Theater of a Book: The Macrocosm of Extra-illustrated Memoirs of the life of John Philip Kemble, esq.

This is a guest post by Cen Liu, a PhD student in Theatre and Performance at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

This fall, I worked with the Department of Printed Books and Bindings to catalog the additional materials in an extra-illustrated version of James Boaden’s Memoirs of the life of John Philip Kemble, esq. (London, 1825; PML 9522-25). My own research is focused on the intersection of theater history and the history of visuality. I investigate how theater, as a concept and an artifact, exhibits and constructs the shifting paradigms of the relation between optical perception and knowledge. Boaden’s book revolves around the life of the eminent actor, Kemble, which epitomizes the English stage in the eighteenth century. Rich in actor portraits, engravings, and theatrical ephemera, the extra-illustrated version offers valuable materials that capture the broader history of theatrical ideas. My work at the Morgan has invited further contemplation on how the theater interacts with the material culture of books and prints and how they together shape the discourse of visuality.

The theater has always been a privileged site for imagining totality in Western culture. The ancient topos of theatrum mundi envisions the world on a stage where misery and felicity, wonders and knowledge, virtue and vice are put on display. The first modern atlas, Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, also portrays the world as a theater, in particular one that unfolds before the eyes. The fascination with wonders and curiosities gives birth to various forms of cabinet-collections, the legacy of which are modern museums. An extra-illustrated book is a microcosm of the kind, yearning to encapsulate the motions of the universe in lights and shadows, scenes and sounds, laughs and tears.

The artistic ventures of the eighteenth century are fueled by a desire to see. This desire is manifested in imperialist expansions, archaeological excavations, and exhibitions of natural and mechanical spectacles. The century also holds a positive view of the act of assemblage—not as an imitation of reality, but as a construction that puts in front of the eye the spectacular nature of the world. Ultimately, the desire to see is the desire to attain the knowledge of the past, the future, and the self. The importance of visual reception for the access to knowledge changes the ways that books are envisioned. James Granger wrote in Biographical History of England (1796), the book that popularized the practice of extra-illustration, that the “methodical” collection of his descriptive portraits offered a “speaking chronicle” that would excite in his readers “the latent seeds of a martial, philosophic, poetic or literary disposition.”1

While the original work was only a compilation of biographical sketches of historical figures, its readers started to match the descriptive catalogs with the actual example of the portraits. Avid readers would deploy all resources, reaching out to the most distinguished collectors of English portraits at the time for figures that eluded the author. With the increased efficiency and refinement of painting and engraving, which made available the wide circulation of visual materials, the practice of inserting letters, prints, and ephemera into bound books extended to other histories and biographies. The enthusiasm for illustrating the past was also interlaced with the fervor of antiquarianism in the eighteenth century, where the study of material objects was the key to understanding Britain’s local and national past.

The Morgan boasts a significant collection of extra-illustrated books. Among them is a particular type of history and biography—dramatic memoirs of major figures of the eighteenth-century stage, including David Garrick, Colley Cibber, Philip Kemble, and others. Although centered on the actors, dramatic memoirs are also intended for a macroscopic view of the theatrical arena of the time, supplemented with vivid details of anecdotes. Theater historian Richard Schoch calls them the crucial “narrative history of [one’s] own time.”2 Because of the miscellaneous nature of the genre, the historiographic value of dramatic memoirs is understated compared to other writings of history. However, dramatic memoirs offer a dialectic between the personal and the universal, between people and the culture, which mirrors the aspiration of extra-illustration—the artistic dialogue at the hand of the extra-illustrator “between a consciously selected text and the prints, watercolors, and other items introduced by the collector to elucidate the narrative and dramatize its protagonists, settings and events.”3 In light of the synergy, an examination of extra-illustrated dramatic memoirs can facilitate new understanding of theater history and new appreciation of visual materials.

Figure 1: Portrait of Tate Wilkinson, bust length, looking towards front, wearing a dark coat and a ruffled white cravat, PML 9522-25, the Morgan Library & Museum, New York.

