William Blake, The Artist

As a nine year old, William Blake claimed he saw a “tree filled with angels”, moreover, he never outgrew or denounced these visions. His favourite artists were those unappreciated in their time, such as Michelangelo. So it is rather obvious that William Blake was not one likely to conform to the norm. William Blake was a true artistic rebel, commenting on contemporary society and placing himself deliberately outside of the literary scene. In the eighteenth century, most authors had very little control of their works as they were printed and sold. William Blake, however, decided to create his own illustrations and print his own works, as a result he kept full control.

BlakeGoed

The process of creation followed by production was very important to Blake, bearing in mind that he created a concept, for which there had to be a balance between writing and illustrations. The entire work had to be his, as he envisioned a concept and not a mere book. His name on the frontispiece functioned as a signature, similar to a painter signing his work. He was printer and author, thus explicitly stating he was sole creator of this work. William Blake produced his books as a form of art, very luxurious pieces, they were not intended for the book market.

The fact that his books were not meant for the book market, is also made clear by how they were printed. The most economical method of printing at that time was typesetting, for which woodcuts were used. Ink was poured on top of the woodcuts, on the raised letters, then it was pressed on the paper. This form was mostly used by printers at that time. However, there was a different manner, which was more laborious. Copperplates were engraved with a design, poured over with ink and after the ink had been wiped off, it was pressed on paper. The indentations left their mark on the paper. Copperplate-printing enabled the printer to add a lot more detail.

blake_acidWilliam Blake even invented a new form of copperplate printing. He sought to improve the intaglio manner, in which the design was scratched onto a waxed surface before being engraved deeper or a needle was used to map it out into an acid-resistant coating before pouring acid onto the plate. Therefore, he came up with relief etching, whereby the design is painted onto the copperplate with acid-resistant varnish, leaving the unpainted surface to be eaten away and the rest in relief to be printed. Moreover, this had to be done in mirror image. So, it is clear that this was a very laborious process, which could not be done for mass production. Each page had to be etched separately into a copperplate, that lasted only for about 1000 copies. Therefore, Blake focused on producing  individual copies for individual and rich patrons.

Blake made the work even more laborious and time consuming by making extensive use of colours which had to be printed consecutively and separately. True to his nature of a media transcending artist mixing artist categories like painter, printer and poet (cf. supra), themes found within his poetic word sculpting in his poems also shine trough in each individually conceptualised and realised edition where the coloration is used as a supplementary tool to further the themes addressed by and in his works. Corroborating this is a comparison of differences between several editions of The songs of Innocence where coloration differences can be seen to signify the real world interplay between the major themes addressed within the work.

Where the French Revolution was first hailed by British poets, this quickly shifted after the rise of Maximilien Robespierre and the Jacobins in France, where the so called Reign of Terror was responsible for the mass killings of thousands. A reflection of this can be seen in editions realised around that time where first, in line with the positive way the revolution was seen, bright colours overflowed the title page. But when times changed and the French Revolution totally became synonymous with the Age of the Guillotine and all ideals seemed to be unrealised, dark colours start taking over the title page.

BlakeGBlakeL

As a true multidisciplinary Blake takes to heart a role frequently envisioned by poets and other artists alike; not solely portraying and representing but by their works alerting people to the world around them.

Importance of Blake’s illustrations for specific poems

The Clod and the Pebble

“The Clod and the Pebble”, a poem from Songs of Experience, is not part of an obvious pair of poems. Moreover, it seems to incorporate both innocence and experience, and demonstrates Blake’s typical contrasting values in one poem.

At first the poem seems to balance both points of view, as the clod and the pebble get an equal amount of lines to express their opinion. The word “but” in line 6 is the turning point from the Clod’s argument to that of the Pebble. The clod expresses an argument of innocence, while the pebble utters a more experienced view. The fact that Blake selects the latter to end the debate with may show his tendency to lean towards favoring that argument, but he may just as well be respecting the chronology (first innocence, then experience – within the different versions of these books, poems sometimes were moved around). However, as both concluding lines of the arguments seem rather balanced, he is as well forcing the reader to make up his own mind.

