Feature of the month: The state of art in 1685

In 2016 Senate House Library is commemorating the quartercentenary of the death of William Shakespeare. This year’s Features of the Month celebrate books published in the same year as Shakespeare’s first four folios: 1623, 1632, 1664 and 1685. This is the first of three books to feature from 1685.

Painting Illustrated in Three Dialogues
William Aglionby
London: John Gain for the author, 1685
*Y4 [Aglionby]

Painting illustrated in three dialogues
Painting Illustrated in Three Dialogues

Although he worked both as a medical practitioner and as a diplomat, it is as a writer of art that William Aglionby (1641-1705) is chiefly remembered. Aglionby was frustrated that the English seemed to appreciate no kind of painting but portraits, and that they were the only civilised nation of Europe not to be interested in art. In Painting Illustrated in Three Dialogues, he set out to promote the understanding of “history painting”: in his definition, “an assembling of many figures in one piece, to represent an action of life, whether true or fabulous, accompanied with all its ornaments of landskip [sic] and perspective”. He targeted the aristocracy and gentry in the first instance, hoping that once the upper classes gained an informed understanding of history painting, they would become patrons and collectors and lead a change in national taste.

The book takes inspiration especially from Italy, from ancient times onwards. The dialogues which give the book its name follow a preface about the pleasure of art and definitions, and occupy about one-third of the content. They are between a traveller and his friend, with the friend asking questions or making leading comments, such as “What is oyl [sic] painting?”; “Did Painting get so early into Italy?”; “I observe, great Painters have generally, either Handsome Wives, or Beautiful Mistresses, and they are for the most part, extreamly sensible to Beauty”. The first dialogue is about painting technique; the second about its history, and the third is a lesson on art appreciation. The print is large and the language is plain and readable, redolent of educative children’s books of the nineteenth century. It begins, for example:

The preface
The preface to Aglionby's work

Friend: The extream delight you take in Pictures, is a Pleasure you have acquired abroad, for I remember before you travelled, all Pictures were alike to you, and you used to laugh at the distinction that some of your Friends did use to make of the Pieces of this and the other Master, saying, it was nothing but Humor in them.

Traveller: What you say is very true, and when I reflect upon it, I cannot but blush at my own Ignorance, or rather wilful Stupidity, that deprived me of one of the most refined Pleasure of Life …

Almost two-thirds of the book is devoted to the lives of eleven Italian artists, taken from Giorgio Vasari’s sixteenth-century Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, from Cimabue to Our Times.

By virtue of having studied medicine, Aglionby had been elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1667, and later served two year-long stints on its Council, in 1683-4 and 1686-7. Fellows routinely presented copies of their work to the Society in accordance with its rules, and Aglionby was no exception; this book has the Society’s standard “ex dono auctoris” ownership stamp on the back of the title page, and a manuscript note on the title page: “Presented to the R. Society by the Author November ye 3d  1686”. The Royal Society sold off non-scientific books in four sales over the following three centuries, which explains its presence at the University of London.

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