Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum

Documenting the Ouroboros Press TCB Project – **Under Construction**

Alchemical Art

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In this section we will be concerned with the imagery found in alchemical art as originally found in manuscripts collected by Ashmole as well as the engravings he commissioned for his edition of Theatrum Chemicum Britanicum. In his pursuit of preserving historical materials Elias Ashmole gathered together many alchemical manuscripts which had been saved from the dissolution of the monasteries. Images from some of those manuscripts are presented below showing alchemy themed artwork which formed the basis of the engravings Ashmole commissioned Robert Vaughan to produce [also pictured].  The quality of Vaughan’s engravings is extraordinary and show how a seventeenth century preservation project was approached. In addition, an example of a page spread from the new edition [figure 4] is shown to indicate the modern effort to preserve the art and text of this important book. Not shown here are several full page images [similar to figure 4], which illustrate Norton’s Ordinal. The latter will delight readers of the new edition.

Robert Vaughan’s Engravings

The Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum features several engraved plates by Robert Vaughan [not to be confused with Thomas Vaughan, author of Lumen de Lumen etc.]. C. H. Josten notes in his five-volume set of Elias Ashmole’s autobiographical and historical works; ‘these engravings ‘are probably the earliest engraved reproductions of miniatures from a illuminated manuscript.‘ The manuscripts in question are preserved in the British Library [see the Bibliography]. The engravings are certainly among the most beautifully rendered in the alchemical corpus. Heralding from the emblematic tradition, such engravings are by now hallmarks of the famous alchemical books extant. According to Ashmoles diary, Vaughan actually came to stay with him where the artist ‘wrought and finished all the Cutts‘ [ibid]. The images themselves feature several alchemical scenes depicting, famous alchemists, work in laboratories, astrological charts, allegorical themes and the larger images are each surrounded by foliated borders which are also populated with animals, insects and birds. The book also has a few engraved ornamental grotesques, alchemical dragons, trees and fleurons scattered throughout the text.

John Goddard’s Diagram

In addition to Vaughan’s engravings there is a folding plate by another artist which is to be found in the Compound of Alchemie, or Twelve Gates by George Ripley. This typographical diagram labeled; ‘Here followeth the the Figure conteyning all the secrets of the Treatise both great & small‘ was originally rendered by John Goddard. Again in keeping with the original the folding plate will be included in the Ouroboros Press edition with the Latin parts translated into English by Darius Klein and the whole reset by Joseph Uccello.

Ripley's Wheel

Written by Ouroboros Press

May 13, 2011 at 8:57 am

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