The Oxford English Dictionary records the first English use of ‘frontispiece’, in 1598, as ‘the principal face or front of a building; “but the term is more usually applied to the decorated entrance of a building”’. In 1607, it came to mean ‘the first page of a book or pamphlet, or what is printed on it; the title-page including illustrations and table of contents’, but that meaning became obsolete by 1704 and in its place, its current use, ‘an illustration facing the title-page of a book or division of a book’. Despite its long history, only a few scholars have studied its significance, among them Margery Corbett and Ronald Lightbown, who in The Comely Frontispiece (1979)—an earlier study that culls examples from English literature of the sixteenth and the first half of the seventeenth century—argue that frontispieces are frequently ‘images in which some of the greatest of sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century poets, dramatists, travellers, scholars, philosophers, statesmen and divines express themselves in a second language’. Their task, which Fowler also has taken on, is ‘to interpret that language, to explore its sources, to draw out the meanings, some plain, some deliberately obscure, that it was intended to hold for contemporaries’. Fowler describes his book as ‘only an essay sketching some outstanding topics and illustrating them with plates and attendant commentaries. The hope is to raise interest in frontispieces and title pages usually passed over with a cursory glance’ (p. vii). His introduction begins by looking at the historical setting where the first leaf of manuscripts in the Middle Ages often has a decoration of the first phrase, an ‘incipit’, ‘to refer to the manuscript as a whole, much as we use a title’ (p. 5). Gutenberg’s invention of moveable type in the 1450 s ushered in the mass production of books and unsold copies were covered with a protective, blank leaf that needed some means of identification, a simple—or reduced—form of a lengthy preamble. In the seventeenth century, reducing titles became an intellectual game, such as the cryptic titles to many of George Herbert’s poems. The design and content of title-pages, Fowler maintains, quickly change with technological innovation and are ‘so multifarious it would take several tomes to cover them all’ (p. vii). To prepare readers for his analyses of several examples in the second part of the book, ‘Frontispieces & Commentaries’, Fowler briefly discusses ways title-pages have been decorated: borders, architectural structures, portraits, printers’ devices, emblems, chronograms, and compartments. Fowler selects 16 title-pages from the early fifteenth to the late nineteenth century: Thynne’s The Workes of Geffray Chaucer (1532), the Great Bible (1539), Dee’s General and Rare Memorials (1577), Harington’s Orlando furioso (1591), Drayton’s Poly-Olbion (1612, 1622), Jonson’s The Workes (1616), Bacon’s Instauratio magna (1620), Herrick’s Hesperides (1648), Hobbes’ Leviathan (1651), Barlow’s Aesop’s Fables (1666), Sherburne’s The Sphere of M. Manilius (1675), Pope’s An Essay on Man (1745), Baskerville’s Virgil’s Bucolica, Georgica et Aeneis (1757), Thackeray’s The Rose and the Ring (1855), Dickens’ The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870), and Geoffrey Chaucer’s Works, better known as The Kelmscott Chaucer (1896). Each example is examined in several ways: artists, authors, booksellers, chronograms, designers, editors, emblems, engravers, frames, illustrators, inscriptions, layouts, moralizations, patrons, portraits, printing histories, printers, publishers, stationers, tableaux, titles, typography, versions, and vignettes. A few examples. The history of the Bible in English is well known, and Fowler is right to include the Great Bible (1539) as he builds on the work of Corbett and Lightbown, who only discuss the Bishops’ Bible (1602) and the Authorized Version, or King James Bible (1611). The title-page covers its blood-stained history in three registers: Henry VIII—prominently placed on his throne near the top of the page—displaces God, who has given the Holy Scriptures to him and is now drawn into the background. In the second register, Henry VIII distributes copies of the Bible to Archbishop Cramner, Bishop Bonner, and Thomas Cromwell, who then distribute them to their clerics. The third register shows one cleric teaching a congregation of ‘men and women of all conditions’ (p. 84), many of whom hold scrolls that either read ‘vivat rex’ or ‘God save the kinge’. Corbett and Lightbown have examined already Jonson’s The Workes and Hobbes’ Leviathan, which Fowler says ‘is among the greatest works of political philosophy in our literature, and perhaps the most original’ (p. 143). It is also ‘one of the best-known title pages in English literature’ (p. 144). Although it may be well known, Fowler’s critical eye has noticed a deeper meaning in the fourth compartment: all the objects are ‘from the visual alphabet of Johannes Host von Romberch, a fifteenth-century Dominican. These alphabets were used to form words to be memorized’. For example, ‘the fork spells NVMN, suggesting NVM(I)N(IS), Latin for “divine power or majesty”. Thus, the forth compartment encapsulates the theme of Leviathan: that the power of the state protects the subjects, who surrender their individual will to its sovereign authority’ (p. 145). John Baskerville’s Virgil’s Bucolica, Georgica et Aeneis, says Fowler, ‘announced the revival of English typography’ (p. 174). Baskerville did not displace William Caslon’s ‘conservative style’ used in England at the time and had mixed responses from other English typographers, but it did influence typographers outside England: Fournier in France, Bodoni in Italy, and Douglas and Foulis in Scotland. Baskerville’s type—with its simple, neoclassical design—had ‘a great difference in thickness between horizontal and vertical elements’, ‘had serifs at right angles with strokes’, and ‘wide spacing and dramatic expanses of white’ (p. 175). Baskerville became widely used in the early twentieth century when the university presses of Princeton, Harvard, and Cambridge adopted it. The relationship between word and image is crucial for most frontispieces, and the number and quality of the black and white images in The Mind of the Book are to be praised. Thackeray may be ‘one of the finest illustrators of his age, but among self-illustrators, he is probably supreme in any age’ (p. 181). Yet images are costly to reproduce, and Fowler supplies only two additional smaller illustrations other than the title-page of The Rose and the Ring. Along with Hobbes’ Leviathan, Fowler provides the presentation drawing by French etcher Abraham Bosse that shows the body of Leviathan composed of ‘human heads facing outwards’, whereas the printed version displays the body composed of ‘full-length figures with their backs to the viewer’ (p. 149). Fowler is right to end his sketch with the nineteenth century: ‘so predictable has the contemporary title page become that readers understandably tend to pass over it’ (p. 69). Common readers often rush past the preliminary leaves of a book to get to the opening lines. But as long as scholars and critics are interested in the history of the book, there will be an audience who appreciates the art of title-pages. © The Author 2017. Published by Oxford University Press 2017; all rights reserved This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
The Review of English Studies – Oxford University Press
Published: Nov 22, 2017
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