19 May 2019: ‘Adorned with Sculptures’ – Book Illustration Through the Centuries

I have several files on several devices entitled ‘pretty pictures’. That is, early modern pictures. Lots of these are paintings, some manuscript illuminations, and some from printed books. I have to admit: I’ve never really thought about what the differences between them are, how they were made, how to tell the one kind from another.

That’s why I’m glad that I had a chance to learn about illustrations in early printed books at a workshop organized by my dear friend and colleague Maria Shmygol at Geneva yesterday.                  

Forget about all those women with unshaved armpits. Here’s your original hairy 
lady from the Nuremberg Chronicle.

Maria had invited a very special guest, fabulous Erin Blake from the Folger Library. Erin gave us a practical introduction into the different kinds of images in books, and a lecture on Shakespeare illustrations through the ages. I came away with a head full of new words and knowledge, so this is going to be a long one, but bear with me.

In the morning, we had a fantastic practical session in a lovely room of Geneva’s main library. Erin had brought original images from the sixteenth century onwards all across the pond, so that we could have a look at all those pretty woodblocks, engravings, and etchings.

The most important thing to distinguish all those techniques and their effects is whether the picture came about through being a relief (pressing an inked block of wood on paper), or intaglio (pressing paper onto a piece of metal with ink-filled incisions. Itaglio is Italian and means ‘cut in’ but it’s not only engraving which is intaglo, so better stick with the Italian.

Another difference is whether pictures are hand or machine-made, and it’s extraordinary to consider just how recently machines have taken over what has been made by hand for thousands of years. I guess, for better or worse, that recent machinization relates to lots of things today…

I also didn’t know how expensive illustrations were, and just how very much craft they required. I’ve never taken into consideration, for instance, that you’ve got to cut trees in order to have woodblocks, and have people dig up the earth in mines in order to get to the copper. Engaging with the several illustration techniques made me realize that we shouldn’t take anything for granted.


So the first technique we looked at were woodcuts, an aesthetic I am most familiar with, I think, having looked at these for years and years now. My world history stops around 1680, everything after that is too young for me! Woodcuts are relatively recognizable once you know, but they can become quite intricate, and perhaps seduce you into thinking it’s an engraving (which allowed for finer outlines), so we learnt a trick: you can definitely tell you’ve got a woodcut in front of you if there are white lines anywhere. That’s when the wood has cracked and not taken the ink. Woodcut blocks were used until they fell apart, so a block with a crack would not be thrown out straightaway.


Another good advice was that engraving usually has a fine edge running all around the image. That’s where metal met paper. Engraving was done by incising a thin copper plate with a sharp instrument. Against expectations, the plate was moved while the instrument was held still. It was slow and laborious, and required expertly skilled craftsmen (and women? Who knows). Once you got your design on the plate, you ink it, rub the ink off carefully, cover it with a sheet of paper and put it into a rolling press which exerts more pressure than the usual hand press.


Engraving and etching works in the same way once the lines are in the metal (so it’s also an intaglio technique), but the way to get there is different: you apply varnish to a plate as protective shield. Then you scratch your design into the varnish, taking it away, and exposing the copper where you want to. The plate then gets dipped into acid which eats into the lines you scraped off while leaving the varnished metal intact. If you want bigger black lines on your print, you apply stopping-out liquid (another kind of protective varnish) onto the already etched lines while leaving those you want blacker. Then bathe it in acid again, and there you go. Etching is faster and freer than engraving, and allowed a different kind of curly aesthetic which I find quite attractive. Erin had brought some nice landscapes and country houses, with beautiful wriggly clouds. A trick how to tell your image is an etching and not an engraving is to see if the ends of lines are round. Etching instruments do not produce sharp ends.


Mezzotint is another intaglio method where you work the surface of the metal, roughing it up with this scraper tool and punching lots of little grooves into it. These cavities would hold the ink, so the more and the deeper they are, the darker the print. If you wanted it lighter, you’d burnish the holes away, leaving a smoother surface from which the ink would be wiped. Mezzotint makes lovely shadows and gradations of grey, and was used in mid to late-seventeenth-century portrait illustrations. It’s hard and laborious, and the plates were not very durable, but it served the zeitgeist well, what with all the cavaliers and budding personal history novels (thinking of Clarissa, but that’s later, of course).

