These are illustrations from the friendship album of the student Gervasius Fabricius zu Klesheim of Salzburg, and others around him in Würtzburg between 1603 and 1637. They give a charming insight into European social life in Shakespeare’s day. At the end of the book there are three leaves from a similar album by Christopherus Wöckerus of Ingolstadt, 1595, and one leaf from the album of Joannes Richardus Holthueser, 1628.

What were friendship albums?

From the mid-16th century, German and Dutch-speaking students would often embark on a tour of other European cities to complete their studies. As mementoes of their travels, they began to keep personalised albums like this one. Alongside intricate paintings of costumes, landscapes, and allegorical subjects in pen and ink or watercolour, the book contains signatures, coats of arms, mottoes and dedications.

Such albums were known in Latin as alba amicorum or in German as Stammbucher. They were carefully constructed to present an image of their owners as cosmopolitan, well-educated men with wide-ranging contacts and knowledge.

Miniature paintings

At first these albums were adapted from existing printed works or put together from illustrations cut from printed books. Increasingly, however, people began to use special plain-leaved oblong albums like this one, filled with specially commissioned paintings. The new acquaintance would often pay a professional local artist to draw (or copy a stock image) on their behalf. As a result these collections showcase a diverse mixture of styles and levels of artistic skill. They range from lively local scenes – gardens, cities and landscapes, hunters and wild animals, leisure pursuits and professions – to more allegorical figures taken from Christian and classical tales.

Players performing at table (f. 26v)

The first image shows four spectators and a lute player at a table in a hall, watching players perform. Their stylised masks suggest that they may be from the commedia dell’arte, a form of comedy that was popular all over Europe, and reflected in Shakespeare plays such as Love’s Labour’s Lost and Twelfth Night.

A meal outside, with a couple concealed in a covered arbour (f. 52v)

In the background of this watercolour there is a grand house in a seaside settlement. As we move towards the foreground, we see the lavish formal gardens. A group of people are dining at a table, while being entertained by players and musicians. Some of the players or diners are hiding in a specially constructed covered arbour, perhaps allowing them to make entrances. Such details help us to imagine the courtly settings of Twelfth Night and Much Ado About Nothing, with their sunny coastlines and scenes of concealment in gardens.

Women embroidering in a garden (f. 50)

This painting appears to show aristocratic women combining two recreational activities by sitting in a garden, and practicing embroidery. Appropriately, one is sewing a pattern of flowers, and the other a series of geometric patterns which seem similar to the garden itself. Gardens recur throughout Shakespeare’s work, either as the site of a murder in Hamlet, as a location for gulling in Much Ado About Nothing and Twelfth Night, or as a metaphor for a well, or badly ordered state throughout the history plays.

Sewing, meanwhile, is something Shakespeare’s well-to-do women are shown to be doing. Two examples are Volumnia and Virgilia, the mother and wife of the title character in Coriolanus. Again in Hamlet, needlework serves as a way of contrasting the propriety of Ophelia’s behaviour with Hamlet’s apparent insanity:

My lord, as I was sewing in my closet,
Lord Hamlet, with his doublet all unbrac'd,
No hat upon his head, his stockings fouled,
Ungart'red, and down-gyved to his ankle,
Pale as his shirt, his knees knocking each other,
And with a look so piteous in purport
As if he had been loosed out of hell
To speak of horrors – he comes before me (2.1.74–81).