Skip to main content
Senate House Library

Emblems of love


Written by
Karen Attar, Curator of Rare Books and University Art

Explore expressions of love, poetry and translation in the last successful emblem book to be published in seventeenth-century England, recently added to Senate House Library's collections...

Most of the named special collections at Senate House Library are gifts, and the donors of several have supplemented their collections with money to augment them. One such instance is the Durning-Lawrence Library, which was centred around Sir Francis Bacon and the opinion that Bacon wrote the works of William Shakespeare. As such the collection is strong in editions of Bacon’s work, Shakespearean sources, and Elizabethan and Jacobean literature more generally. 

Senate House Library’s additions to the Durning-Lawrence Library collection over the years have included editions of Bacon’s works from the seventeenth century onwards, recent monographs about the controversy over Shakespearean authorship, and an illuminated manuscript testimonial to Sir Edwin Durning-Lawrence from his parliamentary constituents (MS1208). Surprises jostle alongside the predictable with artefacts such as a piece of the mulberry tree in Stratford-upon-Avon, fondly believed by Durning-Lawrence to have grown in Shakespeare’s garden (as featured in the SHL150 online gallery).

Emblemata amatoria, or Emblems of Love, by Philip Ayres, 1683

A labour of love

We wound up the Durning-Lawrence Trust Fund recently, purchasing an emblem book; Philip Ayres’s Emblemata amatoria, or Emblems of Love (1683), the last successful emblem book proper to be published in seventeenth-century England. Emblem books are basically pictorial metaphors. Each emblem consists of a motto and an image, with a verse in Latin and often at least one vernacular language which comments on the image to make a moral or political point. Starting in 1531, emblem books were popular in Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Durning-Lawrence believed that Francis Bacon was involved in the production of Continental emblem books, which he used to demonstrate to the initiated his authorship of Shakespeare’s plays and poems. Durning-Lawrence therefore owned a number of fine emblem books, by such major writers as Andrea Alciati, Jean Baudoin, Jacob Cats, and Francis Quarles in several editions, and by minor authors. Acquiring a new one enhanced this strength of the collection. 

Philip Ayres (1638-1712) was a poet and translator, and a tutor for the Drake family of Amersham. His writing before Emblemata amatoria, had focused on translations. Emblemata amatoria is a landmark work and it is important for the afterlife of Ayres, as one of the two literary works for which he is chiefly remembered. It is also the last English emblem book to achieve popular success, appearing in one French and two English editions in 1683, and five more editions over the next thirty years. Senate House Library is delighted to have this edition, complementing ownership of the other English edition from 1683, and later editions from 1700 and 1714. 

Cupid to the Ladies in Emblemata amatoria, or Emblems of Love, by Philip Ayres, 1683

Ayres’s varied writings catered for the tastes of the different audiences on whom he depended for an income. That there should be no mistake, he declares the audience for this small book on love twice on the title page: “Cupids addresse to the ladies” and “Dedicated to the ladys [i.e. ladies]”. The book consists of 47 leaves and 47 plates, with straightforward verses in English, French, Latin, and Italian.

Virgins are like the silver finny race
Of slippery kinde, and fishes seeme in part
Lovers look to’t. Be sure to bait the place
Lay well your hookes, and cast your eyes with art.

'Love a Ticklith Game' from Emblemata amatoria, or Emblems of Love, by Philip Ayres, 1683

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery

Emblem books often borrowed from each other, and Ayres’s work is no exception. Three-quarters of Ayres’s plates with their Latin and Italian verses are copied, sometimes with changes, from those in Otto van Veen’s Amorum emblemata of 1608, also held in the Durning-Lawrence Library. Most of the rest come from Crispin de Passe's Thronus Cupidinis (1618), which we do not have in the Library, although we do have another book which uses its images. A couple are from works by Daniel Heinsius. Ayres contributed the English verses throughout, which are not pure translations of the Latin, and some of the French, Latin and Italian verses.

Inscription in Emblemata amatoria, or Emblems of Love, by Philip Ayres, 1683

Bound by love

One of the challenges in buying early printed books is that so much has now been digitised. How do we gain added value from a physical item? An advantage of having lots of physical emblem books is the ease of tracing the adoptions and adaptations of text and illustration across time and countries. We also benefit from evidence of interaction between a reader and a book which make particular copies unique. Bernarde, an ardent young Frenchman of the seventeenth century, formerly used the blank pages of this copy to embellish it with his own love poems. We think about the use of books: to read, to learn from, to provide decoration for a room, and for other purposes. Might this copy have been used as a specific declaration of love? Was it Bernarde’s book, or did it belong to his lady-love? If the latter, did he borrow it, with her permission or without? We enter the realms of speculation but these manuscript additions could lead to further research or even unlock a mystery further down the line. What we know is that this purchase opens up opportunities and is a triumphant winding-up of the Durning-Lawrence Trust Fund.