Locke to Courten: a letter about “Draughts”

            “I have already spoke to a friend of mine to get for you any raretys that he can light on in the East India fleet which is now here every day expected. I the last weeke put into the hands of Mr Smith a book seller liveing at the Princes Armes in Pauls Churchyard 26 Draughts of the inhabitants of severall remote parts of the world espetially the East Indies they are market thus .2.3.4.5.6.7.8.9.10.11. 14.15.16.17.18.19.20.21.22. 24.25.26.27.28.29.30. and the names of most of them writ on the backside with my hand, those whose names are not writ if you know them not I will get explained here. The Brasilian Canibals (of which there are one or two) are easily known, but since there was not the name of the particular nation from which they were taken I would not adde them my self. For the excellency of the drawing I will not answer they being don by my boy who hath faithfully enough represented the originals they were copyed from, soe that one may see the habits and complexion of the people which was the main end they were designd for and therefor you must excuse them if they be not excellent pieces of painting.”

(left): John Locke’s “Brasilian Canibal” from BL MS 5253 (f.28r), c.1687 (right): Albert Eckhout, Tarairiu Man, 1640s

So wrote the famed philosopher John Locke to his friend William Courten, aka William Charleton, from Amsterdam in August 1687. If these passing remarks concerning the copying work of Locke’s servant, Sylvester Brounower, might at first appear to be of little interest, they take on much more significance when matched with the drawings that they describe. Thanks to the fact that Courten kept a prominent cabinet of curiosities in London that would later be acquired by Hans Sloane, whose collection in turn helped form the basis of the British Museum, we can do just that. Indeed, among the over 70 water colors pasted into British Library MS 5253, one finds pictures whose provenance can be traced back to Locke and whose subjects closely correspond to those described in Locke’s letter to Courten. The most sensational of these are the “Brasilian Canibals,” which are copies at some remove of formal oil paintings by the Dutch artist Albert Eckhout, now in the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen.

Scholars have long known about Locke’s copies of these paintings and have long assumed them to be the “Draughts” described in the above-quoted letter. However, the more exacting art-historical work of parsing which of the pictures in the preserved album match the unusually numbered series of 26 drawings in Locke’s letter has only recently attracted scholarly attention. In 2017, Mariana de Campos Françozo published a pioneering article about the water colors in History and Anthropology and thereby admirably sorted the proverbial wheat of Locke’s drawings from the chaff of Sloane’s much larger album of images. Correctly noting numerous stylistic similarities and distinctive formats among some of the album’s pictures but not others, Françozo laid out a compelling reconstruction of Locke’s original series. 

A reconstruction of Locke’s original series of drawings as described in his letter to Courten

Armed with Françozo’s article, Locke’s correspondence, and an all-important letter of introduction from the Warburg’s Director, Bill Sherman, I was recently able to consult BL MS 5253 in person in the Manuscripts Reading Room of the British Library. In an attempt to discover something new about the images, I also planned my visit around using a standard tool of contemporary conservation practice: a light sheet. Light sheets are, much as their name implies, thin, flexible, and rectangular light sources, usually powered by LED technology, and they allow one to backlight individual book pages with ease so as to see watermarks, inscriptions, or otherwise obscured details. My impetus for using a light sheet with MS 5256 stemmed from a long noted frustration concerning the labels that now adorn many of the drawings in the album. These labels are latter additions, likely the work of Hans Sloane, and they evidently conceal writing underneath them, thereby making it impossible to see the original numbering and writing that Locke describes in his letter.

Sure enough, and as expected, examining MS 5253 under backlight with a light sheet reveals what are surely the original numbers on the drawings. When matching those numbers to the numbers in Locke’s letter, one notes that both sequences run to 30 and conspicuously omit 12, 13, and 23.  Backlight analysis also suggests that the drawing labeled “An Inhabitant of Java,” (f.38r) is a later addition to the album as the handwriting under its label is different and it bears a number, 1, which does not appear in Locke’s original sequence. The resulting reconstruction, illustrated above, differs slightly from Françozo’s recent effort.

(left): enlarged, enhanced, and inverted detail of Locke’s “Brasilian Canibal” (f.28r) of BL MS 5253 (right): enlarged, enhanced, and inverted detail of Locke’s man from “Angola” (f.33r) of BL MS 5253, included excerpted letters of Locke’s hand above

Examining the drawings with a light sheet also reveals inscriptions on the verso sides of two of the drawings that have previously gone unnoticed. In the center of the top margin of the images currently labeled “A Brasilian Canibal” (f.28r) and “An Inhabitant of Angola” (f.33r) one can just see writing bleeding through the paper. Under backlight, these inscriptions become clear—respectively reading “Brasilian Cannibal” and “Angola”.  Though these inscriptions largely repeated the drawings’ current labels, they are nevertheless important as they substantiate what Locke wrote in his letter to Courten, thereby confirming that the drawings were indeed made by Locke’s servant.  As quote above, Locke wrote to Courten about the drawings that “the names of most of them writ on the backside with my hand” and that the Brazilian Cannibals “are easily known, but since there was not the name of the particular nation from which they were taken I would not adde them my self.” By examining the inscriptions on the “backside” of the drawings and by comparing them to samples of Locke’s handwriting excised from his journal, we can indeed see that the word “Angola” is in Locke’s hand whereas the term “Brasilian Cannibal” is not.  Most concretely, by attributing the word “Angola” to Locke, scholars can definitively place these drawings in the philosopher’s possession.  What they meant to him, of course, is another matter and readers will have to wait for future Locke scholarship, including my current book project, to discover answers to that most intriguing question.

* I would like to thank Felix Waldmann, John Milton, and David Armitage for their opinions on Locke’s handwriting.


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