Often you’d have a mixing of techniques, for example of mezzotint for some nice shading, and engraving for a clear outline. That was not an issue for people back then, though it makes categorizing prints hard for today’s archivists!


Aquatint worked sort of similarly as etching, but you sprinkle resin on the areas that you want un-incised, and then dip it into acid again. As with mezzotint, the English took and developed the technique producing lots of portraits and landscape paintings with more continuous shades of grey.


Lithography means writing with a stone, so you’d have your big smooth slab of special stone, draw the design with greasy crayons, then etch that away, slightly burning the lines into the stone which would then hold the ink. This was a relatively cheap useful technique as the big stone plates were easily smoothed off for a new design. The library of Geneva happened to have a litographic stone there, a total first for me! The last design was still on it, publicity for a late-nineteenth-century Genevan wine, if memory serves right. Incredible to think people were still using it for so long. But why not.


Up to the 1780s, producing illustrations was a costly, time-consuming process, so to have a book with pictures in it was A Big Deal. When wood engraving was invented at the end of the eighteenth century, and then steel engraving replacing people with machines, and copper with durable steel, and then photo reproduction, there was suddenly an abundance of pictures circulating, so much so that, in the course of the nineteenth century, it came to a saturation and people’s eyes were too full with images.

Erin had brought samples of every printing technique for everyone which really nicely illustrated them. Using that word in the early modern sense here, since ‘illustration’ was giving an example, and our ‘illustrated’ was expressed as ‘adorned with cuts’ or ‘sculptures’, an amazingly three-dimensional tactile way to think of images!

We then had an opportunity to look at some extraordinary holdings of the Geneva library. I was very impressed by those gems I did not know it had! There was a Nuremberg Chronicle from the late-fifteenth century, complete with insane mythological monsters, and a Hooke Micromographia with the fold-out flea. It was water to the early modernist soul to dabble in beautiful old books.

More monsters from the chronicle.

After a gregarious lunch (with Maria’s amazing home-made food!), we heard two student presentations, one by Gemma Allred from Neuchâtel, working on production posters of Shakespeare plays from the 60s to today, and Aleida Auld from Geneva, speaking about an illustrated collection of poems containing Lucrece.

Erin then gave a lecture on Shakespeare illustrations through the ages, beginning with the startling fact that except for a 1656 Lucrece frontispiece, there were no illustrations of any of his works until 1709! That is, more than just his pretty face. Proper illustrations of scenes from his poems or plays. After the 1709 and 1714 Rowe editions with illustrations, you have a gorgeous luxury edition by Boydell who had also commissioned these motifs as actual canvas paintings which he exhibited in a gallery; had people come, and discuss the paintings together with the play excerpts they belonged to. I really love this interactive communal discussion and interpretation of words and image, and that the visitor was walking from piece to piece in a hall. And today, our entertainment is binge-netflixing on a Friday evening. Anyway.

The eighteenth century saw a curious move away from dramatic scene illustration or portraiture towards a depiction of Shakespeare-inspired landscapes, such as a view of Mantua from a hill for Romeo and Juliet rather than the lover buying poison from the apothecary. 

In the 20th century, illustrations disappeared from ‘proper’ books including Shakespeare, tending to gather at the opposite ends of the spectrum, that is, in children’s books and fine press volumes. Erin showed a gorgeous 1930 Hamlet printed in Weimar (Bauhaus style, anyone?), with big bare black figures from woodcut, and the Hamlet sources surrounding the English on the page. Erin also mentioned graphic novels and mangas which straddle the conventions of their own genre (such as stock characters) while safe-guarding Shakespeare’s original text. Excited to check out the unshortened graphic novel Macbeth!

Maria rounded the day off with a brilliant and hilarious talk about the afterlife of John Mandeville’s Travels, a hugely popular text that featured some rather interesting pictures on onion-headed dragons, and some even more curious images of aroused hermaphrodites. What could a scholarly gal want more than to cap such a wonderful day with some naughty early modern picture porn.

