This miniature watercolour painting of travelling players may be a depiction of an English acting troupe, c. 1605–06. It comes from the friendship album of Franz Hartmann, a German student from Frankfurt on the Oder.

English players in Germany

Hartmann studied in Marburg, a town en route between Kassel and Frankfurt. English players, who performed at the court in Kassel, might have been travelling through Marburg on their way to perform at the Frankfurt Fair. English actors regularly toured Germany in the late 16th and early 17th century. They performed simplified versions of Shakespeare’s plays which they had learned in England, including Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet and Titus Andronicus, among many other plays by English writers.

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 in pen and ink or watercolour, the book – like an early autograph album – contains signatures, coats of arms, mottoes and dedications from nobles, professors and others. In this album, they are dated at Frankfurt on Oder, Strasburg, Marburg, Paris, London and other places, in the years 1597–1617.

Such albums were known in Latin as album 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.