Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Humfrey Fenn

This week I have a jury duty vacation. Jury duty will continue next week. For this week I can go to my office at the library. There today one of my catch-up jobs was to catalog this Latin edition of Virgil's works, printed in Lyons in 1517. In these early days of printing, the French were famous for the delicacy and detail of their woodcut initials.

Immediately above, three dissimilar E-initials together on one page. It was a great feat of early modern technology to print woodcut initials at the same time as the metal type of the main text and to achieve even inking over both.

At some point an owner or a dealer wrote a note on the inside front cover about Remarkable Woodcuts. The illustrations in this volume are also printed from wood blocks, but are of a cruder craftsmanship than the woodblock initials. The initials look forward to the visual balance of the Northern European Renaissance while the illustrations look backward toward the rude angles and skewed proportions of the Middle Ages.

Here the moon is setting alongside seven companion stars while Apollo the Sun is ferried in his chariot to the Dawn.

Sheep safe in their fold, from the Georgics, where Virgil, the city man, idealizes country life.

Aeneas attends a banquet complete with peacock on a platter in all its plumage. If an Italian painter alive in 1517 had seen the treatment of perspective in this picture, he would have died laughing.

The Trojan Horse, with a door quite visible along its side and the capacity to conceal no more than half a dozen soldiers, squeezed tight.

The Emperor Augustus mourning over the body of the dead Virgil laid out on a very sturdy-looking table.

About halfway through the book I was brought up short by this exercise in penmanship: Humfrey Fenn is a good boye. "Who was Humfrey Fenn?" I wondered. Later I discovered a slip of paper tipped along its left edge into the front of the book, dense with writing on both sides in a 19th century hand –

Clearly this slip was also supplied by a collector, though not the same one who wrote the note about the woodcuts. The writer had evidently done considerable research. Here is my best transcription of the first part of this note:

Despite the rather unconvincing appearance of the binding, which has been severely cleaned, I believe it to be genuine. The arms is that of COVENTRY town (and Grammar School). Humphrey Fenn I was at Queen's Coll. Camb. in 1564 and in 1598 became vicar of Holy Trinity, Coventry. He had a son (& a grandson) of the same name. I incline to think that it was the son whose name is on the title (& on the v. of the fol. preceding the AEneis) who is described as a native. "Ex dono Humfredi Fen Coventrientis" ...

Humfrey Fenn's initials appear also further along in the book. I picture the small son in the large old vicarage keeping company with his father's large old Virgil, safe in the provinces during the dangerous reign of the first Queen Elizabeth. Imagine an age when a literate child could express an unabashed pride in being "a good boye."