Monday, May 08, 2017

Browne on Art and Paintings

Scattered throughout Sir Thomas Browne's collected writings there can be found various remarks and observations relating to aesthetics and the visual arts. Furthermore, a familiarity with the social circles frequented by Browne provides clues to identifying paintings which he personally may have seen.

Browne's life-time encompassed the 'Golden Age' of Dutch Art. It was an era in which painters of the genius of Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) Rembrandt (1606-1669) and Johannes Vermeer (1635-1675) flourished. Browne's life-time also witnessed a decline in Anglo-Dutch relations as the newly-established and independent Republic developed its own trading and commerce. No less than three naval wars between the Dutch and English occurred in his life-time, the last resulting in a tragedy for his family.

With its extensive coast-line the county of Norfolk, along with the city of Norwich have a close geographical and cultural proximity to the Netherlands. It should not therefore be too surprising that paintings by Dutch master artists were acquired by Norfolk and Norwich gentry throughout the seventeenth century.  A clue to Browne himself owning a Dutch painting occurs in a footnote in his little-explored commonplace notebooks

'Being in the country a few miles from Norwich, I observed a handsome bower of honeysuckle over the door of a cottage of a right good man; which bower I fancied to speak as follows' ........

There follows a Latin poem in which Browne in a rare example of his poetic skills gives voice to honeysuckle. The verse concludes with a footnote -

'Alluding to the fable in Ovid of Baucis and Philemon entertaining Jupiter and Mercury in their cottage; whereof hangs in my parlour from a draught of Rubens'. [1]

Peter Paul Rubens painting of the gods Jupiter and Mercurius visiting the house of Philemon and Baucis (c.1630) depicts the fable as told by the Roman poet Ovid in Metamorphoses of Baucis and Philemon who unwittingly entertain the gods Jupiter and Mercury in their cottage. The charitable act of hospitality, encouraged by all world religions for humanity towards strangers is endorsed in Christianity thus- ' Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. [2]

Its interesting to think that this painting may have been a constant reminder to Browne to live as far as possible in an hospitable way, no easy aspiration in an era which encompassing the English Civil war (1642-51) was often inhospitable in extreme.

Its quite possible that Browne’s painting may have originated from the studio of Rubens rather than by the hand of Rubens himself. Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) made much use of sub-contracted artists as well as those of his own large workshop. Painters of the calibre of Van Dyke often studied in master-artist's work-shops.

It has been calculated that an estimated 1.3 million Dutch pictures were painted from 1640 -1660 alone, many of which originated from master-artist's work-shops. This volume of production meant that prices were fairly low, except for the best known artists.

Van Dyke became the chief assistant to Rubens, the dominant master of Antwerp, and the whole of Northern Europe. Ruben's influence on the young Van Dyke was immense; indeed, Rubens referred to the nineteen-year-old van Dyck as "the best of my pupils". When Van Dyke arrived in England to establish a successful career, he found, as the German composer Handel almost a century later, that while the English were wealthy and appreciative patrons of the arts, nonetheless they lacked many of the skills associated with nurturing and developing the arts.

In Browne's psychological self-portrait Religio Medici written after completing his medical studies in the Dutch University city of Leiden in 1629,  the recently qualified doctor wittily confesses  -

'I can look a whole day with delight upon a handsome picture, though it be but of an Horse'. [3]

Browne’s candid admission to delighting in contemplation of a painting exemplifies his refined appreciation of beauty, a  psychological feature of his which is often overlooked by critics and biographers. However, the rigours of establishing a medical practise in order to provide for his ever-growing family, along with his pursuing interests such as conducting ‘elaboratory’ experiments, bird-keeping, antiquarian studies, letter-writing and reading, along with living conditions in 17th century England in general, could hardly have permitted the learned doctor with the leisure-time to contemplate a painting a whole day. Such an expressed sentiment is more wishful thinking than any opportunity for doing so, yet also suggest Browne possessed a strong inclination to contemplate artistic beauty.

It's also in Religio Medici that one of the most popular of all Browne’s many quotes, now frequently cited as an internet meme can be found -

Nature hath made one world, and Art another. In brief, all things are artificial, for nature is the Art of God. [4]

Although the 1711 Sales Auction Catalogue of  Sir Thomas Browne and his son Edward’s libraries announces that, ‘Books of Painting and Sculpture’ are to be auctioned, no such books are listed in the Auction Catalogue. The 1711 Auction Sales Catalogue has been described as indispensable for understanding and appreciating Browne’s vast and omnivorous reading, book-collecting and erudition. However, the fifty-odd pages of the facsimile document, along with an introduction and indexing by Princeton professor of English literature Jeremiah Finch (1910-2005) was not published until as late as 1986.