At the same time, Blake was not just giving textual clues, but visual clues as well. Since Blake was responsible for the engravings illuminating his poems, he could easily “guide” the reader to one opinion or another trough, for instance, meticulous selection of the colours used.

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As for the imagery illustrating this poem, it is the environment in which the clod and the pebble find themselves which is depicted here, the clod nor the pebble can be found. The fact that neither of them are shown could imply that they are merely representing abstract ideas.

Blake shows us quite a peaceful scenery, the cattle drinking, and the frogs playing in the brook. Even though the pebble utters quite pessimistic thoughts, there is no explicit visual show of a thread whatsoever.

In other versions, the colours change, this is shown most explicitely in a 1795 version:

songsie.n.p4-32.100

Only by changing towards more dark colours, the poem gets a much more gloomy feel to it, leaving the reader with the idea that, even though the stanzas are balanced, the pebble’s judgement is the one favoured by the author (in contrast to the 1794 version shown above, with its more lively and light colours, which seems to emphasize the clod’s opinion of love.)

Later versions, such as a 1825 version:

songsie.y.p32.100

Once again show a more peaceful and balanced imagery. Blake constantly played around with the colours of his images, switching from light to dark and back, and as such adding more possible interpretations every time he finished another edition.

The Chimney Sweeper

In The Chimney Sweeper, Blake talks about little children –they were the only ones small enough- that had to sweep out chimneys. This sort of child labor was actually very common in 18th and 19th century England. The Chimney Sweeper in Songs of Innocence (1789) has a first person narration, the viewpoint is that of a little child sweeper. The ‘weep! weep! weep! weep!’ of the third line evokes a very strong sympathetic feeling with the narrator. “But just because the misery is so concretely realized, the affirmation of visionary joy is more triumphant than in any other poem of the series.” (E.D. Hirsch: 1964)

Blake

Blake is definitely a man of contrasts (already indicated in the subtitle: “Shewing the two contrary states of the human soul”) and his mastership in making them ‘work’ becomes apparent in this poem. The poem derives its Songs of Innocence copy B, 1789, 1794 (British Museum): genius and strength from the contrast between the woeful, horrible job in real life and the joyful bliss in the dream. It is the latter part that Blake focused on when he made the illustration that accompanies The Chimney Sweeper. Underneath the actual words one can see the ‘Angel’ figure (line 13) that is pulling a boy (probably ‘Tom Dacre’: line 5) from the earth (or ‘coffin’: line 14) and thus setting him free to go ‘down a green plain, leaping, laughing’. It is this dreamlike setting that fills the young boy with warmth when he has to get up in the morning. Although the child sweeper has a pitiful existence (his mother is dead and he has a horrible job), the poem is eventually one of hope; this feeling is definitely enhanced by the illustration.

The Chimney Sweeper from The Songs of Experience (1794) seems less hopeful. Here the narrator asks the sweep to tell him his story. So, again, most of the poem is told from the child’s point of view. Unlike in the previous poem, the mother here is still alive. Still, the child is all alone in the snow, because its parents “are up to the church to pray” (line 4). This scene of loneliness is brilliantly evoked by Blake’s illustration: one can see “A little black thing among the snow” (line 1) and apart from the snow and the houses, there’s no one else, the streets are completely deserted. The child, then, is all alone “to sing the notes of woe” (line 8).

songsie.b.p45-37.300This poem is, in our opinion, directed against the rigid hierarchy of the Anglican church: “God & his priest & King”(line 11) “make up a heaven of our misery”. The authoritative figures tell the less fortunate they have to grateful for the life God has given them, moreover, they ‘soothe’ the poor by explaining that they will achieve heaven if they work hard enough. The sweeper is, in fact, happy, but not because of the comforting lies the churchmen tells it: “what makes the sweep happy in his misery is not that sinister delusion, Heaven, but the strength of life that is in him.” (E.D. Hirsch: 1964). This is explained in the second stanza.

