Margaret Cavendish's Nature's Pictures, 1656


Margaret Cavendish’s writing career is remarkable because of the range of genres she employed, and the sheer scale of subjects she wrote about. Nature’s Pictures (1656) was Cavendish’s fifth printed book, and characteristically it does not repeat or rehash previous ideas or forms, but explores new themes in new ways.

Cavendish’s earlier publications (Poems and Fancies (1653), Philosophical Fancies (1653), The World’s Olio (1655) and Philosophical and Physical Opinions (1655)) had been forays into poetry, allegory, essay writing, prose fiction and philosophical discourses on a range of topics including marriage, war, atomic structure, society and statesmanship. In contrast, Nature’s Pictures offers a selection of romantic short stories for the moral enhancement of its readers, as well as a clutch of satires that focus on contemporary concerns such as tobacco smoking. Most daringly, the collection contains the first secular printed autobiography written by a woman: ‘A True Relation of My Birth Breeding and Life’ (pp. 368–91).

What does the frontispiece portrait of Margaret Cavendish reveal?

The engraving at the front of this volume shows a traditional, wholesome family scene in which Margaret and William Cavendish (wearing laurel crowns) are sat with their children and grandchildren, telling stories next to a roaring fire. In a period when women were expected to be humble, dutiful wives and mothers, this scenario puts Cavendish, and her work, within the safe boundaries of the domestic sphere. It also implies that Cavendish, as a publishing author, had the full support of her family.

Cavendish turned to portraiture throughout her career to influence how her work – and persona as a writer – was received by the public. This frontispiece was one of three she commissioned from Abraham van Diepenbeeck, an accomplished Flemish artist who had trained under Peter Paul Rubens.

Full title:
Natures pictures drawn by fancies pencil to the life. Written by the thrice noble, illustrious, and excellent princess, the lady Marchioness of Newcastle. In this volume there are several feigned stories of natural descriptions, as comical, tragical, and tragi-comical, poetical, romancical, philosophical, and historical, both in prose and verse, some all verse, some all prose, some mixt, partly prose and partly verse. Also, there are some morals, and some dialogues; but they are as the advantage loaves of bread to a bakers dozen; and a true story at the end, wherein there is no feignings.
1656, London
Book / Folio / Illustration / Image / Engraving
Margaret Cavendish
Usage terms
Public Domain
Held by
British Library

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Print and perception: The literary careers of Margaret Cavendish and Katherine Philips

Article by:
Tamara Tubb
Gender and sexuality

Margaret Cavendish and Katherine Philips both wrote across a range of genres and achieved considerable success in their day. Tamara Tubb explores their different approaches to the difficulties of being a 17th-century female writer: Philips created a reserved and modest literary persona, presenting herself as the ideal woman of the time, while Cavendish openly challenged literary and feminine conventions.

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