A Medley of Visually Deceptive Prints

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.

Montage of prints and text includes portraits of Charles I and Sir Cloudsley Shovell, map of the world, newspaper, correspondance, playing card, and prints of roosters, lovers, grotesque, and commedia dell'arte character, Harlequin.

Great Britain’s Post Master…, Medley print, Printed for Wm. Knight, [1707]. hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ds.07991

Montage of prints, text, and musical notation includes title page to song book "The jolly broom man's garland;" and small prints of birds, people, architecture, religion, and commedia dell'arte.

[The jolly broom man’s garland.] Medley print, printed for John Bowles & Son, at the Black Horse in Cornhil[l], [between 1753 and 1764]. hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ds.07532

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.

Print, an advertisement for Robert Hulton's London shop, shows the types of prints sold and framed at the establishment. Includes a portrait of Dutch artist Abraham Bloemaert.

Maps and Prints Sold and Framed…, Medley print engraved by David Lockley, between 1715 and 1730. hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3c37616

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.

Print shows a trompe-l'oeil presentation, with at center, "His Royal Highness Wm., D. of Cumberland", half-length portrait, facing slightly left, holding a sword labeled "Pro Patre et Patria" across his chest, surrounded by vignettes depicting scenes of William's success putting down the Jacobite uprising in Scotland and particulary the Battle of Culloden. Depicted are the rebel Scots Highlander clans marching to meet the Royal troops, being routed and in retreat, and caught in the net of Satan who drags them toward a triple gallows. Also shows Britannia and Prosperity, with beehives and a temple. Includes a portion of "A Royal Song. Sung by Mr. Beard at the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden" and a playing card depicting Charles Edward, the pretender, also eight lines of verse at bottom describing the events depicted in most of the vignettes. William Boyd, Earl of Kilmarnock, Arthur Elphinstone, Lord Balmerino, and George Mackenzie, Earl of Cromarty, were all sentenced to death, Kilmarnock and Balmerino were beheaded 18 August 1746, Cromarty's sentence was commuted.

The Highlanders Medley, or the Duke Triumphant, Medley print, Publish’d According to Act of Parliament, 1746. hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.40213

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.”

Learn More

Works Cited

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.

One Comment

  1. Gay Colyer
    April 25, 2016 at 2:50 pm

    Thanks you two! A fascinating study.

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