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

Sight

bpi no. 665

bpi no. 666

taste

bpi no. 667

touch

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:

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