A Turkish Souvenir: The Dryden Album and Anglo-Ottoman Contact

R.14.34, f.4r
R.14.34, f.r4r

This is the first of what we hope will become a series of guest blogs about material from the Library. Today’s post is by Dr William Kynan-Wilson, Post-doctoral Research Fellow, Aalborg University and Associate Scholar, The Skilliter Centre for Ottoman Studies, University of Cambridge

The late sixteenth century was a period of unprecedented contact between England and the Ottoman Empire. The initial stimulus to these early exchanges was trade: following the signing of a treaty between Queen Elizabeth I and Sultan Murad III in 1580 English travellers and merchants journeyed to the imperial capital of Constantinople (modern Istanbul) in ever increasing numbers. Alongside trade in lucrative commodities many Europeans developed a deep fascination with Turkish art and architecture, religious culture and societal organisation.

R.14.23, f42r

European taste for the Orient took many forms. One of the most popular of which was a book depicting customs and characters commonly known as an Ottoman costume album. These manuscripts adopted a simple, accessible, and flexible format: individual figures were depicted against a plain background and were identified via their clothing, props and often a brief descriptive label. Each album contained a diverse set of drawings including single-figure compositions of the sultan and his court, foreign merchants, and religious officials, as well as scenes of Turkish customs, such as women walking to the bath-house, an imperial wedding procession (see above), and vivid images of public execution. In this way the social, religious, and ethnic diversity of Ottoman society was neatly conveyed to a western audience that bought these books as travel souvenirs.

The Dryden Album (MS R.14.23) in the Wren Library at Trinity College is an early and important example of this genre. Both the artist and original owner are unknown, but the style and iconography allow this book to be attributed to a European artist and dated to circa 1580-90. The fifty-seven watercolours in this album are not of the finest artistic quality. Indeed, in 1901 M. R. James brusquely described the images as “all coloured, and rather rude.” The humble artistry does not diminish the importance of this book as a record of early European contact with the Ottoman world. Rather, it illustrates the emergence of a vibrant studio system through which European artists in Constantinople produced great numbers of these albums for foreign visitors. We rarely know how much these manuscripts originally cost, but it was evidently a lucrative market that Ottoman artists tapped into from the seventeenth century onwards.

R.14.23, f.37r

The most interesting element of this specific manuscript concerns the brief English labels that accompany most – but not all – of the drawings. In general, the glosses provide an accurate albeit terse overview of the city. One drawing depicts an ancient statue of a three-headed snake that still stands in the ancient Hippodrome. The English label reads: ‘The pillar of ye 3 serpents in Constantinople (of copper)’. Other monuments, such as the panoramic view of the imperial Topkapı Palace (see below), are tellingly unlabelled. The original owner may have been unfamiliar with the specific monuments depicted.

R.14.23, f54r

The labels attached to other drawings are even more revealing. For example, the drawing below depicts a man sporting a sheepskin cloak, a coloured skullcap and a gold-hooped earring. In his left-hand he holds a stick and in his right-hand he holds a small gold cup. The character is labelled: ‘A Coffee drinker’.

R.14.23, f.28r
R.14.23, f.28r

However, by comparing this image with examples found in other contemporary Ottoman costume books it is clear that this character is meant to be a wandering Islamic dervish. The red marks on his chest and arms are the result of the dervish cutting his own skin out of religious devotion.

Such dervishes were known for consuming coffee in order to fuel their spiritual exertions, and this may partially explain the appended label. More likely still, it is the prop of the golden cup (used for begging) and the deep association between Turkey and coffee that informed the reader’s response to this image. Another image in the album, which shows a water-seller with a golden cup, is also misidentified as a coffee drinker. Thus, certain characters were identified in very different ways by very different readers, and often on the basis of cultural associations and the iconography of the albums, as opposed to straightforward personal observation or even direct experience of life in the Ottoman world.

These seemingly simple albums performed many functions. On one level, they were souvenirs of travel that provided vivid and entertaining illustrations of Ottoman society. The bright, accessible and versatile format of these books ensured their popularity for more than three hundred years. Indeed, early photographic albums of Constantinople from the nineteenth century retained many of the iconographic and structural features of these earlier manuscripts. Above all, these albums played a crucial role in crafting wider European perceptions of the Ottoman world. They influenced how European travellers to Constantinople responded to and understood the city around them, and they also proved a powerful mode of experience the East vicariously. With these pages some of the colour and glamour of the Orient was translated into sixteenth-century England.

For further information see:

Kynan-Wilson, ‘Souvenirs and Stereotypes: An Introduction to Ottoman Costume Albums’, Heritage Turkey, Vol. 3 (2013), pp.35-6




The Legend of St Eustace

The latest medieval manuscript to go online is B.11.5, a 13th-century French Psalter once owned by Goring Priory. It includes illustrations of the legend of the 2nd-century saint, Eustace, as follows:

A Roman military officer called Placida was hunting near Tivoli and saw a vision of Christ between the antlers of a stag.

B.11.5, f.15v
B.11.5, f.15v

Taking the name Eustace, he immediately converted to Christianity and was baptised with his wife and sons. His faith was soon tested by separation from his family after his wife was taken during a sea voyage

B.11.5, f.16r
B.11.5, f.16r

and his sons were carried away by beasts while they were crossing a river together.

B.11.5, f.17v
B.11.5, f.17v

His family was restored to him. However, when Eustace refused to take part in a pagan ceremony

B.11.5, f.18r
B.11.5, f.18r

they were all sentenced to be roasted to death inside the statue of a bull.

B.11.5, f.19v
B.11.5, f.19v

Other medieval depictions of the legend can be found in a painting by Pisanello (c. 1438-42) in the National Gallery, in stained glass in Chartres Cathedral and in a wall painting in Canterbury Cathedral.

Photograph of the Month


Emily Elizabeth Constance Jones (1848-1922) was an English philosopher and educator who worked on logic and ethics and who studied with the Trinity fellow, Henry Sidgwick. The photograph was taken around the time of the publication of her major monograph, A New Law of Thought and its Logical Bearings (1911). She was a contemporary of the Trinity philosophers, Bertrand Russell and G. E. Moore and is the first woman recorded as having delivered a paper to the Cambridge University Moral Sciences Club, a philosophy discussion group founded in 1878. Jones’ paper was delivered on 1st December 1899 in rooms at Trinity College. On this occasion the meeting was chaired by Sidgwick who was a prominent campaigner for the admittance of women to higher education and a co-founder of Newnham College. Jones herself became Mistress of Girton College, Cambridge from 1903 until her retirement in 1916.