The blog and me

This blog will be erratic and seldom follow themes. It will make no claims to being structured or logical. It will, I hope, be fun and occasionally insightful. I do still publish more coherent work (though in economics, and in very strange places) but that may take some believing after reading these pages. I've a PhD in economics/economic history from Cambridge, I've taught in several universities (and still do, when I get the chance) but now focus energy and attention on commercialization for a large London university, and dealing with the daily commute.

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Country Life and the 'Shakespeare portrait'

Country Life is the magazine we Brits buy primarily, I suspect, for the lavish illustrations of country house estates, and the advertisements for houses for sale of the type most of us could only afford with a major lottery win. (It is also, incidentally, still wedded to the idea of the society portrait of what - many years ago - would have been regarded as an 'eligible debutante'). As a magazine it is possibly as far away as one can get from a quintessentially modern journalism. Its stock in trade is the celebration of a country life style now enjoyed by fewer of us than ever, and celebration - rather than detailed examination - is the weekly diet of this glossy publication. It is not, certainly, a peer reviewed academic journal.

Why, then, the editor thought it wise to feature, prominently, the claims of one of its regular authors, botanist and historian of horticulture Mark Griffiths, that he has 'discovered' - by means of 'decoding' the images appearing on its title page - a portrait of Shakespeare on the title page of John Gerard's Herball (1598) is strange and bewildering. The 'portrait', Griffiths claims, is the figure standing on the right hand plinth labelled with what Griffiths says is not a printers device - as others maintain - but a cleverly encoded cipher for Shakespeare.

I don't want to add any more to the very obvious and extensive commentary on the doubts surrounding the iconography, or the character of the rebus on the plinth. A good summary of all of that can be found here , here and here , and enough commonsense let alone research suggests that the claims for a portrait from life on the title page of a book unconnected with Shakespeare himself or his world of the theatre and literature is unlikely to say the least.

What I do want to do is to add my 'two penn'orth' on the question of how the title page should be read -  that is,what all those figures are meant to be doing. My starting point is that a very similar, but not identical, title page can be found in Gaspard Bauhin's version of Matthioli's commentary on Dioscorides (also of 1598) produced in Frankfurt (below):

For those interested, you can see a more detailed version of the page at

What's useful about this comparison is that Bauhin book is also, effectively a herbal; it also rehearses the contemporary elaborations of Dioscorides; and the title page has many of the same stylistic features as the Gerard book's title page (not least the garden portrayed in the bottom middle cartouche).

The Bauhin books shows a figure, to the left on a plinth, dressed in classical garb (Dioscorides); the other three key figures shown (on the right hand plinth and in the vignette scenes at the bottom of the page) are of different ages and are either all Matthioli or (possibly) the two at the bottom are he and the figure on the plinth is Bauhin. What is clear though is that the Bauhin title page is intended to mix Dioscorides with contemporary practitioners. 

So if - and its a big if - the representations in the Gerard title page are meant to be real figures one could read the Herball's front page as carrying images of Dioscorides (in painfully inaccurate garb) on the left plinth and all of the other figures as Gerard at three different periods of his life: in the 'Shakespeare' portrait as a military figure (we know he served in the army at an early part of his life) and in the figures above the plinth as older (top left) and older still (top right).

I should stress that I don't think this the most likely reading of the design of the title page of the Herball. The most likely is that, without the evidently greater skills of the engraver of the Bauhin book, Rogers - the engraver of the images throughout the Herball - was left to invent fantasy figures connected with the world of botany.

But it does suggest that it is possible to hold to an interpretation of the title page as a selection of real or imagined portraits of contemporaries or near contemporaries without any of them coming from a domain unconnected with horticulture and the medical uses of plants.

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