Again, the illustration of the dirty, gritty sweeper full of soot with is mouth open, seemingly crying “weep, weep” (line 2) is an enhancement of the ideas formulated in the poem itself.

Hence, it is clear that “[t]o read a Blake poem without the pictures is to miss something important: Blake places words and images in a relationship that is sometimes mutually enlightening and sometimes turbulent, and that relationship is an aspect of the poem’s argument.” (Norton Anthology)

Bibliography:

Eaves, M. & Essick, R.N. & Viscomi, J. (2012) Works in the William Blake Archive. Viewed on 29/11/2012, http://www.blakearchive.org/blake/indexworks.htm?java=yes

Greenblatt, S. (2006) The Norton Anthology: English Literature Volume D. London: W.W. Norton & Company Ltd.

Hagstrum, J.H. (1964). William Blake Poet and Painter. London: William Clowes and Sons.

Hirsch, E.D. (1964). Innocence and Experience: An Introduction to Blake. Clinton: The Colonial Press

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Illustrations and The Seasons by James Thomson

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James Thomson

Thomson, James (1700–1748), poet, was born on 11 September 1700 in the village of Ednam, Roxburghshire, the son of Thomas Thomson (c.1666–1716), a Presbyterian minister, and Beatrix Trotter (d. 1725), who was distantly related to the noble house of Hume. James was the fourth child of Thomas and Beatrix, in a family of four boys and five girls. Eight weeks after his birth his father was admitted minister of Southdean, close to the English–Scottish border. Here the future poet of The Seasons received his first impressions of nature.

In Scotland

Thomson perhaps attended the parish school in Southdean before being sent, about 1712, to the ancient grammar school that was housed in a transept of the abbey church at Jedburgh. He was a mediocre scholar, but began to write poetry under the encouragement of two men—the scholar, poet, farmer, and Presbyterian minister Robert Riccaltoun (1691–1769), and Sir William Bennet (d. 1729), a whig laird who was also a patron of Allan Ramsay (1686–1758). In autumn 1715 Thomson entered the College of Edinburgh. He completed his arts course at Edinburgh (Latin, Greek, logic, metaphysics, ethics, and natural science) by 1719, but did not choose to graduate. He entered Divinity Hall, Edinburgh, as a candidate for the Presbyterian ministry, supported by bursaries from the Jedburgh presbytery from 1720 to 1724. Thomson’s first published poems appeared in the Edinburgh Miscellany (January 1720); one of them, ‘Of a Country Life’, a short georgic distantly modelled on John Gay’s Rural Sports, anticipates in little The Seasons.

To London: Winter, Summer

Thomson went to London almost certainly with literary ambitions, thinking of English ordination only as a last resort, but his first employment was as tutor to the four-year-old son of the poet Charles Hamilton, Lord Binning (1697–1732. He soon made the acquaintance of English poets, including Richard Savage, Aaron Hill, John Dyer, and Alexander Pope, and influential expatriate Scots. The most notable works from his first year in England were early versions of a ‘Hymn on Solitude’ and Winter, a blank-verse poem of nature description with devotional overtones

Winter was published in April 1726 by John Millan, who, it was said, paid 3 guineas for the copy; it was dedicated to Sir Spencer Compton, speaker of the House of Commons, who tardily gave the author a present of 20 guineas. In June a second, revised and enlarged edition appeared, with a preface in which Thomson disparages satire and advocates sublime verse on lofty themes. By then he was writing Summer and had left Lord Binning’s household in order to act as tutor to a young gentleman at Watts’s academy in Little Tower Street. Summer was published in February 1727 and was dedicated to George Bubb Dodington—like Compton, a prominent whig politician, but a far more generous and enduring patron.

