Eighteenth-Century Media Landscapes

So since this is the first post on this blog, it should attempt to lay out some of the ideas that motivate this whole venture, right? Well, here goes:

It was this amazing eighteenth-century design for a fan that first caught my attention:

(© The Trustees of the British Museum)

It is always special when something as brittle and delicate as a fan has survived for that long, but I was really struck by the design on this particular fan for the variety of media it displays: printed texts, engravings, and sheet music; hand-written scrolls and musical scores; letters and wall paper; a pencil; a painted miniature portrait; and even another fan design! This “medley” made me wonder how people in eighteenth-century Britain dealt with the media that surrounded them and suffused their world, not just with printed books or even with writing more generally, but with the whole breadth of media forms that were available to them. That is what this blog (and the seminar to which it is attached) will be all about, so the idea is that little by little, individual posts will explore different facets of the wonderfully varied world of eighteenth-century media.

For the rest of this post, though, I will focus on the world of print in which eighteenth-century Britons found themselves. There were, of course, books of all kinds: expensive, large-format volumes that only the wealthier sectors of society would purchase; books also aimed at and priced for the middling ranks; and books intended for a broad audience that often could not afford to spend much on such items.

But the vast majority of printed material was actually in forms other than books: handbills and proclamations; trade cards and funeral tickets; portrait prints and satires; and broadsheets, single pages containing ballads, songs, poems, or other public announcements that were so cheap they could reach the vast majority of people, either because they could themselves afford it or because someone in their vicinity could and then would make it available for reading in groups.

Maybe it is no wonder, then, that many of the eighteenth-century “print medleys” you find refer more frequently to those more ephemeral, non-book forms of print than to books. Just take a look at the trade card of the engraver George Bickham the Elder:

(© The Trustees of the British Museum)

Similar to the fan design, the card displays what looks like a pile of engravings, all to advertise the range of engravings Bickham can produce (everything from portraits to playing cards and woodcuts on ballads to elaborately engraved text) and the high quality of his productions, not least because now the various kinds of engravings are all combined within one single engraving that Bickham has also produced. Print here refers to itself and to the ways in which it is produced (in this card, above all through the process of engraving). This tendency of print to refer to itself, and the deep immersion of eighteenth-century Britons in print culture that that implies, also appears in a medley satirizing the bursting of the South Sea Bubble, a stock market crash in 1720:

(© The Trustees of the British Museum)

The main target here is a contemporary event with extensive, in many cases devastating economic and political consequences. But in order to make its point, the print medley presumes that those who will consume it will already be familiar, not only with the outlines and events of the market crash itself, but also with many of the satires on stock jobbers, politicians, and stock holders that are reproduced within it. Finally, it also includes a sort of advertisement in the form of the print seller’s address at whose shop this very medley can be purchased; it is product placement on the product itself!

It is with another fan design, though, that I want to end this little excursion:

(© The Trustees of the British Museum)

As with the first design, this fan displays a print medley as its main design feature, this time an apparently carelessly arranged heap of prints engraved after paintings (some hand-colored, some left in gray-shade); and as with the first design, too, we need to remind ourselves that this heap of prints is actually not really a heap of print objects but an image of a heap of print objects (in this case, the fan design is itself actually a print, whereas the first fan was drawn by hand with pen and ink). So again, print here refers to itself and to the visual worlds it makes possible. But here’s where this particular fan becomes really fascinating to me: what looks like a background of delicate lace onto which the heap of prints has been overlaid is also part of the printed fan design! This fan not only re-presents print objects within another print object, it actually re-mediates a completely different medium – a textile, lace – by combining two other media – print (which in itself is a complex medium because it requires not only paper and ink but also a copperplate to be engraved and the tools to engrave it) and paint – to achieve an almost tactile, textural effect. It is this complex playfulness with a broad range of media that for me characterizes the eighteenth century, and the aim of this blog will be to showcase the broad variety of ways in which eighteenth-century media users engaged with and created their media environments as well as to ask what we might learn from them for our own, highly and complexly mediated times.

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