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Musical Visual Culture in Early Modern England

My Leverhulme-funded project is the first dedicated book-length study of the musical-visual culture of late-Elizabethan, early-Stuart England. It aims to deepen our understanding of early modern musical experience, emotion, and musical knowledge as represented through visual culture. So often musicologists have attended to musical art only to the extent that notated compositions and celebrated musicians can be recognised in them, leaving important questions about the representation of music-making and musical experience largely neglected.


My research has shown that the musical-visual culture of early modern England contains abundant insight into how visual/auditory sensing built interior culture, both of the home and the self. I am interested in what the act of making music meant to people and what they felt when they experienced it. The impact of this study will be felt beyond the disciplines of art history and musicology, as it provides fresh clues and theoretical models for accessing and understanding the structures, relationships, and emotions upon which households were built.

This project primarily focuses on visual and material artefacts that depict the action of music-making, including paintings on walls and on canvas, marquetry, interior decoration and mouldings, tapestry, and decorated objects like tables and instruments. Material historians have productively explored how the intricacies of human relationships, social values, and even systems of thought, are embedded in objects, embracing everyday household items alongside traditionally celebrated examples like portraits - a methodology embraced by this research. My project includes all musical objects that could have been part of contemporary material culture, including pieces of English craftsmanship, items by foreign-born artists working in England, and foreign-crafted pieces that were contemporarily imported into England (roughly 1550-1650). I am particularly interested in representations of Orpheus, Auditus (the Five Senses), portraiture (and self-referentiality), and depictions of dancing (whether anything explicitly musical is visible or not). Seen anything interesting that might fit these criteria? Please do let me know!

The content of this page will evolve as the project does, particularly in light of necessary adjustments that have been made to my research schedule due to the pandemic. I also hope to make a contribution to Repertoire International d’Iconographie Musicale (RIdIM). In the meantime, I will be sharing images and articles of interest to my project as copyrights allow.  

Mirror Frame, Melford Hall

The owner of a mirror with an embroidered frame at Melford Hall in Suffolk saw herself framed by demure personifications of the senses; at the head of the frame is a depiction of Auditus as a woman playing the lute, perhaps reminding the mirror’s owner to attend to the training of her sensory faculties of judgement.

Melford Hall © National Trust / Sue James

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Lanier Portrait

I'm working on a piece on self-referentiality in the song and portraiture of Nicholas Lanier, art dealer and court musician to Charles I. Read more about this portrait from the Weiss Gallery.


Delftware Charger

Depictions of the Five Senses in home decoration stemmed from a long and established tradition with both medieval and classical influences. But there is more to understand about why depictions of the five senses were cherished and what it meant to surround yourself with this type of iconography in your home. 

This delftware charger from 1638 depicts Auditus. Malcom Jones (2010, 35-36) believes this image was inspired by Jan Barra's engraving Hearing from The Five Senses (early 1620s). 


A Man Singing by Candlelight

'A Man Singing by Candlelight', Adam de Coster (1625-1635, NGI)


Ok, this painting is possibly outside the scope of this study, but I love it so much and it encapsulates a lot of what I'm looking at within the English context. De Coster perfectly captures a moment of musical expression. I'm just waiting for that candle to flicker from his exhalation of breath. 

Adam De Coster's portrait of a man holding a candle singing

Death & the Maiden

Death and the Maiden (English school, c.1570) depicts a well-dressed woman playing a lute, with a mirror fixated on her face, implying a moral reading of musicianship and beauty as womanly vanities. Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

woman playing lute.jpg

Eglantine Table

My first publication from this new project is on the Eglantine Table at Hardwick Hall. It offers insight into the meaning of musical recreation and the values that shaped domestic interiors, objects and social bonds in an early modern English aristocratic home.

Read article

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Orpheus Overmantel

While Orpheus was a common feature within Elizabethan and Jacobean poetry as the great poet-civilizer, early moderns encountered and experienced such mythological tropes not only through text but through a variety of means, including sight and sound.


Orpheus is a complex figure, used by both sides of contemporary debates about the benefits and dangers of poetry and music's effects on the passions. Consequently, he is cast as both the exemplar of rationality, but also its very opposite.


His power to 'charm' speaks directly to his ability to fool our senses. Yet it is through sensory activities such as music making that people experienced Orpheus's affective power. 

In this overmantel from Haddon Hall (Bakewell) Orpheus's image is central within a room in which music and socialising took place. 

Haddon Overmantel.jpg

Tudor Children

'Four children making music', Master of the Countess of Warwick (fl. later 1560s, previously Weiss Gallery)

Kerry McCarthy has written a fascinating article about the Josquin partbook held by the middle child, though I'm more interested in the musical gibberish held by the boy on the right. 

tudor children.jpeg

Banqueting Trencher

Labours of the Months (May) - Banqueting trenchers were usually prints pasted onto rounds of wood and used for serving sweets and other small nibbles at the end of a meal. They came in sets and often had inscriptions, astrology, puns, and other things written on them for diners to discover ...  sort of like a fortune cookie. 

Flemish prints were all the rage in early modern England. This set is by Crispijn de Passe the Elder. 

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