Maria discoursing on hermaphrodites.

I came into the workshop with a total clean slate in terms of knowledge about book illustrations. I went out with a mind packed with information and techniques on how to spot differences between methods and aesthetics. I’m also much humbled because I hadn’t realized just how effortful it was to produce an image, and quite what it meant for a publication to have a picture of whatever kind. We have all sorts of colours and crazy images at our disposal, most of the time just a click away, so I think we can’t really appreciate what it meant for someone disused to seeing pictures all the time to suddenly encounter a visual reproduction. It must have been awe and wonder. And so I am in awe and wonder at the ingenuity of printers and artists, continually inventing and perfecting techniques. And I’ll try and appreciate the presence of images in books from now on, be they old or new.        

6 May 2019: What’s Aught but as ‘Tis Valued — Making Use of a Conference

Conferences are great: they give you motivation for your research (i.e. making you forget you chose an under-paid, over-working precarious job), offer you the latest scholarly activity on a plate, help you build a network of friends and cooperators, and give you a chance to show what you have, get insight early on, get grilled and improve.

I used to go to way too many conferences, often preparing extra research for each, and then – forgetting all about it. What a huge waste of time and effort! Then, a friendly senior suggested the obvious: use your paper as the core for an article that you commit yourself to submitting within 6 months of the conference. This most obvious approach was a total game-changer for me. That’s exactly what I now do, and it’s such a relief to keep the ball rolling, submit, and – wait. And hopefully have your thing accepted.

Just emerging from the German Shakespeare Conference, and submitting three (yessss! Imagine, three!) pieces building on that presentation, I thought I might jot down some thoughts on how to use conferences most sensibly and effectively from my point of view.

Before, During, and After

There’s things one can do before, during, and after a conference to maximize use. I hate making it sound so economical and things, but these expressions are just in the spirit of metaphors…


Check out who’s coming, read up on their research, most of all find a photo of them! I once went to a Spenser conference in Dublin and sat next to this old guy who nudged me with his ellbow when a certain slide came up, mentioning James Nohrnberg, one of *the* most famous Spenser scholars. He chuckled and asked whether I knew this name, and I was all like ‘yeah, duh! James Norhnberg is totes amazing!’ He chuckled some more, and said: ‘Yes. That’s me.’ So much for doing your homework. Then again, academia is not about the red carpet, but about finding your name on shelves, so it’s not all that bad to be unable to put a face to a name. But it’s nice and polite to do so.

Connect on twitter with people! Write a nice tweet, saying you are looking forward to their paper or something, so that they are happy to connect with you.

Write a tweet/blog entry about your preparations, and excitement to attend the conference.

Make sure you check the programme, and know where you want to go, particularly if it is a big conference with several simultaneous panels. But also leave room for being surprised.


Familiarize yourself with the venue! If possible, arrive the day before, and check out where to go by actually going there. Bring plenty of time on the day to lose your way…

Don’t be shy to leave the room between papers if it’s not relevant to you. Actual papers often don’t entirely match with the synopses, or the synopses are not clear quite what the presentation is going to be about.

Make notes on paper! I have a special conference notebook, and make mind maps pre-organizing the information. I keep a page at the back for general questions I take from the paper, and one for bibliographical suggestions. At the end of the paper, make three key statements, and some research questions as spring board, when you want to come back to the material.

Tweet about papers. Live tweeting is (or used to be a short while ago?) all the rage.


Type up/order your notes! I use highlighting for something to chase up or remember. I also now write a blog entry about presentations and the conference as a whole, which really helps with ordering thoughts and remembering!

Tweet about how much you liked the conference, and what you take from it.

I also try to connect with people afterwards by following them on twitter or sending friendly emails to say it was nice having met them, or asking about a hand-out or something.

