Fact and Fictionality in Eighteenth Century Author Portraits

Background and Context for the Project

Prior to this summer, I didn’t have much exposure to eighteenth century literature, but I was familiar with eighteenth century art, thanks to a couple of art history courses. Though I’m an English major, art and art history have always been areas of interest for me, so I was interested in carrying out a project that involved both of these subjects. This led me to the realm of book illustration as a general topic for my final project, and from there I narrowed my focus specifically to frontispieces in eighteenth century novels. I chose to examine frontispieces, rather than illustrations throughout the text, both because they appear more frequently than in-text illustrations, and because they were easier to search using END’s data.

After settling on a broad focus for this project, two books fortuitously inspired a more specific approach for my project. In my second week with END (the first week we really began cataloging), I ambitiously decided to catalogue a 4-volume copy of Gulliver’s Travels, which contained a portrait of the fictional narrator Lemuel Gulliver. At the same time, I began researching the history and conventions of frontispieces in general. The majority of my initial information came from Jeanine Barchas’ book Graphic Design, Print Culture, and the Eighteenth-Century Novel, which includes a chapter on frontispieces. More specifically, Barchas’ argument focuses on fictional author portraits, and she uses Gulliver’s Travels as an object of study and analysis. I was intrigued by the idea of fictional author portraits in general, and was especially interested since I had just encountered the portrait of Gulliver myself, so as a result I decided to focus my project around this particular theme. I determined that the way I wanted to go about this was to examine and compare real and fictional author portraits in books that END cataloged. From here, I realized that the overarching theme encompassing my exploration of these portraits was an interrogation of the categories of fact and fiction, in both art and literature, and thus “Fact and Fictionality in Eighteenth Century Author Portraits” was born.

Because of this, my project in some ways operates on two levels. There is the very broad, theoretical level that seeks to engage with open-ended questions about the nature of fiction, the definition of the novel, and how we conceive of and understand truth in art and literature. Then there is a much more detail-oriented level, which seeks to analyze the portraits in a handful of books from END’s dataset, and formulate some ideas about the way these images function in relation to the books as a whole. I realized that my project involved these two threads early on, but I struggled for a while with balancing and reconciling them. I came up with many questions to explore and lots of interesting connections and parallels I wanted to pursue further, but much of this was too broad of a scope for the amount of time I actually had this summer. I definitely had to reevaluate what I could actually accomplish in 10 weeks, and while I’m mostly happy with my final result, I do think this project veers a bit into the realm of trying to touch on many ideas without really diving into any of them. Still, I tried to balance both breadth and depth here: one section of my project is devoted to theory and context, while the other is devoted to the images and books themselves. In the end, I think I was able to strike a happy medium between the two, but I also know that there’s much more this project could do, and a lot more research to be done, though I view this as a positive thing.

Methodology and Project Development

Since my project focus was on such a visual medium, I knew that I wanted my final product to have a significant visual component as well. I was already familiar with Omeka from a class I took, and I had this in mind from the start as a potential site for building my final project. Because Omeka creates digital exhibits, it seemed like a good fit for a project that focused on frontispieces. I really wanted an end result where people could actually look at the frontispieces carefully, but I also wanted to include my own analysis of the images, so the exhibit format Omeka provided worked out nicely. It became additionally convenient to use because Kat Poje was in the process of creating an Omeka site for her Preface Project from 2015, and we all helped her out with this. Since there were many of us working on her site, she wrote up some guidelines for the kinds of information she wanted to include about each item, and we also had some group discussions about the best way to approach creating this exhibit. As a result, when I started creating my personal Omeka site, I had Kat’s guidelines to work from, and her finished project to use as a reference and model, which was immensely helpful.

Before I actually created the exhibit, though, I needed to do some research. Just like the project itself, there were two main components to my research: one was theoretical, contextual, and background research, and the other was exploring and compiling books in END’s records that I wanted to look at. I’ve included a bibliography at the bottom of this post of the works I referenced and found useful in the initial stages of this project, and you can also find more in depth information about these sources on my Omeka site itself.

