The Art of Imitation

Folger Exhibit Displays Restored 17th Century Artistic Recreations

Posted January 21, 2004 at 3:17pm

As far as copycats go, the 17th-century Englishman Thomas Trevelyon was arguably among the profession’s masters.

He was also an intrepid scavenger of sorts, who appeared to possess a hearty yen for historical, religious and even scientific subjects, as well as the means and patience to devote himself to their aesthetic and textual recreation.

The culmination of these twin passions was his 600-page “Miscellany” completed at the age of 60 — and lifted primarily from other sources — which provides the viewer with one man’s take on the history of the world as it appeared from his perch at the height of the English Renaissance.

Beginning today, 83 of the 300 existing leaves, many newly restored as part of the Folger’s ambitious two-year conservation project, will be on display at the Folger Shakespeare Library as part of the exhibit “Word and Image: The Trevelyon Miscellany of 1608.”

“It’s a very elaborate version of a home page, with all of the things that were important to him … [and] links to other things like the Bible, moralizing stories and histories,” said Folger Curator of Art Erin Blake of the “Miscellany.”

And whether tackling the portraits and biographies of Protestant reformers, tracing the history of Britain’s rulers from the ancient Trojan Brutus to the Saxon King Harold, or meditating on the fragility of life in his memento mori, Trevelyon proves himself a keen collector of image and text and, in the process, a significant preserver of a bygone era and state of mind.

“Copying and reproduction were valued at that time,” said Blake of Trevelyon’s distinctly retrograde obsession. “Change in Trevelyon’s time was frightening. They emphasized continuity and sameness.”

The sources for Trevelyon’s “Miscellany” were the almanacs, broadsides, woodcuts and engravings of the period — ranging from usual suspects such as the Bible to Thomas Tusser’s “Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry,” a popular work at the time.

What one won’t find, however, are references to the literary, theatrical or popular culture of the day — even Shakespeare, a contemporary, does not merit a mention, Blake said.

“He’s concerned with history and morals and the Bible and practical information,” she noted.

The only entirely original images believed to be included in the “Miscellany” are 100 pages of embroidery designs — several sporting carnation motifs — none of which have been matched elsewhere, said Blake. The intricate, highly refined designs he produced have led curators to conclude that Trevelyon’s profession was likely related to the textile trade.

Trevelyon includes a number of practical features in his “Miscellany,” such as tables pulled from Leonard Digges’ “A Prognostication Everlasting,” delineating how to make calendar calculations centered on the date of Easter — at the time the all-important day in the Christian church year. And his calendar pages are illustrated with “the labors of the months” — showing, for instance, that in April the standard agricultural activity consisted of the plowing and planting of crops.

Trevelyon’s portrayal of women also reflects the period’s dominant sentiments, characterizing them as the Biblically sanctioned “weaker vessel.” In an ironic twist, however, the image Trevelyon uses to depict “the dutiful wife” is a replica of the one used to portray “the presumptuous whorish woman.”

While there is an underlying logic to much of Trevelyon’s selections, such as the copious Biblical and historical references, the subjective whimsy of the “Miscellany” also pops up in pages such as the one listing “The Names of the Authour In this Booke Alledged” — none of which actually show up in the manuscript, but do appear in John Stow’s “A summarie of Englyshe chronicles,” published in 1565.

Despite his prodigious output, Trevelyon, the man, remains something of a question mark. Indeed, his age at the time of the manuscript’s production is known with certainty only because of a later, similar work dubbed the “Great Book,” which appeared in 1616 as an updated, considerably longer version of the original “Miscellany” and included his current age and date. And any record of his birth, death, marriage and even profession remains intriguingly elusive, though curators suspect his family of Cornwall origin and believe that Trevelyon — given the breadth of his sources — must have spent some time in London.

In the 20th century, the manuscript, which languished in obscurity for much of the past four hundred years, has undergone numerous rehabilitation efforts, with less than felicitous results. What’s more, verdigris, the green pigment used throughout Trevelyon’s illustrations and the iron gall ink used in his text corroded many of the pages, said Blake.

The Folger acquired the manuscript in 1945 as a gift from Lessing J. Rosenwald, a collector who had purchased it at a Sotheby’s auction in 1922. But it was not until 1995 that the Folger began the painstaking process of restoring the manuscript, because “we didn’t want to repeat the mistakes that had been done earlier,” said Blake. Moreover, many of the techniques and materials needed to carry out the task were only recently developed, such as the rare “paper splitting” process used to insert support sheets into the leaves and the gossamer tissue used to mend tears.

With the manuscript now fully digitized, Blake said the Folger hopes to make a complete facsimile of the work, with the ultimate goal its publication in book form.

“The hope is … that it can live on for another 500 years, but it’s hard to know what will happen,” said Blake of the original manuscript. “Paper will always continue to deteriorate, but we’ve slowed that deterioration.”

“Word and Image: The Trevelyon Miscellany of 1608,” is on exhibit at the Folger Shakespeare Library today through May 22. Guided tours are available, free of charge at 11 a.m. Monday through Friday and at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. Saturday. No reservations are required.