I realize that Twitter has come up in all three sections of Before, During, and After, and I think that’s no surprise. Because we are all working away in our little book-filled attics, purely by the nature of our work if not the inclination of our own natures, Twitter has become a way of connecting, sharing, and staying abreast of what’s happening. I think it’s a great way of being part of bigger conversations, and finding and offering help on book suggestions and the like. The only thing is, alas, Twitter is bad for the environment, using coal for 80% of their server activity. I’ve written to them many times and complained, because Apple amongst others is showing us that you can do it differently. They have built their own solar energy farms in California, which Twitter, being as big as it is, could just as well do without huge losses. I am in two minds about keeping my twitter account, because, yes, you can be an academic without it, and maybe you’ll be more focussed actually; but I find that I like feeling part of a community, and sharing with others in that way. So for now, I’m keeping it, but, yet, you know, uneasy…

3 May 2019: Shakespeare in Translation: A Conference Report (German Shakespeare Society annual conference)

Fabulous. A fabulous conference, and anybody who was not there definitely missed out on some great research, trends, and activities. Luckily, the German Shakespeare Society conference happens every year, most of the time in the beautiful town of Weimar, so make sure to get there in 2020 when it’s all about Shakespeare and dance, apparently (to be confirmed soon).

For sundry weighty reasons, I only came to the second of three days, Saturday, but the programme as a whole really looks amazing, plenty of theatre and museum visits to opt into, and great international speakers like Warren Boutcher, Rui Carvalho Homem, and Alessandra Petrini (programme http://shakespeare-gesellschaft.de/en/conferences/upcoming.html – it’s in German, hm, though the programme is not…). My own panel in the morning was packed with brilliant early career presenters, giving provocative lightning presentations, summaries as follows:

Christine Schwanecke, junior professor at Mannheim University, spoke about self-translation in Henry IV, asking just why are there so many apparent re-caps and repetitions of the plot. (So translation in the sense of offering the same in a new form, form as language, not as in from one language to the other). Scholarship (she mentioned my old friend from Cambridge Callan Davies here, woop woop!) tends to give practical reasons, that theatre goers were dropping in and out of the playhouses buying snacks, and things and got too drunk to follow the linear action properly, circumstances which playwrights accommodated for by including micro-summaries of the plots. Christine disagreed, and explored two types of repetition, that is, diegetic and mimetic, the former being reports and messages recapping action, the latter referring to play inlets such as dumbshows and the like. She suggested these two kinds of multiple repetitions show that history (who’s in, who’s out, to speak with Lear) has little to do with God-given determination, but is made by narrative, that is, rumour. Through the insistance of re-telling events, Shakespeare emphasises that it’s the stories we choose to repeat which cause new stories to emerge and so on. An eternal spinning-off. Somebody asked an interesting question on whether we can at all speak of an original, then, if all sort of comes out of itself in an ever-circling spiral, as it were, and Christine said she deliberately avoided speaking of original and imitation, because she believes that’s not even the point of Shakespeare’s recapping. I’m not sure I do justice to Christine’s paper, but this is what I got while pre-occupied with my own paper which followed.

Then, it was my turn, and I spoke about shrew translations, or rather translation of women, see my previous post. I’ve put my research together in an article which submitted to this year’s Shakespeare Yearbook call, fingers crossed y’all can read about it next year!

The next mini-panel were Emilie Ortiga from Le Havre, and Jonas Kellermann from the University of Konstanz. Emilie’s paper looked at how Shakespeare trickled into France, focussing on Balzac’s reception and circulation of him. She mentioned a great instance from a Balzac novel (I missed which one) where a woman is singing the willow song from Rossini’s opera Otello, creating multiple echoes back to the Shakespearean original. The singer works through her grief about being cheated by her husband, while realizing her own attraction to another man who is in love with her,

and at that very moment of singing is staring at her intensely. She falters, which foreshadows her own relationship with this man, which, if we think of the lyrics from Shakespeare rather than Rossini, we already know even then (‘I’ll couch with more women, if you’ll couch with more men’). Note well that there are different versions of this popular ballad, some of whom do not include mutual cheating. Check out Ross Duffin’s Shakespeare’s Songbook for this one, and also publications by Linda Phyllis Austern. Having worked on Shakespeare, music, and memory in my PhD, I really loved this beautiful intertextual knot.

