No. 20, May 2008

‘May’ from the Months, with a prologue on trenchers and other applied prints

  Click the image to enlarge it John Garret's advertisement of 1680 on his reissue of Droeshout's Spiritual Warfare includes 12 several Sorts of pleasant Landskips, printed on very Large Paper, for Sashes for Windows: Which also serve (being put into Frames) for delightful Ornaments for Houses, and one set of the Five Senses John Overton was selling in 1673 is described as printed in rounds for screens. 1 In the London Gazette for 6-19 September 1688, an otherwise unknown Mrs Barrett, whose shop was in Three Leg Court in Old Bedlam, advertised A large Collection of Copper Plates engraven with great Variety of Statues, and other Curious Ornaments, for Hangings, Curtains, &c. Also variety of Land-skips, and small Figures for Shashes. 2

But already in the earliest known printseller's advertisement—that of Peter Stent issued in 1654—the use to which several of his sets of prints might be put is suggested, e.g.

12 Plates for cheez trenchers
2 Plates of Signes or Badges for Innes, or Taverns.

With this last item, which has become Three plats by the time of the 1662 advertisement, compare, from Arthur Tooker's A Catalogue of Plates (1675), under Plates of Mr. Gaywoods Etching, invented by Mr. Barlow and others,

Two [plates of] Badges or Choice of Signs for Bars and Rooms.

In his annotations to Samuel Pepys's collection of prints, Aspital suggested that the three engraved sheets of inn-signs, fifteen per sheet, which unfortunately bear no imprint information, may have been the ones appearing in Stent's advertisements. 3 Certainly The Kings head is that of Charles II and on the same sheet, I note that the final sign—where the printer's name and address might be expected, if there were one—is The White Horse, which was Stent's address. Unknown to Globe, in Douce Prints Portfolio 139, now in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, are two such sheets of signs (one fragmentary) bearing the imprint of Stent's successor, John Overton. 4 A very similar sheet, but in which the signs are disposed vertically in five rows of three, rather than in three rows of five as in the Pepys sheets, is to be found in the Banks collection in the British Museum. 5

While it might be thought such sheets could have served as designs for sign-painters, the wording of Stent's and Tooker's entries, the latter in particular—Badges or... Signs for Bars and Rooms—may rather imply that they were to be cut up and used to name rooms or bars within large establishments, and not necessarily those dispensing alcoholic liquors. In Shakespeare's Henry IV plays (c.1597-8) we learn that the Boar's-Head tavern in East Cheap had rooms named Half-moon, Pomgarnet and Dolphin, and in Jonson's Bartholomew Fair (1614), we hear of an inn-room called Coney—signs of the Half-moon and Dolphin appear on the Banks sheet.

Presumably cashing in on immediate post-Restoration enthusiasm, Stent's 1662 advertisement also lists

Small pieces of the King Queen, Princess, Dukes of York, Glocester, Albemarl, Royal Oake, Healing the Kings Evil and such like, 12 plats, for to adorn Tobacco-boxes, much in use.

We hear of just such an image of Charles II used strategically by a former Parliamentarian now turned Royalist in the Preface to L’Estrange’s Apology (1660):

Out comes the Spruce Tobacco-Box, with the King’s Picture at it, which he Wears, and Kisses, not so much out of Kindnesse, and Devotion, as for a Hint, and Introduction, to his Politiques, now at hand. 6

By the very end of our period, prints might appear on handkerchiefs too, and the Victoria & Albert Museum currently exhibits one such dated 1707 and printed with a celebration of Marlborough's victories. Another contemporary printed handkerchief has the Twelve Months as its subject.

Tooker's 1675 Catalogue, under Several sorts of Plates by divers Authors, also lists

Sixty Stories of variety of Landskips and Ovals with neat borders, and a variety of Beasts, Birds, Hunting, Trees, Worms, Fruit, Flowers, Fishes, &c. Coloured fit for Cabinets, Dressing-boxes, Powder-boxes, Baskets, Skreens, &c.

In her Supplement to the Queen-like Closet (1674) Hannah Woolley taught her gentlewomen readers how to adorn cabinets, stands and biscuit-plates with prints or parts thereof—in a significant antedating of the Victorian enthusiasm for découpage. 7

Walton's advertisement from which we have quoted above, continues with a list of the various craftspeople to whom such prints may be of use as design sources:

also extraordinary [sic] useful for Goldsmiths, Jewelers, Chasers, Gravers, Painters, Carvers, Embroiderers, Drawers, Needle-women, and all Handicrafts.