For instance, Boaden described an anecdote during a performance of Arthur Murphy’s Zenoiba. The daughter of a local baronet derided the actress Mrs. Mason and Mr. Kemble. Kemble, detecting the insulting laughter, refused to continue to perform in the daughter’s presence and exhorted the audience to force her out. Boaden wrote, “That an actor, however, should presume to resent the conduct of a lady of family, was an outrage not to be endured.”4 Such an incident provides us with a glimpse into the cultural anxieties over theatrical celebrity. But it also suggests the potential of the theatrical stage as a site of negotiation with authority.

A portrait of Tate Wilkinson is inserted before the anecdote. As the author of The Wandering patentee, or, A history of the Yorkshire theatres from 1770 to the present time (1795), Wilkinson has recounted the scandal in his book thirty years before Boaden. The insertion of his portrait indicates the awareness of the extra-illustrator of the writing of history: the use of sources, the extraction of facts, and the reconstruction of an interpretive framework.

Part of my work during cataloging is composing descriptions for individual prints. As most of the prints are theatrical portraits, the work requires me to pay meticulous attention to costumes, gestures, and facial expressions of the actors. Theatrical portraits are replete with details of the development of costume, set design, and acting style during the eighteenth century. Resonating with the antiquarian fervor, theatrical design during the eighteenth century sees the rise of demand for historical accuracy. However, in the case of exotic settings, such as Turkey, the theatrical design implies an inadequate literacy of other cultures. The costume recycles a similar pattern, frequently with trousers, slippers, turban, and scimitar. While indicative of the fashionable interests in Asian cultures, the costumes, if worn on the stage, might have played a role in the perpetuation of an  image of the colonized East in eighteenth-century England.

Figure 2: Portrait of Mr. Kemble as Bajazet in Tamerlane, whole length, standing in front of a curtain, wearing a fur-trimmed loose coat, a patterned dress under and a high hat, his arms folded around the chest, his hands manacled, looking slightly to the right, PML 9522-25, the Morgan Library & Museum, New York.

Figure 3: Portrait of the actor Robert Bensley, in the character of Mahomet in James Miller's Mahomet, whole length, standing, turning to the right, wearing a long coat trimmed with fur, a dress with floral patterns, a headpiece decorated with plume and pearls, holding a sword in his right hand, PML 9522-25, the Morgan Library & Museum, New York.

My engagement with the extra-illustrated book was multi-sensory: with each print, I described its embellishment, identified its texture, and measured its perimeter. I especially cherish the memories of tactility when I flipped through the pages of the physical book in the reading room. The microcosmic macrocosm of the extra-illustrated book seems to exist out of time (the time of a pandemic) and out of life (the life of virtual reality). Extra-illustrated books recall the age-old dream of a total library. In the twenty-first century, the ever-expanding digital universe is only the afterlife of this old dream. The present time speaks all the more to the importance of the work that I did at the Morgan—to make the resources at the Morgan more easily available for scholars, researchers, and the general public. Hence, I embrace the opportunity to reconsider the meaning and the form of archive. After all, the word digitus expresses no more than the desire to hold the world within “a finger’s breadth,” be it on a page or on a stage. Perhaps a digital archive is a new threshold of history’s heartbeat?


  1. James Granger, Biographical History of England, A Biographical History of England: from Egbert the Great to the Revolution… (London: William Baynes and Son, 1824), xviii.
  2. Richard Schoch, Writing the History of the British Stage, 1660–1900 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 228.
  3. Lucy Peltz, Facing the text: extra-illustration, print culture, and society in Britain 1769–1840 (San Marino: the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, 2017), 5.
  4. James Boaden, Memoirs of the life of John Philip Kemble, esq.: including a history of the stage from the time of Garrick to the present period (London: Longman, 1825), 25.

Cen Liu is a PhD student in Theatre and Performance at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Her research explores aestheticized forms of sacredness in theater and the technological history of theatrical artifacts.