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This article is taken from PN Review 227, Volume 42 Number 3, January - February 2016.

Pictures from a Library (24)

24: Ben Jonson’s Emphatic Thumb
Stella Halkyard
Portrait of Ben Jonson

Portrait of Ben Jonson from Jonson’s Workes (1616) © the University of Manchester.

On the eve of the four-hundredth anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, let us give a thought to Ben Jonson who was, at this time, preparing his ‘workes’ for publication, with his eye keenly focused on immortality.

The production of a deluxe edition with its profligate use of paper, ostentatious layout and elaborate frontispiece represents a landmark moment in English literary history when, for the first time, a writer chose to exert authority over his own work as the ‘child of his right hand’.

Likewise, the portrait, shown here, which graces the title page of the Rylands’s copy of Jonson’s folio, presents him, the ‘most learned of the English poets’, as a model of decorum. His ‘mountain belly’ is buttoned down and trussed up with a sash; his ‘rocky face’ wreathed in the laurels that proclaim his status as the first, in all but name, of the English poet laureates.

Yet all is perhaps not as it seems, as accessories in portraits are ‘generative of ideas and meanings’ in their own right (Marcia Pointon). An accessory can carry a history as complex as the etymology of a word. If brought to bear on a carefully constructed image, like the one Jonson offers us here, an accessory can give the viewer insights into things authors may prefer to leave unseen and unsaid. Take, for example, Jonson’s gloves. In the early modern period it was customary ...

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