Without a reliable record of art-books once owned by Browne one is left with only fleeting allusions to artists and art-books in his writings. In  Pseudodoxia Epidemica  for example, he tantalizingly alludes to owning a famous edition of  Michelangelo stating -

But this absurdity that eminent Artist Michael Angelo hath avoided, in the Pictures of the Cumean and Persian Sibyls, as they stand described from the printed sculptures of Adam Mantuanus. [5]

The bulk of Browne's art-criticism can be found  in his encyclopaedic endeavour Pseudodoxia Epidemica (1646). Its fifth book, entitled,‘Of many things questionable as they are commonly described in Pictures’ includes criticism upon the veracity of depictions of mermaids, gryphons, unicorns and basilisks, as well as speculations upon colour and the causes of blackness in nature.

Defining painters as, 'the visible representers of things, and such as by the learned sense of the eye, endeavour to inform the understanding’. [6] Browne laments in his quest to ascertain truth, ‘nor is the hand of the Painter more restrainable than the pen of the Poet'. [7]

The  essence of Browne's art aesthetics occurs in his stating-

Art being but the imitator or secondary representor, it must not vary from the verity of the example; or describe things otherwise than they truly are or have been. For hereby introducing false Idea's of things it perverts and deforms the face and symmetry of truth. [8]

No less than three chapters of the encyclopaedia Pseudodoxia Epidemica are devoted to the cause of Blackness. Firstly, in consideration of skin colour, the cause of so much irrational hatred, prejudice and suffering throughout centuries, then in relation to colour. Browne arrives at the conclusion that black is equal in beauty to any other colour.

Browne's deep interest in colour is evident in his regretting, ‘we remain imperfect in the general Theory of colours', whilst also speculating - 

Thus although a man understood the general nature of colours, yet were it no easy Problem to resolve, Why Grass is green? Why Garlick, Molyes, and Porrets have white roots, deep green leaves, and black seeds? Why several docks and sorts of Rhubarb with yellow roots, send forth purple flowers? Why also from Lactary or milky plants which have a white and lacteous juyce dispersed through every part, there arise flowers blew and yellow ? ...Why shall the marvel of Peru produce its flowers of different colours, and that not once, or constantly, but every day, and variously? Why Tulips of one colour produce some of another, and running through almost all, should still escape a blew? And lastly, Why some men, yea and they a mighty and considerable part of mankind, should first acquire and still retain the gloss and tincture of blackness ? [9]

Browne's sensitivity toward colour can be seen in the following extracts. Firstly, in notes taken from his 'elaboratory' experiments -

'And this is also apparent in Chymical preparations. So Cinnabar becomes red by the acid exhalation of sulphur, which otherwise presents a pure and niveous white. So spirits of Salt upon a blue paper make an orient red. So Tartar or vitriol upon an infusion of violets affords a delightful crimson. Thus it is wonderful what variety of colours the spirits of Saltpeter, and especially, if they be kept in a glass while they pierce the sides thereof; I say, what Orient greens they will project: from the like spirits in the earth the plants thereof perhaps acquire their verdure. And from such salary irradiations may those wondrous varieties arise, which are observable in Animals, as Mallards heads, and Peacocks feathers, receiving intention or alteration according as they are presented unto the light. [10]

Secondly, in a detailed description of a bird written for the ornithologist Christopher Merritt.

The head neck throat of a violet colour, the back upper parts of the wing of a russet yellow, the fore part of the wing azure succeeded downward by a greenish blue, the lower parts of the wing outwardly of a brown, inwardly of a merry blue, the belly a light faint blue, the back toward the tail of a purple blue, the tail eleven feathers of a greenish colour, the extremities of the outward feathers thereof white, with a eye of green. Garrulus Argentoratensis [11]

Finally, in a humorous description involving the colour green. Once more from his little-explored Commonplace notebooks-

The picture of Signor Verdero in a proper habit. A suit of a mandrake or nightshade Green. A cloak of a Thistle colour faced with Holly green. A Burdock green hat with an hat-band of poppy leaf vert, set with emeralds and Beryls and a plume of parrot green feathers. Stockings of an Ivy green with sage coloured garters. A Rue coloured sash or girdle with Brake green fringe. Pantoffles of cabbage colour laced with sea Holly or eryngo green. Ribbons all about of fig laurel and Box green. [12]

Visual imagery is integral to Browne's discourse The Garden of Cyrus (1658) in which a rapid procession of objects, patterns and botanical observations exemplary of the quincunx pattern are paraded before the reader. Browne's extraordinary free-ranging imagination cites evidence of the number five and quincunx pattern in art, nature and mystically in  diverse fields such as -

Biblical scholarship, Egyptology, comparative religion in particular the Bembine Tablet of Isis, mythology, ancient world gardening and plantations, geometry, including the Archimedean solids, sculpture, coins, architecture, paving-stones, battle-formations, optics including the camera obscura, zoology, ornithology, the kabbalah, astrology, astronomy and not least, botany,  including many 'occular' descriptions of cinque-foiled flowers and speculations which anticipate modern-day studies in genetics, germination, generation and heredity.