Jonas’ paper went really well with Emilie’s (and also spoke to my past research!), treating ballet performances of Romeo and Juliet, that is, the translatability of Shakespeare into dance. Usually, the ballet set piece of RJ is the pas de deux, the most intense duo dance, witness performances of Prokofiev’s opera. As Jonas said, ballet is all about tricking gravity, becoming air, ether. At least, the woman’s part is. All men do (or most of their function in ballet anyway), is lift women into that state of weightlessness. The aim is to show off legs and feet, basically. Although this can result in quite intense intimate emotion-laden dancing, it also means a discreteness, a lack of melting into one-ness, between the male and femal dancer. And that, surely, cannot be the point of Romeo and Juliet. Jonas, then, presented on a performance by Sasha Valtz of the ballet using the technique of contact improvisation, a form of modern dance from the 60s which is torso-based rather than leggie, as it were, and in which dancers give and take the weight of each other in continual action and reaction (called ‘listening’, or ‘noticing’). That means sometimes Romeo is carrying Juliet, and sometimes Juliet is carrying Romeo. Here’s to feminist dancing. This equality and closeness, Jonas mentioned, also communicates through the lovers’ linguistic reciprocity, and their rhyming intimacy. He mentioned my article on dance, rhetoric, and cognition in the brandnew Oxford Handbook to Shakespeare and Dance, which was very kind of him – somebody’s reading my stuff! Feeling happy and sheepish at once.

The next panel featured Marie Menzel, a PhD student at the Free University of Berlin, talking about how to translate Tragedy (yes, capital T) into the 21st century through the example of recent British stagings of Richard II. She looked at the Hollow Crown film of 2012, an RSC production from 2013, and a Globe one from 2015, realizing that all of them had changed one particular detail: where the text suggests Exton is the murderer of Richard, these productions shifted the act to Aumerle. Marie asked herself why this was the case, offering a possible answer in the dynamics of revision, the need to make the play (and Tragedy in general) relevant to modern audiences. In all versions, Richard and Aumerle had kissed before, making the subsequent murder all the more, well, tragic, placing the reasons for the catastrophic events on interpersonal grievances rather than, for example, divine-predestination, the rise and fall conception of Tragedy, the Elizabethan understanding of it. Tragic affect is created through the (added? emphasized?) queer love story between the king and lord, which is supposed to make the murder more intelligible to us. I came out with lots of questions, a good thing I guess, and lots of disagreement, for example with Marie’s statement that a modern audience cannot empathize with certain circumstances or understand conceptions of Tragedy anymore; that things have lost their relevance; that we need stories to change in order to enjoy, appreciate, or even get what’s going on. I strongly disagree with that, and one does not need to go far to look for even objective proof, re the Oresteia at the Globe in 2015. I think what’s more at stake in the unaccountable changing of who’s the murderer is that it’s those productions (rather than us the audience) which cannot manage the sheer randomness of the murder that happens because Exton interprets Henry’s gaze in Act 5.4. They suffer from a lack of negative capability, the frightening but all too frequent occurrence that random things can acquire so much momentum, that, restrospectively, they start looking like inevitability. Shakespeare is great at exploring that (for example in the random picking of rose colours by the factions in H6, resulting in what seems necessary but was accidental).

The last paper was a complete eye-opener. Anja Hartl, also from Konstanz, presented on myth-making in Dunsinane, a Macbeth-inspired play by Greig from 2000. I’ve never heard of this at all, and want to go off and read it right now. Anja spoke about how the play challenges neat historical assumptions by engaging with the facts of the real Macbeth’s reign (much longer and much more benign than portrayed in the propagandistic Shakespeare play). What we think we know is not what we actually know, historically speaking, under-cutting narratives (and even counter-narratives) of Scottish identity emerging from that dramatic myth. I’m so excited about the play, and want to see how it speaks to Scotland, back in its making almost 20 years ago, and today, post-referenda on independence and Brexit.

Rather than opting for papers, I participated in an acting workshop after our sessions, and after that in a presentation by Michael Mitchell on teaching Shakespeare at schools through prose spin-offs such as Atwood’s Hag-seed, or Chevalier’s New Boy – a long list that I am looking forward to diving into.

I can really recommend this annual conference which was well organized in beautiful surroundings, and featured lots of highly interesting and relevant papers, as well as other activities around drama.