The following is a guest post by Karen Chittenden and Woody Woodis, Cataloging Specialists in the Prints & Photographs Division:
A curious form of engraved print appeared in London in the early 18th century on which multiple images appear to be randomly scattered across the surface of the paper as though they were being viewed upon a table. A type of trompe-l’oeil, or visual trickery, they were called medley prints by contemporaries and were described by a London print seller as appearing “like so many single pieces promiscuously thrown one upon another.”
Medley prints depicted a jumbled arrangement of a variety of printed materials of the era. For example, the two prints below present engaging puzzles that include portraits, playing cards, a map of the world, commedia dell’arte characters, grotesques, and animals. These displays may have offered viewers the pleasurable experience of being momentarily fooled by the ruse of visual deception, initially perceiving the component objects as real.
A perplexing aspect of medley prints is determining their intended function. One likely use was to advertise examples of wares for sale at print shops of the time. The medley print below by David Lockley combines a portrait of Dutch artist Abraham Bloemaert and a variety of scenes with text describing the merchandise and services provided by Robert Hulton’s establishment in London. In addition to advertising products available from his print shop, medley prints also offered the printmaker a vehicle for demonstrating the wide assortment of styles and subjects at his command: reproductions of prints by other artists are juxtaposed with examples of technical works such as musical scores, calligraphy, and everyday items like playing cards. The skillfulness of the engraver could be measured by the diverse forms and styles of images contained in a single print.
How are we to make sense of these intriguing images? Are they meant to be interpreted like a puzzle where the viewer puts the pieces together to understand the meaning? Presumably the viewing public of the day would recognize the references implied by the seemingly randomly juxtaposed images. While it may be difficult for us today to decipher the meaning of medley prints like The Jolly Broom Man’s Garland or Great Britain’s Post Master, the two pictured in the first illustration set above, the intent of a print such as The Highlanders Medley, below, presents a clearer narrative marking a contemporary event. The Battle of Culloden in Scotland, which brought a bloody end to the Jacobite Rebellion, is illustrated with a combination of lyrics to a victory song; battle scenes; an allegorical image depicting Prosperity in the company of Britannia; a portrait of William, Duke of Cumberland, defender of Great Britain; and, the doomed Pretender as the jack of clubs on a playing card.
Medley prints were intricately composed many-layered optical illusions that enjoyed several decades of popularity in 18th century England. In spite of their popularity as art collectibles, few appear to have survived into modern times. A small collection of medley prints is available in the Prints & Photographs Division of the Library of Congress. There has been little scholarship on the genre so there is much to be learned from further exploration of this “fragmented and syntactically uncertain work of art.”
- See a few more digitized examples of medley prints within the British Cartoon Prints Collection at the Library of Congress. Also, between the evocative titles and summaries of the twenty not scanned, one can summon a mental sketch of medley prints such as the tavern scene in A New Humourous Medley, as it was Performed on the Evening after the Proclamation of Peace, at Sawney MacStewart’s, the Thistle and Crown, in Great Britain or the scenes from the operatic satire The Beggars’ Opera pictured in The Stage Medley Representing the Polite Tast of the Town & the Matchless Merits of Poet G- – – (Gay) Polly Peachum & Capt. Macheath.
- Visually compare a trio of trompe l’oeil prints from the time of the French Revolution in the late 18th century.
- Medley prints are available also within Yale University’s collection of English caricatures and political satirical prints via the Lewis Walpole Library Digital Images Collection.
Hallett, Mark. “The Medley Print in Early Eighteenth-Century London.” Art History, vol. 20, no. 2, June 1997, pp. 214-237.
Hallett, Mark. The Spectacle of Difference: Graphic Satire in the Age of Hogarth. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999.