Quite appropriately, and in stark polarity to the serious and gloomy melancholy of Urn-Burial, The Garden of Cyrus is the playful and cheerful half of the literary diptych and as such mentions past-time games including Backgammon, Chess, Skittles, Knuckle Stone and Archery while remote out-of-orbit topics to orthodox learning touched upon in the discourse include - the healing power of music, 'celestial physiognomy', and 'the strange Cryptography of Gaffarell in his Starry Book of Heaven'.

Artists have responded well to Browne's visual imagery. The British artist Paul Nash (1889-1946) contributed no less than 32 illustrations for a new edition of Browne's discourses Urn-Burial and The Garden of Cyrus in 1932.

Among Browne's many friends were the Bacon family who resided on the Norfolk/Suffolk border at Gillingham. Browne, by all accounts, socialized with the Bacon's to such an extent that in his dedicatory epistle to The Garden of Cyrus to Nicholas Bacon he was able to declare

'You have wisely ordered your vegetable delights, beyond the reach of exception'.

A warning-note of the wide-ranging subject-matter to be encountered in the discourse is also sounded in the epistle -

'That in this Garden Discourse, we range into extraneous things, and many parts of Art and Nature, we follow herein the example of old and new Plantations, wherein noble spirits contented not themselves with Trees, but by the attendance of Aviaries, Fish Ponds, and all variety of Animals, they made their gardens the Epitome of the earth, and some resemblance of the secular shows of old'.

Royalist supporters kept a low profile during the days of Cromwell's Protectorate of England, occupying their time in harmless pursuits such as antiquities or gardening, while in the wider world England found itself in conflict with the newly-emerging Dutch Republic's economic power and global trade.

The conflict of the Anglo-Dutch wars and British resentment towards the new European power, in words strikingly prescient for present-day political events, such as British prejudice and hostility towards the European Project, and its near-obsession with ‘sovereignty’, are perceptively articulated by the art-historian Simon Schama, who noted of the Dutch Statesman Johan De Witt (1625 -1672) a chief negotiator for the peace treaty of the Second Anglo-Dutch War (1665-67).

‘British enmity, on the other hand, he knew to be chronic and rooted in the very nature of the Republic’s existence, or at least  its prosperity. The problem, he supposed in common with many of his compatriots, was that, in matters of trade, the British were poor losers. Unable to match the Dutch in resourcefulness, industry, or technical ingenuity, they were prepared to bludgeon their way to wealth by the assertion of deliberately bellicose principles and by interfering with the freedom of trade. Peevish envy had turned them into a gang of unscrupulous ruffians who would stop at nothing to burglarize the Dutch warehouse, pretending all the time that some cherished issue of sovereignty had been infringed. [13]

Sir Thomas Browne had particular reason to regret the war between the Dutch Republic and England. It was sometime during 1667 that the Browne family received news from the Admiralty that midshipman Thomas Browne (b.1646) who participated in the Naval sea-battle of Lowestoft in 1665  had been reported as lost and his whereabouts unknown, in all probability losing his life at sea following a naval battle.

Its quite possible that Browne once viewed The Supper at Emmaus by the artist Cornelis Engelsz (1575–1650). A combination of still-life and Biblical scene, it was painted when the artist was aged 37 and at full maturity and was probably acquired by Sir Nathaniel Bacon, the grandfather of Nicholas Bacon, during his European tour in 1613.

The Supper at Emmaus (c.1612) has three figures in its foreground who indulge in earthly pleasures, symbolised by the details of the fish, game, meat, vegetables, bread, wine flagon and dairy produce, all of which are painted with meticulous detail. In the background in an adjacent room the figure of Christ is seen breaking bread with two disciples. The viewer is simultaneously reminded of earthly pleasures and The Last Supper.

Another painting which Browne may have had the opportunity to view occurs through his association with Robert Paston (1631-1683) a scientist, politician and a member of Norfolk's gentry. In correspondence to the Norwich physician-philosopher, Robert Paston informed Browne of his alchemical experiments, doubtless to an eager ear-

I have at Oxnead seen this salt change black as ink, I must, at the lowest, have an excellent aurum potable, and if the signs we are to judge in Sendivogius’ description be true, I have the key which answers to what he says, that if a man has that which will dissolve gold as warm water doth ice, you have that which gold was first made in the earth. [14]

Its entirely possible that upon hearing this news Sir Thomas Browne could have made the short journey ten miles north of Norwich to Oxnead. He had done so before in 1668 when informed by Robert Paston of the unearthing of urns at nearby Buxton, part of the Paston's Estate.

