British Printed Images to 1700

I made a serendipitous find in the library today. In my university library this is quite a feat, because most of the books are behind closed doors and need to be requested at the desk. They do, however, have open stacks containing the latest additions to the collection, and that is where I saw Printed Images in Early Modern Britain: Images in Interpretation, edited by Michael Hunter (Ashgate, 2010). The volume brings together a number of papers given at two conferences held at Birkbeck and the V&A in the context of the AHRC-funded ‘British Printed Images to 1700’ project. I hope to write a post on the book at a later stage, but I first looked into the online database that resulted from the project — because, to my shame, I have to admit I didn’t know it existed.

British Printed Images to 1700 (bpi1700) contains thousands of prints from the Department of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum and from the Victoria and Albert Museum. One of the ways to search the database is with the ICONCLASS system, developed at my alma mater Utrecht University, which categorizes the prints according to their subject matter. I looked under Human being > Human body > Senses and sensation, and found these etchings:

bpi no. 664


bpi no. 665

bpi no. 666


bpi no. 667


bpi no. 668

They are by Francis Cleyn (1582?-1658): a series of five plates called Quinque Sensuum descriptio, in eo picturæ genere quod (Grottesche) vocant Itali (Description of the Five Senses in that kind of painting that the Italians call grotesque).

What interested me about these images is their subject matter of the senses, but also the way in which they are depicted, with a woman symbolizing one of the senses occupying the centre of the image In the centre of the image, and man-sized flowers and other decorations surrounding her. In the image representing Hearing, for example, a woman sits playing a lute in a bower formed by a man and a woman who are very Ovidianesquely metamorphosing into trees. To either side of her are huge orchid-like flowers, a hind and a stag, putti, and there’s also a rabbit at her feet. Above her head is the title of the etching – ‘Auditus’, or hearing.

The etchings made me think immediately of the chapter “Green Spectacles” in Bruce Smith’s The Key of Green: Passion and Perception in Renaissance Culture (2010), which discusses this Sheldon Tapestry:

The Judgment of Paris

The Judgment of Paris, V&A

Only a fraction of this tapestry is occupied by the narrative of the Judgment of Paris. The Victoria and Albert website describes the rest of the image as follows:

A wide selection of flowers surrounds the scene, including hyacinths in bud and in flower, lily of the valley, mallow, primrose, cyclamen, convolvulus, strawberry, pinks, stocks, gillyflower, poppies, pansy, rose, iris, marguerite, lilies and a dandelion. The vertical borders were filled with large gourds and fruit, heads of marguerites, narcissi, and, oddly, peas in a pod packing the spaces in between. The horizontal borders show roses, poppies, pomegranates, cherries, apples, plums, pears and quince.

It is this forest of natural forms which interests Bruce Smith in his book, because it tells him something about early modern modes of perception: ‘Where modern and even postmodern viewers see superfluous decoration, early-modern viewers saw something‘ (147). That something was called antic/antique work, boscage, damasque or — as in Cleyn’s etchings of the senses — grotesque. In Smith’s view, these grotesque borders are essential to early modern perception. Whereas a modern spectator would focus on the narrative in the centre of the tapestry, an early modern viewer would have read it from the outside in, from fancy to understanding:

Understanding may reach its goal at the center, but only after the imagination has made its way through a tangle of green thoughts from margin to center, from becoming to being. […] Play of fancy with plant forms leads to sharp focus on narrative images and ends with a declaration of meaning [in the inscriptions around the scene from Ovid’s Heroides]. (150)

Smith mentions Franz Cleyn’s illustrations of Ovid, but not this series of plates on the senses. I think it perfectly illustrates his concept of ‘seeing green’ in its very depiction of the instruments of perception, the senses. As in the Sheldon tapestry, the early modern viewer would have moved from the outside in, perceiving the huge flowers, the foliage, grotesqueries and the playing putti first, then reaching the woman symbolizing one of the senses, and finally reading the title above her head. Thus, the viewer moves from sensual, moving, fanciful perception to a person symbolizing a concept, to the word representing that concept.

According to the BPI1700 information on the series of plates, Cleyn also designed tapestries representing the five senses, a set of which is at Haddon Hall. I scoured the net for pictures, and found some on a site called “Smugmug”. This is a photo of the Mortlake tapestry designed by Cleyn depicting the sense of smell:

Haddon Hall Cleyn tapestry

There is ample foliage and grotesque shapes again, and what seems to be a border to the right of the photo. I would love to see images of the tapestries in their entirety!


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