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Picturing printing

By Ian Gadd

No visit to the Sheldonian Theatre would be complete without craning your neck to admire Robert Streater’s painted ceiling. Entitled Truth Descending upon the Arts and Sciences and comprising thirty-two panels, the painting was completed in Whitehall in 1668-9 and shipped to Oxford by barge. We don’t know the terms of the commission but Streater’s personification of Truth triumphing over Envy, Rapine, and Ignorance fitted well with a University looking to reassert its cultural ambitions in the aftermath of the Civil Wars and Interregnum. Not surprisingly, the ceiling became a spectacle in its own right from the moment that the Theatre was completed. The Oxford poet Robert Whitehall used verse to explain its iconography in Urania, or a Description of the Painting of the Top of the Theater at Oxon, as the Artist lay’d his Design, published in London in 1669. A broadside, A Discription of the Painting of the Theater in Oxford (1673), may well have been sold to visitors. The ceiling was also described in Robert Plot’s The Natural History of Oxford-shire, published by the University in 1677, and regularly featured in tourist guides in the eighteenth century and beyond.

Sheldonian Theatre ceiling shows Truth descending upon the Arts and Sciences to expel ignorance from the University
Sheldonian Theatre ceiling shows Truth descending upon the Arts and Sciences to expel ignorance from the University

Streater evidently knew that the Theatre was to house the University’s printing presses as he included the figure of ‘Printing’ in among the personifications of various virtues and vices. Locating ‘Printing’ on the ceiling, however, is far from straightforward, which perhaps explains why so few people know of its existence, and why it has never been mentioned, let alone reproduced, in any previous history of university printing at Oxford. In the north-north-west corner of the ceiling is a bare-breasted woman holding a series of curious-looking objects. Whitehall’s verse explains:

Printing is with a Box of letters, and
A Form that’s ready set ‘ith’ other hand:
Where lest the Printing-presse should vacant lie
Are several damp sheets hanging up to dry.

That Streater included printing at all amid a whirl of mythical personifications was a powerful statement about the role that university printing was expected to play in the cultural life of the nation. But what is also striking is how he chose to represent printing. He evidently knew the basic elements of the printing process — the ‘Box of letters’ is a case of printing type; set type has to be locked into a forme ready for printing; and the sheets of paper have to be dampened before the formes are printed — but even an experienced printer would have been hard-pressed to identify these objects as they are painted. To be fair, Streater had few if any precedents when it came to visually personifying printing: the only earlier example I know of Cesare Ripa’s influential Iconologia (1593) which shows ‘Stampa’ (printing) as a woman ‘in a white chequer’d Habit with the Letters of the Alphabet on it…to signifie the little Boxes for the Letters’, sitting next to a binders’ press. Even so, it is surprising to see no printed books.

Streater’s decision to represent the process of printing rather than its products may be in keeping with his own career as a painter, treading a fine line between artist and artisan. Nonetheless the mechanical nature of printing sits uneasily in a painting that is otherwise wholly allegorical, which perhaps explains why ‘Printing’ is tucked away behind the figures of Law and Rhetoric, why her face is turned away from the viewer, and why she holds both case and forme rather awkwardly. It is not too much of a leap to see here the enduring tension between learning and commerce, between intellectual aspiration and the pragmatics of publishing, that had been characteristic of scholarly publishing long before Streater painted that ceiling — and one that continues to this day.

Ian Gadd is Professor of English Literature at Bath Spa University. He is editor of The History of Oxford University Press–Volume 1: From its beginnings to 1780.

To celebrate the publication of the first three volumes of The History of Oxford University Press on Thursday and University Press Week, we’re sharing various materials from our Archive and brief scholarly highlights from the work’s editors and contributors. With access to extensive archives, The History of Oxford University Press is the first complete scholarly history of the Press, detailing its organization, publications, trade, and international development. Watch the silent film or learn about arguments over the first printing press in Oxford or when the Press began in our previous posts.

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Image credit: Image courtesy of the University of Oxford.

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