Shortly afterwards Thomson left Watts’s academy, hoping to live by his pen. He acquired more patrons, notably Frances Seymour, countess of Hertford, and Thomas Rundle, future bishop of Derry, who introduced him to Charles Talbot (1685–1737), solicitor-general. From 1727 Thomson was a regular summer guest at the country seats of Dodington, Talbot, and Lord and Lady Hertford. On his first visit to Eastbury, Dodington’s mansion in Dorset, he met Voltaire, who later wrote of Thomson, ‘I discovered in him a great genius and a great Simplicity, I liked in him the poet and the true philosopher, I mean the Lover of Mankind’ (McKillop, 212).

Spring and The Seasons

In January 1728 Thomson issued proposals to publish The Seasons by subscription. This did not prevent him from publishing Spring, dedicated to Lady Hertford, on his own account in June 1728, apparently with little success, because in January 1729 the bookseller Andrew Millar bought up remainder copies and reissued them over his own imprint.

The queen headed a glittering list of subscribers to The Seasons in June 1730. The subscription quarto edition, which was also sold to the public through the trade, was printed by Thomson’s friend Samuel Richardson and illustrated by engravings after William Kent. The poem now included ‘Autumn’, dedicated to Arthur Onslow, Compton’s successor as speaker, and a concluding ‘Hymn’, as well as revised, enlarged texts of the three previously published ‘Seasons’. The general tendency of the revisions, despite the addition of a pantheistic ‘Hymn’, is to make the poem more secular; it is more excursive, patriotic, and overtly whiggish than the earlier texts.

By the middle of 1730, five years after leaving Scotland, Thomson had achieved a measure of fame and fortune. He had received royal notice as playwright and poet, he enjoyed the friendship and respect of men of wit, and the support of some discriminating patrons; his Seasons had attracted 457 subscriptions at 1 guinea or more each.

Last years

Having overheated himself walking one summer evening from central London to Hammersmith, he took a boat for the rest of the journey to Kew and caught a chill, from which he had not fully recovered before he exposed himself once more to the evening dews. This brought on a tertian fever and then a malignant nervous fever, from which he died on 27 August 1748, at his house in Kew Foot Lane. Thomson’s remains were buried under a plain stone in the north-west corner of St Mary’s Church, Richmond, on 29 August.

The Seasons is considered by many to be Thomson’s masterpiece, it was hugely popular both back in 1730 and even still today. The Seasons celebrates the magnificence and harmony of nature as a manifestation of the Supreme Being. It embodies literary, philosophical, and theological ideas characteristic of the eighteenth century, yet it also prefigures the Romantic movement of the nineteenth century, particularly in its depictions of storms and wilderness. It enjoyed extraordinary popularity and influence in both centuries, and its impressive, picturesque landscapes made it a favorite text for illustration.The most popular illustration perhaps is the scene of Amelia’s death in Thonson’s ‘Summer’. This image has been produced time and time again, it is full of raw emotion, Celadon has just had his love struck down by thunder.

During the eighteenth century there was a move away from context and toward the texts that accompanied the a literary piece. Book covers could be read as a text in themselves, the book trade really took off in the eighteenth century. It was at this time booksellers began to collaborate so that they could publish better illustrated books and more impressive covers. Why did booksellers collaborate? To put it simply, money, they wanted to make more unique copies so they could sell more and charge more.

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Celadon and Amelia: H. Fuseli, W.Bromley – 1801

Picture A,

This is the kind of illustration you would find in the earlier publishing’s that would accompany the texts. This was a very costly process, the correct kind plate must be purchased, it must be brought to a specialist engraver, the brought to a printer, and could only be printed so many times before the plate would break. The whole process would cost about six hundred pounds today.

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Celadon and Amelia: W.Woollett and R.Wilson – 1766

Picture B,

Some illustrations would be produced independent of the text. This picture for example is bigger than an A1 page. Far to big to be put with the text even though it still represents the Amelia’s death. A painting like this could cost upward of ten thousand pounds today.

