Quill, Wax, Knife

Adam Smyth

  • Mr Collier’s Letter Racks: A Tale of Art & Illusion at the Threshold of the Modern Information Age by Dror Wahrman
    Oxford, 275 pp, £22.95, November 2012, ISBN 978 0 19 973886 1

‘This Booke,’ Leonard Digges claimed in a preface to Shakespeare’s First Folio, ‘When Brasse and Marble fade, shall make thee looke/Fresh to all Ages.’ If we take the First Folio as our biggest bibliographical landmark, the history of early modern print looks like a journey towards material permanence: towards the production of books that had the power to endure through time, and to ‘redeeme’ their authors ‘from thy Herse’. ‘Thou … art alive still,’ Jonson wrote to the dead Shakespeare in a characteristically conditional bit of praise, ‘while thy Booke doth live.’

But this is only part of the story. Most printed texts lived very briefly, and then were gone for ever. About one in ten thousand 16th-century broadside ballads survives today. Where did printed pages go to die? Some were used for lining pie dishes; for lighting pipes; for wrapping vegetables at Bucklersbury Market, or drugs at the apothecary’s, or (according to Henry Fitzgeffrey) ‘to dry Tobacco in’. ‘Great Iulius Commentaries lies and rots,’ the poet and waterman John Taylor wrote, ‘as good for nothing but stoppe mustard pots.’ Sir William Cornwallis kept ‘pamphlets and lying-stories and two-penny poets’ in his privy, and many texts were ‘pressed into general service’, as Margaret Spufford put it in Small Books and Pleasant Histories (1981), as toilet paper. Books were pulled apart to serve in the binding and endpapers of later books, the pages of an unwanted Bible perhaps padding the spine of an unholy prose romance. A Booke of Common Prayer (1549) in Lambeth Palace Library has endpapers made from a broadside almanac of 1548; the Folger Shakespeare Library copy of The Tunnyng of Elynour Rummyng (1521), John Skelton’s great poem of drunkenness, survives only because it was used as waste paper for the binding of another book. To read an early modern book was to confront the broken, recycled material remains of former texts, and the effect is of a kind of memory or haunting: of a book remembering its origins. Thomas Nashe imagined his printed pages being used to wrap expensive slippers (‘velvet pantofles’), ‘so they be not … mangy at the toes, like an ape about the mouth’. As Leah Price showed recently in How to Do Things with Books in Victorian Britain, we can do many things to books other than read them.

Today we’re inclined to see such losses as unfortunate, even criminal, but early modern bibliophiles were quite happy for most texts to go the way of the pantofles. Thomas Bodley was careful to exclude ‘idle books, & riffe raffes’, including plays, from his library, and many commentators felt there were simply too many books: ‘a vast Chaos and confusion’, according to Robert Burton. ‘The longest life of a man,’ John Cotgrave lamented, ‘is not sufficient to explore so much as the substance of them, which (in many) is but slender.’ Thus careful reading was figured as a kind of profitable destruction: an act of discrimination that, recalling the Latin legere, plucked out the few worthy titles while leaving the rest (the chapbooks, the pamphlets, the bad plays) to the ‘consuming looks’ of fire (as Jonson put it), or the ‘cankring Age’ (Digges) of time. When Lucius Cary celebrated Jonson’s ‘exact’ literary ‘judgment’, he suggested that had we his notes ‘of what was best in Bookes’, then we ‘need not care though all the rest were lost’.

Three of Edward Collier’s letter rack paintings, made between the late 1690s and 1702.
Three of Edward Collier’s letter rack paintings, made between the late 1690s and 1702.

This ephemeral culture of print fascinated the Dutch-born, London-dwelling painter Edward Collier (c.1640-1710) and, in turn, his amiable, indefatigable celebrant, Dror Wahrman. The dominant subject of Collier’s paintings is the letter rack, a simple arrangement of three horizontal leather straps, attached to a wall, holding in place a bustling miscellany of textual props: in one typical example there is an almanac; a folded newspaper; a dog-eared royal speech; a quill; a knife; a comb; pieces of (‘slightly phallic’) red and black sticks of wax, singed, it seems, just moments earlier; a blank notebook titled ‘Memorye’; and a folded letter addressed to ‘Mr E. Collier Painter att London’. The whole looks like a chaotic form of musical notation, with the straps as the stave. The texts are dated to the day, and the impression is of a sudden freezing of the writing that would stream past a literate Londoner every day: of cheap print, saved from the pie oven. The Dutch word for still life – stilleven, or ‘immobile life’ – catches this sense of a collection of objects whose mobility has been momentarily constrained. The props for writing – quill, wax and knife – suggest texts about to be written, just beyond the stalled temporality of Collier’s painting.