In order to identify novels in END’s dataset that contained author frontispiece portraits, I searched an Excel spreadsheet that compiled all of END’s data through last summer. I focused on searching the $300b field, which notes whether a novel contains illustrations (and specifies whether the novel has a frontispiece or portrait in it), and the $500a field, which contains general notes, and was sometimes useful for additional information about any illustrations a book may have. I also explored END’s data through OpenRefine, which was a more user-friendly interface, and searched END’s Flickr account to identify any intriguing images I may have missed.

My search was not confined to a specific time period or to specific authors or types of books; rather, I sought to discover as many books with author frontispieces as possible, and to compile a set that covered a range of types. Initially, I thought I would focus on the 1780s, since this was the decade we were cataloging this summer, but there weren’t enough books with frontispieces from the 1780s alone to focus my research on. In addition, I faced some roadblocks because the Singer-Mendenhall Collection was in the process of moving this summer, so some of the books I wanted to look at were not readily available for me to see in person. As a result, I decided to just search the records for any novels that seemed relevant and interesting to my project, and narrow my final selection from there based on accessibility. I limited my final project to 8 books for similar reasons, and also so that I could provide some sense of breadth, while still allowing for specificity in my research and analysis of each novel. Since my specific interest was in comparing fictional and authentic author portraits, I tried to select novels so that each type of portrait is roughly half of my total set. I also attempted to include some women, though they don’t appear as authors or in author portraits as frequently as male writers.

My goal was not to create an exhaustive account of all of the novels in END’s records with author frontispiece portraits, and I’m sure I did not identify all of them. The selections on my site are a portion of what I found in my research, and these in turn are only a portion of the total number of novels with author portraits at my disposal. As such, I didn’t seek to make any broad claims about the function and purpose these portraits served, but rather to closely examine individual cases, and to make comparisons between these. This project can be extended in myriad ways, and while I’m certainly interested in continuing this work, my hope is that this site may be useful for others to build upon as well.

The Omeka Exhibit

My exhibit is loosely divided into four categories, based on both the genres of the works as a whole, and the types of author portraits the works contain. The first section focuses on satires, and the ways in which portraits can participate in the genre as satirical elements (heavily influenced by Jeanine Barchas’ analysis and argument about Gulliver’s Travels). This section contains Gulliver’s Travels, by Jonathan Swift and Salmagundi, by Washington Irving.

The next section examines what I’ve termed “semi-autobiographical” or “semi-fictional” narratives, meaning narratives in which the author is also a character within the novel, but the work as a whole is not necessarily one hundred percent true. In each of these works, the author portrait depicts a real person, but that persons relationship to the narrative, or role within it, may be fictionalized to some degree. This section contains the narratives of Olaudah EquianoBamfylde-Moore CarewPylades and Corinna, and The Pilgrim’s Progress, by John Bunyan.

Then, I look at one author portrait depicting a completely fictional character in Letters writ by a Turkish Spy. This is comparable to the portraits in the first section of the exhibit, which also depict fictional figures, but here the portrait does not serve any satirical function, so I separated it.

Finally, I examine an author portrait that actually depicts the editor of the work, in Aesop’s Fables. Here, I examined how someone who is not the original creator of the stories is framed as and takes the position of author of the work, and what purpose this claim to authority may serve.

Because my research was so narrowly focused, and constrained by the amount of time I had, I did not set out to find the answer to a big research question. Still, over the course of this project, I made some observations, and came to some conclusions about the work that frontispiece author portraits do in the eighteenth century novels I looked at. I want to briefly state some of these here, in the hopes that they may be useful for further research, even if they prove to be wrong.

Author portraits showed up occasionally for a well-known author and in an author’s collected works (both true for John Bunyan, and in a few other cases which I did not include in this exhibit), and appeared occasionally as well for fictional characters, more than once with a satirical aim. Yet neither of these showed up with the frequency that another type of portrait did, the explanation for which was unanticipated and as a result the most interesting to me.