And we might add, tilers too, for prints were also copied in tile: indeed, nine tiles hand-painted after printed designs charting incidents in the Popish Plot (which also appeared as pictorial playing-cards) survive in the Victoria & Albert Museum, representing what the Museum’s online catalogue describes as 'the start of tin-glazed wall tile production in this country'. 8

Overton's advertisement of 1673 boasts Five Hundred New sorts of Birds, Beasts, Fish, Flies, Wormes, Flowers, Fruites, Figures, Histories, Landskips, Ovals, Neately cut in Copper, and neatly coloured, for Gentlewomens works, and he is doing more as time will permit, as well as taking a swipe at his rival, Robert Walton: Iohn Overton... hath more then ten times the choice and stock that R.W. hath, though he vapors that he is the oldest man.

Many prints will undoubtedly have been put to such decorative use by the craftspeople mentioned in the advertisements, but a few will have been specifically aimed at younger viewers, like the eighteenth-century 'lotteries', and may have been cut up for use in card and other games, or as an aid to reading.

Certain classes of print were designed for applied use: they are mostly small in size as they were intended to decorate small boxes (for pills or tobacco) or other artefacts of specific shape—such as circular ‘banqueting’ trenchers.

Trenchers in this sense are thin wooden roundels, often little bigger than a modern circular drinks coaster or beer-mat, that are believed to have been used for the final course of the early modern banquet, in the Elizabethan and Jacobean era in particular. They are usually decorated on one side only, the side on which fruit, cheese, and sweetmeats are thought to have been served, while the other side (which remained face-down during the meal) is either painted with some pictorial design and verse/motto, or—our present concern—has an engraved print pasted to it.

Several museums possess either complete sets of such trenchers, or sorry and sometimes lone survivors from sets. In fact, in the earliest advertisement of the stock of the London print-seller Peter Stent, of 1654, we read of 12 Plates for cheez trenchers, and 6 plates of Mr Marshal’s for Trenchers. Though some rectangular examples do exist, 9 trenchers are overwhelmingly circular in form, and as illustrated in the advertisement, the standard number in a set is a dozen, though half-dozens are also encountered. It will thus come as no surprise to learn that the most popular subject found pasted on surviving sets is the Months, but other dozens include the Sibyls (even though conventionally only ten in number), and twelve of Aesop’s Fables—one of these three subjects could well be that mentioned in Stent’s list. Fortunately, we can be certain of the identity of the half-dozen advertised, as the six circular prints in question engraved by William Marshall, survive uniquely in the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington. 10 In fact, they are emblems, and the circular emblem, a format first introduced into England with Wither’s Collection of Emblemes of 1635 (originally engraved by Crispin de Passe), was clearly tailor-made for the normally circular trencher. 11

The series of Months published c.1630 attributed to the engraver Robert Vaughan (after de Passe), from which this month’s print comes, must have been designed specifically for pasting to trenchers, for the perimeter inscription to March significantly opens, As trenchers thinn are made for fruite and cheese... while the present May roundel interestingly styles the month’s subject (the usual maying-party out in a boat) this Emblem, before proceeding to moralise it. 12 This particular edition of the Months (and there were several editions extant to judge from surviving trencher sets 13 ) was certainly found on one of the earliest sets to be published, in The Gentleman’s Magazine for May 1793, p. 398, though the whereabouts of that particular set is now unknown.

Clearly these Months prints might be saved in an album—as was the case with our present example of the Collings issue—or cut out, pasted to a trencher, and varnished over. Omission of one or both the two concentric rings of inscription also allows for roundels of various diameters.

The upper verse outside the roundel in the Months series names the prominent saints’ days which fall in the month in question, while the lower verse reflects in general (and usually agricultural) terms on the appropriate Labour of the Month.

The English perimeter verse to the present month is not unusual for this sort of verse in being capable of being read in a double sense:

Heere by this Emblem may be understood
That when a young man hath a pype that’s good,
The maydes will listen after it with pleasure
And keepe theire tunes and times unto his measure

Certainly, the male half of one of the couples in the boat is playing on a pipe, but given the sexual context of maying, and the innuendo in other verses of the series, it is, at least, suggestive.

