pieces and used to illustrate the pages of Strange Newes from Newgate (London, 21 January 1651):

Here is his The arraignment and tryall with a declaration of the Ranters (London, 17 December 1650), incidentally reusing an eight-year old woodcut from Three speeches, being such speeches as the like were never spoken in the city (London, 9 October 1642):

Given this flurry of similar anti-Ranter publications, it seems plausible that The ranters religion, with its recycled woodcut of Adamites, was also an Alsop production. As you can see, Alsop had a track record not just in making creative re-use of woodcuts, but in storing them up “just in case”. In 1641 he was, together with his partner Thomas Fawcett, one of the printers Henry Walker made extensive use of. I have traced 24 pamphlets that were definitely or probably written by Walker during 1641.By matching printers’ ornaments and type with title pages that do record names of printers, and with House of Lords archives on the prosecution of various authors and printers during 1641, I have worked out that Alsop and Fawcett were involved with at least seven of them. Walker himself claimed on title pages to have printed five more. If these were actually Alsop and Fawcett productions as well, passed off for whatever reason by Walker as his own, then it gives us an interesting insight into how Walker may have been publishing pamphlets during the early 1640s.

There are also examples of printers apparently sharing woodcuts. Here is the title woodcut from The ranters declaration (London, 17 December 1650):

This was printed by “J. C.”, probably Jane Coe. She had taken over her husband Andrew’s business after his death in 1644.

The same block gets reused six months later in The Declaration  of John Robins (London, 2 June 1651):

And yet this was printed by Robert Wood rather than Jane Coe. It then turns up with a third printer, George Horton in The Quakers dream: or the Devil’s pilgrimage in England (London, 1655):

Horton is one of the printers involved in another circulating woodcut that originated with Coe. In 1646 Coe printed A Declaration of a strange and Wonderfull Monster: Born in Kirkham Parish in Lancashire (London, 1646), with a rather wonderful woodcut:

This then turns up six years later in 1652, retooled as an anti-Ranter woodcut in George Horton’s The ranters monster (London, 30 March 1652). As you can see the quality of the block has deteriorated somewhat in the interim:

The circulation of woodcuts in this way hints at a complicated set of relationships between printers in this period. They were commercial rivals, yet they also operated within a very small world and must surely have known one another. Maybe wood blocks were lent as a favour; maybe they were rented out for a fee; maybe they were sold.

The Hampton Court Letter, being a reply to The Epsom Ladys Answer

I came across this fun early eighteenth-century rebus earlier on this evening while searching the British Museum database for something else:

AN354005001, © The Trustees of the British Museum

Here is a translation from the BM catalogue. If you have any ideas what the sentence starting with two maids means then you are clearly much cleverer than me:

Glorious lady, Your rebus deciphered does inform that benign stars ordain happiness, to recompense noble flames. Your heart shall be mine I understand you well. Those eyes assure what your tongue should utter, belie not your sole, or I undermine your heart: maids madden[?] refuse but take it. Madam believe your fortune made; my income can bear a coach and six, which all the world knows. When wedlock joins hands then O! for your beauty. Your loving obedient meanest servant, signed, sealed, delivered before Henry Smith.

This seems to have been part of a series of prints: the first from the “Tunbridge Beau”, the second a response from the “Epsom Lady”, the third this one, and the fourth the answer of the “Country Assembly”. Unfortunately the only other image I have tracked down is the fourth and final part of the series:

Translation (again, would welcome any thoughts on the uncertain sections):

Vain pragmaticall man, The style and assurance of your epistle shows you a daring bogtrotter, what earnest of ye lady’s heart could induce you to fancy your famous party and as you believe handsome overtures would be cordially received. You are a great bear for your pains, too [knave paired?] and lunatic, [straw bed, owl] pottage, Bedlam, and iron bars is what you want; [urinal/flask?] clothes her hatred, esteemed nor regarded of a [?]. The Tonbridge rake that begun this folly is a danmed liar and prevaricator, two nonesuch violents not to be uttered on a spinster, a welshman but she made address to defend herself and waived entering fool’s paradise so ridiculously. On that he charitably belies Mr J-n nobody knows wherefor, but ye scandal would not stick. Ye post stays so I can only beg you repent be content confess your treacheries and we shall become your admirers. To show [basket?], Abel Burnet, Martin Palfrey, Millicent Fane, Rose Cage, Bridget Cooper.

All four in the series were published by Andrew Johnston, a printmaker based at the Golden Eagle in Old Round Court off the Strand. He seems to have mostly sold engraved and etched portraits, but clearly fads like these rebuses could also prove a useful money-spinner.

It is I

In mid-May 1653, a man pulled up at the Royal Exchange in a carriage, got out, and fixed a portrait of Oliver Cromwell onto the wall. The picture was titled ‘It is I’, and along with Cromwell’s coat of arms had this poetic inscription:

Ascend three thrones great Captain and Divine
By the will of Go (o Lion) for they are thine.
Come priest of God, bring oyle, bring robes, & gold
Bring crownes and sceptres, itts now high time, unfold
Your cloistered baggs, your state chests, lest the rod
Of steele & iron of the King of God
Chastise you all its wrath, then kneel and pray
To Oliver the torch of Zion starre of day.
Then shout O merchants, Citty and Gentry sing.
Let all men bare-head cry, God save the King.

Eighteenth-century sources say that the portrait was quickly taken down and taken to the Lord Mayor, who in turn took it to Cromwell. They claim that the Lord Mayor was apparently worried about Cromwell’s reaction, but that Cromwell laughed it off and told him not to worry about such trifles.

Whether or not Cromwell’s reaction is a true story, the portrait itself was undoubtedly real. Despite the relatively small number of people who would have seen the portrait before it was taken down, it managed to reach a much wider audience. The verses were copied down and circulated in manuscript: variations of the poem survive in the Clarendon, Folger, Rawlinson, Tanner and Harleian manuscript collections, and in George Thomason’s collection of manuscript ephemera (which is where the version above is taken from). It also prompted a satirical response in the form of another manuscript poem, including these verses:

Antichrists three Crownes, for they are thyne
To which we wish thee three Headds like Cerberus grim
For thou art fiend enough to be like him.
Ansd to each Head a face took, wish we thee,
For thou hast Nose enough for them all three.

My image is an engraving of Oliver Cromwell by Richard Gaywood after Pierre Lombart and Robert Walker, published by Peter Stent in the late 1650s: AN403221001, © The Trustees of the British Museum.