Sixty years after The Seasons was published it was still incredibly popular and it was still being reproduced, republished illustrations still being made, but now color had been produced and this opened a whole new range of colored illustrations to accompany the texts. These were extremely expensive, an illustrated copy could cost anywhere in the region of twenty five thousand pounds. The Seasons had a massive influence on the consumer market at the time, pocket watches, dresses, hats, even cups would have the illustrations from The Seasons on them. There were ballets, recitals and even instrumentals dedicated to the Thomson’s work.

References

  • “The Seasons.” Masterplots, Fourth Edition. Ed. Laurence W. Mazzeno. Salem Press, Inc., 2010. eNotes.com. 21 Nov, 2012 http://www.enotes.com/seasons-salem/
  • Chapman, T. “”The Seasons: By James Thomson; with His Life, an Index, and Glossary. . and Notes to The .” Archive.org. Ed. T Chapman. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Nov. 2012. <http://archive.org/stream/seasonsbyjamest00thomgoog/seasonsbyjamest00thomgoog_djvu.txt&gt;.
  • Hilbert H. Campbell, James Thomson (1700-1748): An Annotated Bibliography of Selected Editions and the Important Criticism (New York: Garland, 1976).
  • McKillop, The Background of Thomson’s “Seasons” (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1942).
  • Cohen, The Unfolding of “The Seasons” (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1970).
  • http://www.grosvenorprints.com

The 18th-century theatre experience: Henry Fielding’s The Author’s Farce

What was English theatre like in the eighteenth century? How did it feel to be there – either on stage or as a member of the audience?

We, as a class, took the test and performed parts of Henry Fielding’s The Author’s Farce, just to get acquainted with the style, habits, and livelihood of a stage comedy.

Fielding & The Author’s Farce

Let us begin by introducing the playwright. Henry Fielding (1707-1754) was born at Sharpham Park, Somerset, and belonged to a wealthy and respected family. Though not an aristocrat himself, he was related to the Earl of Denbigh, and his mother belonged to a powerful family of lawyers. Fielding’s father sent him off to the prestigious Eton College, where he learned to appreciate the classics. In 1728, he went to Leiden, in the Netherlands, to study law and the classics. When he came back, he devoted himself to writing for the stage. His first two plays were performed at Drury Lane, one of London’s leading theatres at that time. Fielding wrote mostly comedies, some of which were very critical of the political and literary establishment. In particular the contemporary government of Sir Robert Walpole was the aim of a great deal of Fielding’s satire.

The year 1730 was of great success for Fielding. That year, he had four plays produced, among which we find The Author’s Farce, a farce “with a puppet-show, call’d the Pleasures of the Town.” Arguably, this play was Fielding’s first great success in the London theatres. That same year, another now famous work was staged: Tom Thumb. It is perhaps best known in the 1731 expanded version entitled The Tragedy of Tragedies; or, The Life and Death of Tom Thumb the Great.

The front page of the printed version of The Author’s Farce
(as found on http://archive.org/details/authorsfarcewith00fiel)

Criticizing and laughing with the political establishment, of course, could not go on forever. The Walpole administration initiated the infamous Theatrical Licensing Act of 1737, probably in response to (primarily) Henry Fielding’s plays. Also John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera is often mentioned in this context. The play that triggered the act, however, was – we believe – not written by Fielding. The Golden Rump, as it was called, could even have been commissioned by Walpole himself, to give him a valid reason to institute censorship. Although we shall probably never know what happened, we know for certain that Fielding’s critical plays had set the tone. After the Act had been passed, all plays were censured and adapted (though implicit satirical messages were sometimes overlooked) before they could be staged in one of the only two ‘licensed’ playhouses, Drury Lane Theatre or Covent Garden Theatre (both called Theatre Royal later).

For a while, the playwright retired from the theatre and began working as a barrister. However, he never stopped writing satirical pieces for newspapers and in letters. Nowadays, Henry Fielding is also well known for his novels. The first of these, Shamela, was triggered by Samuel Richardson’s scandalously popular novel Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded. Both were written in the epistolary form, but Shamela was of course harshly satirical in nature. The novel was then followed by Joseph Andrews (1742) and several other novels. Fielding’s number-one success was The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling (1749), a foundling’s tale discovered on the property of a very wealthy, benevolent landowner.