The originator of this print series was Crispin de Passe the Elder who engraved The Months (after designs by Maarten de Vos) in Cologne probably in the 1590s. That such Months sets were available prior to the date of the English copies of de Passe’s engravings we may be sure from a passing allusion to Twelve trenchers, upon every one a month... and their posies under ‘em in Middleton’s No Wit, no Help Like a Woman’s, published in 1612 (II. i. 62ff.), though the actual verses quoted correspond to no known set. They were clearly a very popular series in England, however, though the number of English editions has yet to be properly sorted out. What follows is but ‘work in progress’! I am aware of three different sets of vernacular perimeter verses. I quote the three versions for September, as only that month survives as a representative of Type 1:

September showes you playne of sondry sortes of ffishes
Give God the praise that filleth thus your dishes. 14

The sea and land yields store of Fishe and fruit, most fishe [sic];
Eate not to muche September wills, it may thy health ympayr. 15

Amongst all Creatures Woemen still are od
Of fleshe or fish, they Cheifely love the Cod: 16
For if the Goodwife haue it not, noe doubte
Her Husband shall be seru'd with Carpe and Powte. 17

The history of the issue of the Type 3 set can be traced as follows:

  • Roger Daniel (c. 1629)—(erasure still visible under next)
  • Thomas Johnson (c. 1630)—BM P&D 166 c.1 (2)
  • Matt Collings (1660s)—BM P&D 157* a.18
  • Robert Walton (active 1647-87)—Ashmolean, Douce E.2.6 (168)

It is notable that all three of the dozens known to have been pasted to trenchers, the Months, Sibyls and Fables, were being sold by the printseller Thomas Johnson c.1630; he seems to have inherited the stock of Roger Daniel after Daniel had moved from London to Cambridge the previous year, and indeed, an earlier state of the Sibyls is known with Daniel’s address.

As a postscript, it is perhaps worth noting that the litterati could not resist a sneer at the quality of the verse inscriptions on trenchers, whether painted or engraved. In his Art of English Poesy (1589), however, Puttenham is not judgemental, neutrally stating that We call them [sc. epigrams] posies, and do paint them nowadays upon the backsides of our trenchers of wood, or use them as devices in arms or in rings. And, indeed, when John Heywood came to compose an epigram on his own Book of Epigrammes, first published in 1555, the metaphorical resemblance of that work to a trencher seemed apposite: This booke maie seeme, as it sorteth in sute, A thin trym trencher to serue folke at frute, but by 1597 Joseph Hall is referring dismissively to hunger-starved trencher poetry (Satires I. i. 13), and Milton couples such verses with ring-posies:

Instead of well siz'd periods, he greets us with a quantity of thumb-ring posies. He has a fortune therefore good/ because he is content with it. This is a piece of sapience not worth the brain of a fruit-trencher. 18

Middleton has one of his characters in The Old Law (1627) refer sneeringly to running admonitions Upon cheese-trenchers, and cites as an example of such an admonition,

Take heed of whoring, shun it;
‘Tis like a cheese too strong of the runnet 19
(II.i. 126ff.)

which is, admittedly, bathetic! In similarly dismissive vein, the vastly learned Robert Burton in his Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) sarcastically concludes a long list of entirely serious maxims and adages with, Look for more in Isocrates, Seneca, Plutarch, Epictetus, etc., and for defect, consult with cheese-trenchers and painted cloths. 20

Maybe it is the contempt of such ‘canonical’ writers that has led to the unaccountable scholarly neglect of the genre which, however, has much to reveal about contemporary mentalité. 21

The Type 3 verse for September (above) is a case in point—it records a metaphorical commonplace that seems to have been popular from at least the late sixteenth century, when Nashe referred in his Prognostication (1591) to Plentie of poutes to bee had in all places, especiallie in those coastes and Countries where weomen haue not their owne willes. The pun on carp in the September verse will be apparent, but pout may not be familiar—OED defines the fishy variety as ‘a name applied to several kinds of fish, most commonly to the bib or whiting-pout’, and cod at this period was also a common vernacular term for the scrotum.

Compare Lyly's Endimion (1632), III.iii.126ff.:

Epiton: Why in marrying Dipsas, shall haue euery day… foure [dishes] fish… Crab, Carpe, Lumpe, 22 and Powting.
Samias: Excellent, for of my word, she is both crabbish, lumpish, and carping.

or this from The Merry Bell-man's Out-Cryes, or, The City's O yes (1655):

and ye shall hear a Juniper Lecter, in Billings-gate Nonsense, and have a messe of maundring Broath, 23 wih a dish of Carps and Powts

By the mid century the jest was being recycled in the popular Figure of… literature, e.g. in the Nine sorts of Dishes a lewd wife provides her Husband from The figure of nine (1662):

a messe of Mandring broth
a wormwood posset
a Dish of crabbed faces
a panful of Carp
a mouthful of pouts…

or in the Seven things some women provide for their Husbands from The Figure of Seaven by ‘MP’ (1686 24 ):