The Paston Treasure (c.1675) was commissioned by the Paston family to record their collection of treasures. It was painted by an unknown Dutch artist who travelled to Norfolk for the commission.

The central message of  what is a sophisticated work of art, complete with its rich vanitas symbolism, depiction of collectable art-objects, musical instruments and exotic fruit from around the world, seems to be that the human figures in the painting, both girl and boy, are caught in the very moment of disruption from their respective activities, thus highlighting the uncertainty of this world. A parrot has alighted upon the page of the music-book which the young girl holds, thus preventing her from reading music and singing. Similarly, a pet monkey has sprung onto the shoulder of a startled negro servant, hindering him from his duty of pouring a flagon which he holds in one hand. It's more usual to see such imagery in the humour and morality of 'topsy-turvy' homes depicted by Jan Steen (1626-79).

The importance of The Paston Treasure lies in the international scope and interest of the objects which it portrays, reflecting both exotic nature and the skills of man, as well as the continents of  Africa, the New World of America and China. It has been described as a microcosm of the known world in the 17th century.

The Paston Treasure is the subject of a forthcoming book by senior research scientist, conservator and art-historian, Spike Bucklow. In his ground-breaking book The Alchemy of Paint: Art, Science and Secrets from the Middle Ages (2010) Bucklow highlights how, during the Middle Ages there existed a deep and intimate relationship between rare substances, pigments for painting, colour and the artist, which has now long been lost.

Paradoxically, as much a chemist as alchemist, Browne also took a deep interest in the properties of substances from nature. In Pseudodoxia he writes of a spermaceti whale stranded upon Norfolk's shallow beaches, noting of the extracted ambergris,  'it mixeth well with painting Colours, though hardly drieth at all. [15] A similar interest in materials useful for the painter can be seen in Browne's correspondence to his eldest son Edward, in which he advises, 'Enquire after smalt, a stone whereof they make blueing for painting and starch.' [16] A further interest in art materials occcurs in his requesting to Edward, 'I wish you would bring over some of the red marking stone for drawing, if any very good'. [17]

Smalt was an important pigment in European oil painting, particularly in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It was popular because of its low cost and its manufacture became a specialty of the Dutch and Flemish during the 17th century. Smalt's origins lie in the blue pigment used by the ancient Egyptians, known as ‘Egyptian blue’ and  Cobalt blue used in colouring glass.

But perhaps the most solid contribution made by Browne to the visual arts occurs in his introducing new words into English language. The word 'caricature' being perhaps the most impressive of the art-related words which Browne is credited with first usage according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Other art-related neologisms introduced into English language by Browne include the words 'circumference' - 'colouring' - 'cylindrical' - 'illustrative'- 'irradiancy' - 'pictorial' - 'rectangularly' - 'reticulate' and 'rhombodial'.

All of which suggests Browne's interest and contribution to the visual arts may be far greater than previously imagined.


[1] Keynes : Collected works of Browne  Faber and Faber1964
[2] Hebrews 2:13
[3] R.M. Part 2:12
[4] R.M.  Part 1:16
[5] Pseudodoxia Epidemica  Book 1 chapter 9
[5] P.E. Book 5 chapter 11
[6] P.E. Book 1 chapter 9
[7] P.E. Book 5 chapter 19
[8] Ibid.
[9] P.E. Book 6 chapter 9
[10] P.E. Book 6 chapter 13
[11] The miscellaneous writings of Sir Thomas Browne.Faber and Faber 1936
[12] Commonplace notebooks Faber and Faber 1964
[13] The Embarrassment of Riches Simon Schama Fontana 1989
[14] Correspondence dated September 10th 1674 in Vol. 3 of the Collected works of Sir Thomas Browne ed. Simon Wilkins Pickering and Co. 1834
[15] P.E. book 3 chapter 26
[16] Correspondence dated April 28th 1669
[17]  Correspondence dated Sept 22th 1668

Books consulted

Notes on the Natural history of Norfolk. Jarrold and sons 1902
The Works of Sir Thomas Browne ed. Simon Wilkins 1842
The Art of the Dutch Republic 1585-1718  Mariet Westermann 1996
The Embarrassment of Riches Simon Schama Fontana 1989

Useful Wikilinks

The Dutch Republic

The Paston Treasure

The Paston Treasure::Microcosm of the known world

One for Peter R.