Not only was Fielding a successful author and playwright, he also had a notable career in law and order. Thanks to a political appointment, he became Chief Magistrate for London. He also founded the ‘Bow Street Runners’, London’s first professional police force.

Eighteenth-Century Theatre

When we read a printed play dating from the eighteenth century, it is hard to imagine how the actual performance may have looked like. From written sources dealing with the theatre at the time, we know that performing or watching a play was certainly very different from what we are used to nowadays. To get an idea of just how different it was, we travelled back in time to the old era in our “English literature: literary texts of the eighteenth century” class. In our lecture theatre, we staged the first few scenes of Henry Fielding’s The Author’s Farce (viewable here) in an attempt to reconstruct an eighteenth-century performance as a whole, certain characteristics of which would bewilder most twenty-first-century theatre-goers.

As for going to the theatre in the eighteenth century, the most crucial difference is that this, as opposed to nowadays, was primarily a social event. Therefore, audience members were not quietly sitting in a chair in a dark theatre, attentively watching the play. The actors had to fight to captivate the noisy audience. Illustrative is the fact that the whole theatre was equally lit, signalling that there was no rigid boundary between actors and audience, and that both were considered equally important.

A performance of John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera; here, it can be seen
that wealthier people could buy their seats on the stage itself.
(as found on http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/0-9/18th-century-theatre/)

Spectators were  walking around during the play, chatting with friends or even talking to the actors. Wealthy audience members could sit on stage and display their status by giving clever remarks, talking with actors or actresses, and showing off their nice clothing. As became clear during our class performance, the ‘interactive audience‘ situation could easily culminate in anarchy, especially if the play was not appreciated. Audience members would shout critique or insults, or even throw things at the actors. Actor Edward Cape Everard draws the line at potatoes: “Our situation on the stage, from being often rendered unpleasant, was sometimes dangerous; apples and oranges we got pretty well used to from their frequency of appearing; but when our unthinking spectators would sometimes salute us with a potatoe, or even a pint or quart bottle, it was above a joke.” (Memoirs of an unfortunate son of Thespis, Edinburgh 1818, p. 104).

There was also always more than just a play on these social nights. Other forms of entertainment were offered on the side. The play would be preceded by a musical performance and there was generally an interlude during which a great variety of entertainment could be offered, from songs to dog tricks. Finally, the night would be closed by a musical performance. Audience members also ate and drank during the play, hence the flying apples and pint bottles. So-called orange wenches – a role played by our very own professor Hammerschmidt during the class performance – walked through the theatre and provided the audience with fruit, and often also other services (‘orange wench’ soon became a euphemism for prostitute).

Theatre-going might have been a very different experience in the eighteenth century, other theatre-related phenomena which started around that time seem much more familiar to twenty-first-century audiences. Like with our contemporary Hollywood films, the entertainment did not stop at the theatre walls. Next to the actual theatre performance, which was accessible for a very wide range of people, there were of course also printed versions of the play, mainly bought by richer people. These scripts were usually bought as a collection of loose sheets, but these could be bound as well.

A new phenomenon at that time was that certain actors became stars. They were not only helping to promote a play, but they also gave rise to merchandising: fans could buy porcelain statues, portraits, engravings and other products. One of the most popular stars of the eighteenth-century theatre was David Garrick, who was among the first to adopt a less affected, more natural acting style. Furthermore, costumes were introduced in Garrick’s days; previously, actors wore contemporary (i.e. eighteenth-century) clothing.

A tea caddy featuring David Garrick
(as found on http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/0-9/18th-century-theatre/)

To conclude this post on eighteenth-century theatre, we can only advise you to watch the video made in class, as it will hopefully enable you to understand how the staging of a play in playhouse actually may have been like. Most of the elements summed up above are included in this performance (or, in any case, an attempt was made to do so), and all of these make the video worth watching, especially in combination with the actual staging of Fielding’s The Author’s Farce: the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

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.