This ornate pair of compasses is part of a set made by Bartholomew Newsum (c. 1530–1587), the clockmaker to Elizabeth I.
What is unique about this set of compasses?
This is the earliest known set of drawing instruments to survive with their original case – a decorated gilt brass box, resting on four cherubs’ heads. The sides of the box are engraved with classical female figures representing War and Peace, Abundance and Poverty. It was probably intended for a rich customer, who wanted to show off their technical expertise as well as their culture and wealth.
As tools for drawing circles and measuring precise distances, compasses were key to the process of map-making in the late 16th century. This was an age of exploration, when Francis Drake became the first Englishman to sail around the globe (1577–80). Images of compasses and dividers are frequently seen on maps – perhaps as a symbol of man’s attempt to reduce the world to a measurable circle.
John Donne’s compass conceit
In his poem, ‘A Valediction Forbidding Mourning’, John Donne (1572–1631) uses the simile of ‘stiff twin compasses’ to describe two lovers who are physically parted, but united in their souls. The woman is like ‘the fixed foot’ which remains firm ‘in the centre’, while the man is like the ‘other foot’, roaming far and wide. This is perhaps the most famous of Donne’s poetic conceits, which often make startling connections between the concrete, physical world and the sphere of thoughts and emotions.
The 18th-century writer, Samuel Johnson, criticised Donne and other ‘metaphysical’ poets for using this kind of ‘far-fetched’ conceit to describe human affections. Johnson complained that, in metaphysical poems, disparate ‘ideas are yoked by violence together’, and he singled out Donne’s comparison between lovers and compasses as a striking example (Johnson’s ‘Life of Cowley’, 1779, republished in The Lives of the Most Eminent Poets in 1781).