Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Choice of Valentines: Tom Nashe's Pornographic Shakespeare Parody on Valentines Day

  above: Unknown Man Before Backdrop of Fire by Nicholas Hilliard (Victoria & Albert Museum)

Happy Valentines Day.

One of my favorite Elizabethans has always been Tom Nashe, the wittiest of London's university wits and an altogether memorable character and writer who unfortunately died in disgrace after Elizabeth I burned all of his book and forbade his pen to continue.  Nashe and Ben Jonson collaborated on the scandalous "Isle of Dogs" play that inspired so many bonfires the play itself did not survive, and now we don't know what all the hoopla was about.  Nashe fled the city.  Jonson was jailed and ear-striped.

One of Nashe's most popular works was the poem, “The Choice of Valentines,” a 1593 parody of Shakespeare’s "Venus and Adonis" that chronicled one man’s odyssey in attempting to bring a prostitute to orgasm.  The poem was known throughout London as “Nashe’s Dildo.”  

Painted on the back of an ace of hearts, and long considered one of Hilliard's masterpieces, Unknown Man Against Background of Fire is described by scholar Erna Auerbach as “a striking picture of human tragedy.”
Here, the sitter, whoever he was, does not matter, but the intense feeling which his image expressed, moves and touches us profoundly.  As if it were a symbol of burning love, the card on which the parchment is pasted is the ace of hearts.  The “burning” lover wears a fine linen shirt, wide open in front, a locket hangs on a long chain and he presses it with his left hand against his heart, as if it contained the picture of his beloved mistress, and, in strong contrast to the white of the garment, the noble and ecstatic face with dark hair and beard, turn to the right, looks at us with fanatical eyes.
Link to Nashe's The Choice of Valentines.

Link to our follow-up post attempting to identify the sitter in Hilliard fiery miniature as the Shakespearian actor Nathan Field.

Link to the Victoria & Albert Museum and their amazing collection of Elizabethan portrait miniatures.




  2. My strongest reaction about the Sanders is gratitude towards its owner about being forthcoming with spectral tests, etc, unlike so many other owners, who won't release test results to the public. Still, the Sanders seems like a dead-end, inconclusive. It's the portrait everyone wants to be Shakespeare, of course: good looking and affable. As to the Cobbe, the jury is out until the owner and the SBT release all the test results to the public. After 400 years of frauds no portrait should be taken seriously until they release their spectrals. My sense is they are hiding something from us.

    I'll work on getting an email address up. Thanks.

  3. Yes an email address would be good,
    I agree, it is frustrating that the SBT do not seem to keen on releasing x-ray results etc. Still one expects that it is a good money earner and puts a saleable face to their souvenirs!
    You can not help feeling sorry for Lloyd Sullivan in his quest to prove the Sanders... what more can he do. I suspect that there will never be an image that can be conclusive!

    I am new to blogging and can only post comments as anon. as I dont really understand the other options.

    I look forward to seeing an email address in the future as I have something that may be of interest.
    I attempted contact yesterday with my email address which I see has been removed and I assume you are not supposed to put email on blog comments... sorry!

    I look forward to your next post.


  4. Sorry about the removal of that post. I was worried about whether the movie Chimes at Midnight, which I had linked to, was posted illegally on youtube. Anyway you inspired me to put together a new post on the Cobbe, which should be up in a day or two. It's possible a portrait will pop up with an inscription, likely revealed by x-rays, etc, that will establish it as Shakespeare ad vivum, but, like you, I'm not holding my breath. The SBT also, btw, has never performed one single test on their Hunt portrait of Shakespeare, which very likely could prove to be an indisputable Shakespeare ad vivum. In fact, they canceled the Hunt portrait's latest restoration in 2011 during the hoopla over the Cobbe.
    If I were you I'd be careful putting my email online. That's why I don't have mine posted. I need to set up a address strictly for the blog. I need to do a lot of things . . .

  5. It does seem strange that they have not examined their Hunt portrait in detail, although I have to say that you are many years in advance of me on this subject, my interest is very new and so I am not really familiar with this portrait. Have you any idea (I have not) how much x-ray would cost? Am I correct in thinking that this would be specialist x-ray, not something you could ask the local NHS to do? What is more likely to bring out any worn or covered inscription, would it be x-ray or a particular type of x-ray or infra red? Indeed is there a difference?

    I find it strange that none of the contenders to be Shakespeare portraits have his family crest or even his name or something more solid on them. I suspect that should a "lost" portait come to light, the fact that it was "lost" would mean it would have little or no provenance and so we would have a situation where the likes of the Chandos, Cobbe, Sanders etc owners whom all have at least some history tracing them back (and in the case of the Sanders much scientific backing), that even with a "smoking gun" inscription, the likes of the NPG etc would say it had no provenance and we would be no further ahead.
    Indeed, were you or I to come up with a lost portrait, and get in a time machine, and find that yes, it his he! Without any of the above, no one would ever believe it! Or would similarities with say the Droeshout and the others & such tecniques as deployed by Hildegard Hammerschmidt-Hummel be enough?

    I look forward to your Cobbe post.