1 A mess of maundring broth
2 a dish of Powts
3 a handfull of Rue
4 a Wormwood Posset
5 a Pan full of Carp…

British Museum 1863,0808.95. Dimensions of original: 181 mm x 130 mm (cropped)


Alexander Globe, Peter Stent, London Printseller, c.1642-65 (Vancouver, 1985), p. 179, item 76 (aXVI). Back to context...
i.e. OED sash 1.b, ‘A window-frame covered with paper or linen’. I quote this from the section, ‘Advertisements for Prints’ of the most useful website, Early Modern Rambler, by C.H.L. George: Back to context...
A.W. Aspital, Prints and Drawings. Part I: General, in Robert Latham (ed.), Catalogue of the Pepys Library, vol. 3, pt. 1 (Woodbridge, 1980), p. 39, cat. nos. 496-7a. Back to context...
Oxford, Ashmolean Museum, Douce Prints Portfolio 139, nos. 961 and 967, [collored and sold] by Iohn Overton att the white [horse without Newgate]. In the Dicey/Marshall catalogue of ‘1764’ a ‘copper royal’ of The Signs of Taverns is also listed. Back to context...
Information I owe to the kindness of Sheila O'Connell. The registration number is Department of Prints and Drawings, Banks 132.153. Back to context...
I owe this reference to Tamsyn Williams, ‘Magnetic Figures: Polemical Prints of the English Revolution’, in Lucy Gent & Nigel Llewellyn (eds), Renaissance Bodies (London, 1990), pp. 86-110, on p. 110. Back to context...
For a seventeenth-century box so decorated, see A.J.B. Wace, ‘Embroidery’, Apollo, 18 (1933), p. 24, fig.4, cited in Globe, Peter Stent, p. 43, n. 57. Back to context...
Mus. no. 414:823/1-1885. Back to context...
Three survivors from a set of rectangular trenchers survive in the Strangers’ Hall Museum, Norwich [76.94.435; 76.94.435a; 76.94.435b]. Anthony Wells-Cole, Art and Decoration in Elizabethan and Jacobean England (New Haven and London, 1997), p. 26, has identified their painted decoration as copying Biblical woodcuts by Virgil Solis. Back to context...
Peter M. Daly & Mary V. Silcox, ‘William Marshall’s Emblems (1650) Rediscovered’, English Literary Renaissance, 19 (1989), pp. 346-74, supplemented by Michael Bath and Malcolm Jones, ‘Emblems and Trencher Decorations: Further Examples’, Emblematica, 10 (1996), pp. 205-10. Back to context...
For another example of emblematic designs after those in a printed emblem-book painted on rectangular trenchers, see Michael Bath, ‘Emblems from Alciato in Jacobean Trencher Decorations’, Emblematica, 8 (1994), pp. 359-70. Back to context...
ESTC S94209 (STC 18051.5); not in Hind; bound copy in British Museum Department of Prints & Drawings 166.c.1 (lacks December). Back to context...
With the publishers as listed below. Back to context...
British Museum, Dept. of MME 95, 6-3, 159. In the first line, playne is perhaps meant to be playnte. Back to context...
BM MME 1921, 2-16, 34 [‘Harington’ set]; Salisbury Museum; singletons in Stranger’s Hall Museum, Norwich, & Plymouth Hall Museum, Plymouth, Mass. At the end of the first line, fishe should probably be fayr. Back to context...
punning on ‘scrotum’. Back to context...
Print series issued by Johnson, Collings, and Walton; the only known applied example of this edition is the lost Drew set—see Gentleman’s Magazine, 9 July 1793. See further below. Back to context...
Milton, Apollo Smectymnus (London, 1642), p. 28. Back to context...
i.e. rennet. Back to context...
Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy, ed. H. Jackson (London, 1932), pt. 2 sec. 3 mem. 8. Painted cloths are urgently in need of discussion! Back to context...
I discuss such trencher verse in ‘Such pretty things would soon be gone: the Neglected Genres of Popular Verse 1480-1650’, in Michael Hattaway (ed.), A Companion to English Renaissance Literature and Culture (Oxford, 2000), pp. 442-63. Back to context...
‘A spiny-finned fish of a leaden-blue colour and uncouth appearance, Cyclopterus lumpus, characterized by a suctorial disk on its belly with which it adheres to objects with great force (whence its name of lump sucker); the sea-owl.’ [OED] Back to context...
i.e. grumbling, scolding—not in OED—a significant antedating here of Grose, etc. Back to context...
The composition may have been at least 30 years earlier, however, if the ‘MP’ in question was the popular ballad- and hack-writer, Martin Parker (d.1656). Back to context...