Collier’s letter rack paintings tend, now, to be tucked away in the corners of museums: no collection holds more than one. Wahrman chanced on his first in the Indianapolis Museum of Art (‘I had lived for eight years just down the road before I happened upon it one spring afternoon shortly before closing time’); he’s since tracked down seventy, and suggests a total output ‘in the low hundreds’. The paintings grew out of a tradition of what would later be called trompe l’oeil, which fooled viewers into mistaking the image for the thing: Cornelis Gijsbrechts’s The Reverse of a Framed Painting (c.1670), for example, or Parrhasius’ painted curtain which Zeuxis, according to Pliny, could not resist trying to lift. (Pepys loved trompe l’oeils, as he loved all curious novelties: ‘Even after I knew it was not board, but only the picture of a board,’ he wrote in 1668 about a painting by Samuel van Hoogstraten, ‘I could not remove my fancy.’) Collier’s paintings respond, also, to vanitas still lifes: paintings of gathered objects (jewels, musical instruments, globes, books) whose worldly splendour speaks of life’s transience and the thinness of earthly success – although they do this in the form of a painting, yet another splendid, worldly object. The books and jewels in vanitas paintings are what they seem, but they are also more than they seem. There is a defiant quiddity to Collier’s combs, quills and almanacs, and Wahrman’s readings tease out the particularity of each; but these trivial single things seem also to be poised on the edge of allegory. We see them in both ways at once.

Collier conflates the traditions of trompe l’oeil and vanitas to produce a form appropriate to represent a late 17th-century culture of print. Wahrman – unable to resist scratching the presentist itch – calls this culture ‘Print 2.0’: a ‘new media regime’, characterised by ‘the dynamism of fast circulation, the preoccupation with the moment, the instant ephemerality of publications just off the presses, the seriality of mass-produced pamphlets, the global network that undergirded a new economy of news’. In fact, speed and transience had even then long been traits of print. But Collier, Wahrman suggests, does more than record this culture: he delivers a sustained (but hidden) critique of a world in which ‘documents fail to convey information with the certitude one might expect’ and apparent truths crumble into error. Wahrman sees in Collier’s paintings a series of ‘coded messages’: they constitute an ‘intricate game’ or ‘puzzle’ of ‘message after hidden message’ full of ‘faux monograms’ and ‘impossible title pages’, which collectively amount to an ‘admonishing’ of ‘volatile, unreliable’ print, and a warning to readers exhibiting an ‘unreflecting confidence in … authorial claims’.

Wahrman’s rather beguiling method is to place Collier’s letter racks side by side and to track, with great precision, between them: a form of comparative looking no one in the 17th century would have undertaken. Inching between multiple images of a printed royal speech, or a newsbook, or a stamped postmark, he finds words spelled in different ways (Monday/Munday; Friday/Fryday; Majesty/Maiesty; Memory/Memorye). Dates are inconsistent. In one letter rack the word ‘understanding’ on an almanac title page is rendered ‘und/derstanding’: no accident, Wahrman claims, but a ‘wink’ which, together with other apparent slips of dating and orthography, cohere into Collier’s ‘carefully laid design’, that is, a stark warning that ‘every aspect of a title page that a reader takes for granted – the author’s identity, the author’s credentials, the date, the very words on the page – may be corrupted,’ and that, as a result, we should ‘proceed with extreme caution’.

Wahrman is certainly right that cheap print was a chaos of variants: but that is precisely the problem with his thesis. Such ‘slips’ were everywhere. According to Early English Books Online, ‘Fryday’ appears 613 times across 366 early modern texts. Collier’s double-d ‘undderstanding’ may look like ludic subversion (a ‘message-in-a-painted-bottle’), but the same spelling also appears in Richard Lucas’s The duty of servants … together with prayers suited to each duty of 1685 (‘Thus, am I poor in Spirit, contented in the lowest state, resign’d up to God both as to my undderstanding and my will’): hardly a playground of Borgesian wit.

A curious paradox thus beats at the heart of Wahrman’s argument. He demonstrates with verve and meticulousness the instabilities of 17th-century print; but the wink he perceives behind each variant (December/Desember) is only a wink if one is expecting stability. In fact it would have been more curious had Collier painted serial pictures of title pages in which every word and date was identical. Collier caught the instabilities of print, certainly, but this was less a critique – let alone a coded message – than a reflection of the world around him, rather as John Selden collected cheap print because ‘more solid Things do not shew the Complexion of the Times so well as Ballads and Libells.’

In part the problem is one of genre. Wahrman wonders, rather longingly, how his story would look ‘if this were an espionage tale’, before showing us, sleuth-like, how the ‘pieces all fell into place’. This isn’t a spy story, or a whodunnit, yet he writes history in the form of a detective novel (‘Coincidence?’; ‘Herein lies the key’; ‘One further step …’). He admires Dupin’s ‘brilliant ability’, in ‘The Purloined Letter’, to ‘think outside the box’. This has its pleasures, but it also pushes Wahrman into some unfortunate structural – and therefore conceptual – corners. To organise history through the prism of Edgar Allan Poe is to search, always, for a denouement; to think in terms of riddles; to occupy a world where coincidence marks its opposite, and where the things that are implausible are most likely to be true; where details are held back as narrator and reader walk through the mystery together before reaching the bright light of unambiguous solution.