  6. Hi Alec,
    yes, it's specially odd about Hunt in that we know, beyond doubt, it was overpainted in London almost immediately after its discovery c. 1850. Something is being hidden. There's a mystery behind these portraits, but I don't know what. Too much shady behavior.
    As to the x-ray question, it depends on type of paint used to overpaint it. Any pigment mineral-based blocks x-rays and comes up white. Old portrait are most frequently blocked by lead-white paint, which was the most common white paint used for centuries. Quite often infrared reflectograms are more revealing than x-rays. They attach themselves to carbon molecules and, among other things, expose underdrawings used to create painting. X-rays cost about five grand if done right; IR's much cheaper. I once convinced a curator to x-ray a portrait and he hauled it to the local medical clinic. Bad idea. Radiation in clinics is set too high an can hurt pigments.
    Yeah, why no crests, especially all the Jacobean portraits. You got to all that trouble to buy a family coat of arms then don't use it? Odd. As to the provenance, I think it's overrated in regard, and only in regard, to IDing Shakespeare. The play Return to Parnassus establishes that Shakespeare portrait were available, aka mass produced to some extent, during Shakespeare's lifetime. You didn't have to be related to him to have his portrait. I think there are lost portraits, and this blog will deal with a few of them soon. But, yes, without inscription or crest: slippery slope to ID.
    One last note on crest, the Buttery portrait, at the Folger, has a crest and is intriguing to me. But the Folger's trustee statements says they can't x-ray a portrait unless there's a public outcry in the press, etc. Of there vast SS collection only 3 portraits ever x-rayed.
    I like HHH approach in some ways but in the end measuring portraits has its limits. There are other ways without crests to establish sitters. For instance, the bust pose with pen and paper, aka Stratford bust, was rare and indicates sitter was a writer. And quite often the paper they pose with contained actual script. Also signet rings are important. Clothing establishes caste and time period, etc. But mostly you're right.
    Also there is, for some reason, a fanaticism with debunking portraits that seem legitimate, such as the Flower, Jannsen, Hunt, etc. Again, not sure why.
    Your right again about NPG deposing portraits on grounds of provenance. Provenance is the official god of curatorial IDing, but, again, in regards to SS portraits it's overrated (if you accept he was famous and mass-produced while alive, which itself is controversial).
    The first Cobbe post will only deal with the weird inscription. I try to keep the posts short, and that means multiple post covering certain important portraits.
    In general it's a great hobby if you don't worry about smoking guns. There's been so many times I thought I'd found a smoking gun. Never happens. X-rays etc typically pose more question than they answer. Can be infuriating! Still, it's fun. And for me addictive.

  7. PS, Alec, I think in retrospect I exaggerated the costs of x-rays. They vary on whether the museum owns equipment obviously, but the last price quoted to me by a curator was "a few grand." And sometimes the x-ray result can be quite disappointing (as with the Chandos).

  8. Hi Lee,
    Thanks for the details re X-ray / infra red, most helpful.
    As previoulsy mentioned this is a new interest to me and as you have probably guessed this interest has been started by a particular portrait that (along with the owner) I am investigating (in spare time hobby/fun) that we feel may warrant being considred as a Contender along with all the others!

    I had not realised what a mysterious & frustrating world I had stumbled upon! But I can fully appreciate it must be infuriating and fun as you have said, indeed even if our line of investigation proves (as it probably will) that our thoughts are unfounded, I think I am hooked!

    I should apologise to you, I seem to be filling your blog comments with my questions in search for information, but I get the impression that not only are you extremely passionate & knowledgeable about the subject, you also appear to be neutral without opinions based on profit!

    That said, I appreciate this is your blog and not a free advise service & so feel free to delete my comments/ questions and I will just continue to read your blog with great interest, I will not be offended.

    Without going into detail on open forum, we were originally trying to get in contact with you, so that we could send an image for your unbiased thoughts... (we have had the NPG & BBT, whom although negatvie so far as Shakespeare goes, were friendly and helpful) we will have to wait until you do set up an emai, if indeed you are interested in seeing the images?

    We are currently trying to decide as to whether we should go to the expense of infra red or x-ray, as we have reason to believe there may be writing & may be a crest not visible to the naked eye. If this could be made eligible, this may discount or reinforce our thoughts.

    The portrait in question has been hanging anonymously in a house in England (I guess you are in America or Canada based on time difference, or is clock wrong?) not a million miles from London and Stratford for many years and this line of investigation has only recently started (I will not go into why at this stage). It is an oil on Panel circa (give or take) 1600.
    If you would like to know more, let me know, but I fear I am again taking over your comments page!!!

    And now for a couple of questions (sorry);

    I have been trying to work out the probablities of portraits being Shakespeare... I am not brilliant at maths, but I see it like this, there were 2 to 3 million population of England at the time, How many of these were gentleman who would have had a portrait painted, then reduce this down to them being of Shakespeares age, in the correct geographical location, with features attributed to him... the odds must come tumbling down, I think it could be no more than 1000 and thats probably to many?

    Also and I know this may sound strange... What do you think the chances are, that any portraits that may have existed after his death, may have had to have been disguised or at least have Crest or writing removed so that the portrait could not be identified as Shakespeare during the civl war as I understand he was not the Puritans favourite! & there was much distruction of such items, (as mentioned in one of H H H`s books). Could there even be the possiblity that a "false" Coat of Arms be added (maybe over the original) to throw wood be vandals of the scent?

    Sorry to go on again on your blog comments,but your views are of interest to us. Hope you do not mid to much?

    Thanks again


  9. i send you an email, Alec. might end up in your junk file.

    1. Got it thanks

      Have replied.

      Just noticed Cobbe Post... off out now so will have to read tomorrow or wife will kill me !!!!!!!