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© August 2005
revised 26 June 2008

Baroque-era printer's ornament

on “Mr. Engraver’s fancy”

The title phrase is from Hooke’s lecture, “An instrument of use to take the draught or picture of any thing” (delivered to the Royal Society on 19 Dec. 1694), a digital transcription of which is given in a forthcoming pdf on Hooke’s camera designs (for inclusion in the LIBRARY). This is the paper in which Hooke argues the merits of using a portable camera obscura — “whereby any person that can but use his pen, and trace the profile of what he sees ready drawn for him, shall be able to give us the true draught of whatever he sees before him” — for coastline mapping.

This gallery exhibit, intended as a companion piece for the LIBRARY pdf, explores Hooke’s criticism of much printed topographical art. Rather than providing a realistic representation of actual places, the landscapes and townscapes given in travel guides were too often little more than “Mr. Engraver’s fancy,” complained Hooke:

... ’Tis well known, that the books commonly made for the use of seamen, (now commonly called Wagoners, because one Wagoner printed a collection of many such observations) that these books, I say, are full of the prospects of countries, as they are said to appear upon the sea, at such distances and in such positions: and I lately saw a book containing the prospects of all the western coasts of America; but anyone, that understands prospect, will easily discern, how rude, imperfect, and false a representation, all such books contain of the places themselves: for, not to mention the impossibilities they often represent, as the over-hanging of mountains for half a mile, or a mile, which, tho’ the mountain were made of cast iron, were impossible to be sustain’d in such a posture: the extravagant heights they generally raise the hills to, and the sudden and very decline descents they make them have into the vallies, do plainly enough demonstrate them to be no true representations of what they are design’d for. And, indeed, they are most made by the hands of the mariners, who are, generally, very little skill’d in the art of delineation; and, therefore, ’tis not to be expected that they should be very exact: however, even these are of very good use for navigators; and they furnish them with a better idea of the appearance to be look’d for, than descriptions by many words would inform them. Again, we find that many relations of foreign countries do give us pictures of towns, prospects, people, actions, plants, animals, and the like; and those beget in us ideas of things, as they are there represented. But, if we enquire after the true authors of those representations, for the generality of them, we shall find them to be nothing else but some picture-drawer, or engraver, here at home, who knows no more the truth of the things to be represented, than any other person, that can read the story, could fancy of himself, without that help. Such are all the pictures in the books of Theodore de Brie, concerning the East and West-Indies: such are also the greatest part of the pictures in Sir Thomas Herbert’s travels; and those of Mr. Ogylby’s Asia, Africa, and America; which are copies of the Dutch originals, and are, originally, nothing but Mr. Engraver’s fancy: so that instead of giving us a true idea, they misguide our imagination, and lead us into error, by obtruding upon us the imaginations of a person, possibly, more ignorant than our selves.

Not all engravers were equally at fault, of course. In 1637, with his long view of Greenwich, etched on two plates, Wenceslaus Hollar introduced a new approach to landscape art in England, where prior to this, landscape had been valued mostly as background. Hollar, who had travelled widely in Europe, applied scientific method to his encyclopedic investigation of nature and human history, producing artistic illustrations of such precision that they were suitable for historical and antiquarian scholarship.

Hollar’s etchings were “copied from life and hence more deserving of appreciation than those which rather depict chimerical curiosities and things non-existent in Nature,” wrote John Evelyn who, like most connoisseurs and scientists at the time (including Robert Hooke), collected Hollar prints.

Hollar and Hooke shared a profound curiosity about the natural world, which both men observed in microscopic detail, with a loving eye and faithful hand. We know that the two men collaborated on at least one occasion (“at Mr. Hollar concluded scale of 100 in an inch,” recorded Hooke for 16 Aug. 1673), which was very much Hooke’s style. For all his criticism of “Mr. Engraver’s fancy,” Hooke respected the trade, and those who worked at it.

This GALLERY exhibit juxtaposes some of Hollar’s

Landskips, and views of the Environs, Approaches and Prospects of our nobly situated Metropolis, Greenwich, Windsor and other Parts upon the goodly Thames

along with his Divers prospects in and about Tangier. Exactly delineated by W:Hollar (published in 1673), with prints from de Bry and Ogilby publications, about which Hooke was so critical, and pictures of the Egyptian pyramids from Kircher’s Sphinx Mystagoga (Amsterdam, 1676).

TOPICS:  the power of the image to “lead thee” (from the Divine Pymander: “But the spectacle or sight, hath this peculiar and proper: Them that can see, and behold it, it holds fast and draws unto it, as they say, the Loadstone doth Iron.”); new science references to the Aristotelian maxim, Nihil est in Intellectu, quod non suit prius in Sensu; the turn to autopsia (described by Hooke as the personal “inspection and examination of the things themselves”) in scientific research and illustration; history of engraving & etching; Hooke’s contributions to late 17th-century cartography; the psychology of mapping

Baroque-era printer's ornament

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