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  • Curiosity and Reality:the Context and Interpretation of a Seventeenth-century Image
  • Sarah Barber (bio)

Woodcut images, with their naïve monochrome simplicity, appear to provide their audience with an accessible and immediate window on to the history of the English civil wars. This article examines the uses to which one image in particular has been put. The image appeared in seventeenth-century newsbooks on at least three separate occasions, with some variations which will be discussed here. Its first use cannot be ascertained, but the earliest example traced by this author was in A Copie of the Kings Message, published in London in 1644 (Fig. 1), and it is this version of the image which has been taken up by modern picture libraries. It reappeared four years later on the title-page of Terrible and bloudy Nevves from the disloyall Army in the North (Fig. 2), and again at the turn of the year 1650-51 in Bloudy Newse from the North, and the Ranting Adamites Declaration (Fig. 3).

The figure depicts a protagonist, a dismounted horseman, disproportionately large, unsheathed sword aloft, overseeing scenes in which smaller male characters commit a series of atrocities. It portrays violence: a child's brains are dashed on a rock; a woman on her knees pleads for her life; a baby is skewered and paraded on a pike-staff. The images are rendered in black and white with the simplified lines and forms required to gouge into wood; and aimed at a mass audience eager for dramatic news of wartime events. While the consequences of the actions depicted in the woodcut are clearly violent, the technological limitations mean that there is no blood and little attempt to convey action, nor hate, anger, fear or anguish on the faces of the figures.

Newsbooks and pamphlets made little use of illustrations in reporting the course of the war, perhaps because of the need to turn pamphlets around quickly and at minimal cost. (A few more images exist from the sensationalist end of the popular press, particularly depictions of the wild and licentious activities attributed to religious sectaries.) The newsbooks which made repeated, if modified, use of the of the image under discussion here were all associated with one printing house – that run by Andrew and Jane Coe.1

The scarcity of images to illustrate the civil wars, and the graphic immediacy of black and white woodcuts, even still for twenty-first century readers, mean that modern publishers often use Coe illustrations for [End Page 21]

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Fig. 1.

[Anon], A Copie of the Kings Message sent by the Duke of Lennox, London, 1644. Title page of pamphlet; woodcut.

Courtesy of The British Library Board, E16(10).

[End Page 22]

dust-jackets.2 Two sections from the featured image – the child being dashed on a rock and the supplicant woman – feature on the cover of Diane Purkiss's The English Civil War: a People's History (2006).3 The full woodcut appears inside popular histories such as Trevor Royle's Civil War: the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, 1638-1660 (2004), and Tristram Hunt's The English Civil War at First Hand (2002).4 Twenty-first century uses of the image include those on websites, such as 'Ask the Experts' from Channel 4 television, or that of the National Archives.5 For a younger audience, it has been deployed in a number of schoolbooks. The image is supplied to publishers of school or popular histories by picture libraries, whose stored images are catalogued without reference to context and often without reference to an original location. This presents us with two obvious questions about reading seventeenth-century woodcut images: what do modern audiences make of the image, devoid of context; and, with the passage of 300 years, in what ways might this reading differ from that of its contemporaries?

Such images were copied and reproduced as magazine and book illustrations in the eighteenth and (particularly) the nineteenth centuries, almost invariably without reference to text, source or context. In the later nineteenth and particularly the twentieth century, these images began to be collected into picture libraries, which sold to publishers the rights...


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