*

In his closing chapters, Wahrman outlines a complicated thesis to explain the fact that there are many paintings that look rather like Collier’s letter racks but are signed by other artists and aren’t quite as good. Wahrman’s explanation is that Collier, out of sympathy for second and third-tier painters and decorators tucked away in benighted places like Frome and Trowbridge (a sympathy stemming from the fact that ‘Collier’s lot as a painter was not an easy one’), offered them training and a kind of mentorship, which issued in collaborative paintings. Wahrman calls these ‘faux non-Colliers’: that is, paintings that pretend to be not by Collier, but which he did in fact paint, or take a hand in painting. The formal constraints of the detective novel start to creak as Wahrman’s Collier-spotting becomes increasingly frenzied. The man is everywhere, planting ‘hidden Collier monograms’ in paintings we thought were by other people: ‘One can make out the E,’ for example, ‘in the indentation at the top of the handle.’ Or: ‘If one looks at these two curved lines from right to left, as if in mirror image, they seem to spell “E C”.’ Wahrman admits to moments of doubt, but the shape of the story he has chosen to tell (‘therein lies the punchline’) demands this kind of pay-off: ‘It had some features I could not explain,’ he writes, but ‘doubts about details in individual paintings pale next to the overall pattern.’

There is a double irony here. First, Collier’s supposed act of generosity in helping these regional artists is inverted by Wahrman, who takes their paintings and attributes them back to Collier. And second, the print culture which preoccupied Collier was (as Wahrman knows) largely uninterested in authorship as a variable of textual definition. Collier painted almanacs, newspapers, anonymous prints. But Wahrman uses biography and intention as his critical frame for talking about Collier’s letter racks, and we feel the limits of the approach. ‘So what was he trying to say?’ Wahrman asks at several points: a strange and diminishing question to ask of a painting.

When Wahrman relaxes this stress on solving a mystery, things come into focus. One of Collier’s abiding interests was mediation – the way content is necessarily bound up with form – and, in particular, the question of what happens when an image (of a king, for example) is mediated three or four times. It is in part why Collier seems to speak to our contemporary moment. His Trompe l’Oeil with Print of Charles I after van Dyck is an oil painting of a mezzotint print of part of van Dyck’s 12-foot-high equestrian royal portrait. The print, torn on the left and generally looking a bit sad, is stuck to a wooden board by four wax seals (each of which also conveys a blurred but presumably regal head). This is less a triumphant royal icon than a shopping list held in place by fridge magnets.

What happens to monarchy when it’s pinned to your fridge? What happens to royal authority in an age of mechanical reproduction? Wahrman describes a process of ‘desacralisation’: the mass circulation of ‘cheapened’, ‘aura-deflated’ images of monarchy. In Collier’s trompe l’oeils of William and Mary prints, two pins have gone missing and the papers curl up from the bottom, as if king and queen are being rolled into obsolescence. Wahrman thinks this desacralisation constitutes ‘a sea-change on the path … to modernity’, but a century before, Shakespeare’s Henry IV lingered over a similar question. Lamenting the behaviour of his son Hal, Henry describes the cultivation of royal authority as, in part, a careful policing of visibility: a reluctance to take the stage, or the page. ‘By being seldom seen, I could not stir/But like a comet I was wonder’d at;/That men would tell their children “This is he.”’ Nothing deflates a royal aura like the fumbling over-exposure that characterised Richard II:

The skipping King, he ambled up and down
With shallow jesters and rash bavin wits,
Soon kindled and soon burnt …
Grew a companion to the common streets,
Enfeoffed himself to popularity;
That being daily swallowed by men’s eyes,
They surfeited with honey and began
To loathe the taste of sweetness.

In part these lines are about theatre: a teasing meta-reflection on what might happen to monarchy when kings are played by common actors. (Two generations later, Andrew Marvell described Charles I facing the executioner’s blade as that ‘royal actor’ on a ‘tragic scaffold’, applauded by an audience with ‘bloody hands’.) But perhaps Shakespeare – always serenely untroubled by anachronism – also had in mind, here, that other mode of ‘vile participation’, or becoming ‘common-hackneyed’: that is, monarchy conveyed in cheap print, which so fascinated Collier a century later. The two forms of royal dying that Henry’s lines evoke – kindling and burning, and being ‘daily swallowed by men’s eyes’ – are apt descriptions of what happened to most early modern texts: up in smoke, or read to death.