This main trend is that author portrait appeared most frequently when the author in question was to some degree involved in the narrative of the story itself. This is why the second section of my exhibit is the largest and also the most loosely defined–each work I examined was fictional in some degree, and the decision was made to include all of these works in END’s collection of novels, yet it seemed difficult to decisively say that they were all novels in the traditional and accepted sense. What is clear to me is that each of these works featured authors who were also characters, and who had a strong overall presence in the narrative, and this seems to have influenced the presence of portraits. Though I haven’t done much research or theorizing to explore this trend further, what it suggests to me is that people are most interested in authors and authorship when that seems directly related to the narrative. It seems that here the stakes are higher, and perhaps suggests that readers are more likely to be invested (or want to be invested) in a figure that is part of the story they’re reading, as opposed to merely the source of this story. This, perhaps, is the most indicative example of the solidifying and embrace of the novel as a genre: when interest in characters (or authors as characters) began to outpace interest in authors as standalone figures, the novel developed real staying power.

Next Steps

Inevitably, I was unable to do everything I initially set out to do for this project, and it felt like the further it developed, the more I discovered new routes to pursue and additional pieces to add to the project. I want to mention a few of these here, to suggest ways the project can (and hopefully will) be extended in the future, both by myself and perhaps by others who have similar interests, or an interest in a particular aspect of this study.

Something I was excited by early on was the idea of making a comparison between the way authors are (or aren’t) represented in eighteenth century novels, and the ways they’re represented in novels today. Unlike in the eighteenth century, authors are virtually always shown in books now, usually with both an image and a short biography. This has become a standardized piece of paratext separate from a frontispiece, while the function of the frontispiece has, in many ways, been subsumed by images on the covers of books. I wanted to dive deeper into these changes and explore their implications, and I also wanted to create some sort of more fun examination of this. I was considering trying to re-imagine some eighteenth century novels as twenty-first century novels (what would the author descriptions be? What would be on the cover?), and was also interested in doing the reverse, and imagining some twenty-first century novels as eighteenth century ones. I still love this idea, but I realized that not only did I not really have the time for this, since my project was already attempting to encompass a lot, but also that it would require more graphic design skills than I have at hand. I would have had to do some experimenting and playing around, which I was and still am willing to do, but this did not feel like the most important piece of my project, so I decided to set it aside for the moment, though I still think it would be a valuable addition.

I was also interested in doing a more in depth comparison of the portrait contained in these books to painted portraits of the time, to think about how the medium of the book affects the medium of the portrait, but this, too, was too much for the summer.

On the more logistical side of things, I’d like to create a digital repository of all of the images, metadata, and text on my Omeka site, so that the materials I used are easily accessible and secure in the event that the Omeka exhibit itself expires. The exhibit should stay up as an extension of Penn’s Institutional Repository, but I also want to have a back up in the case that this eventually is removed.

I explored the possibility of creating this site through my Reclaim account, so it would be tied to my personal domain, but I had some technical difficulties with this and decided to create it directly through Omeka instead. Still, I’m interested in exploring options for migrating this site to my own domain, so that it’s more directly tied with all of my work this summer, and with my digital identity in general. Finally, I’d like to change the name of the site itself. I created the initial site (endproject.omeka.net) as a test and experiment, thinking I could change the domain name later. As of right now, I haven’t been able to do that, but I will continue to try, as I think the site needs a better, more descriptive and searchable name.

About the Author

Abby Cox

Student Researcher

Abby Cox
Abby Cox is an English major with a minor in Spanish at Haverford College. She is also passionate about art and art history, and as an END researcher, she is interested in exploring ways that art and literature intersect in eighteenth century works. At Haverford, she works as a peer tutor in the Writing Center, and her extracurricular interests include crossword puzzles, theater, her cat, your cat, and/or any other cat.