This frontispiece was one of three commissioned by the writer Margaret Cavendish, Marchioness (later Duchess) of Newcastle, from the artist Abraham van Diepenbeeck in the 1650s. The different engravings appear separately in the front of volumes printed during Cavendish’s lifetime, under her own supervision.
Rather than illustrating specific themes or concepts from her books, the frontispieces all treat Cavendish herself as their subject. In an age when it was socially unacceptable for women to publish their writing, Cavendish used symbol-laden portraiture and prefatory material to communicate directly with her readers and fashion a respectable authorial persona.
This engraving shows Cavendish sitting alone at her desk surrounded by writing materials, with putti (secular cherubs) placing a poet's laurel upon her head. Putti symbolise secular passion, which, when combined with the poet's laurel, demonstrate to the viewer that writing was Cavendish’s vocation.
Cavendish is also portrayed with the trappings of her aristocratic status. She has a small crown placed on the back of her head; her dress is of the finest quality and is in the latest Royalist fashion (which was more revealing than the clothing of the contemporary Puritan Parliamentarians). She is also covered by a cloth of state, which served as a decorative canopy, designed to both screen and distinguish members of the highest nobility.
The melancholic creative
Melancholia was defined in Cavendish's era as an excess of black bile (one of the four humours recognised by ancient and medieval medicine) which resulted in a sullen, introverted or brooding temperament. It was fashionably thought of as a medical condition that affected intellectual or creative individuals.
In this engraving, and in her autobiography, Cavendish is particularly careful to construct an image of herself as a solitary, melancholic genius. In this way she demonstrates that it is melancholia, rather than any deliberate rebelliousness, that compels her to write and publish her work.
The poem at the bottom of the frontispiece reads:
Studious she is and all alone
Most visitants, when she has none,
Her library on which she looks
It is her head her thoughts her books.
Scorning dead ashes without fire
For her own flames do her Inspire
The idea that Cavendish is ‘all alone’ and that ‘her thoughts [are] her books’ echoes the imagery in the engraving: she is set back from the front of the frame and is dressed completely in black as if in solitary contemplation. There are no books in the picture, only writing materials, implying that she relies solely on her imagination for inspiration and that all of her written work is organic and original.