Sir John Hawkins and Sir Martin Frobisher

This print comes from a series of portraits depicting English seafarers and commanders engraved by Robert Boissard. Portrait prints had begun to grow in popularity towards the end of the sixteenth century. The chosen personages needed to be well known, hence the overwhelming majority of royalty and nobility. However, because of their adventurous exploits and their part in the Spanish Armada, explorers and naval commanders achieved the status of heroes, and their likenesses became well sought after. Their portraits were included in expanded editions of the Baziliologia, the ‘Book of Kings’, first published in 1618.

There are six portraits in this set by Boissard: Thomas Cavendish, Sir Martin Frobisher, Sir Humphrey Gilbert, Sir John Hawkins, Christopher Carleill and Sir Francis Drake. Although the Fitzwilliam Museum lacks impressions of the last two men, the other four portraits are important objects for the collection, as they reveal that the plates were originally engraved with double portraits. Other surviving impressions are printed from later states of the copper plates, after they were cut down to the individual portraits. This impression here, portraying the likenesses of Hawkins and Frobisher, shows how the plate looked before it was altered. The Fitzwilliam Museum also has an impression of the double portrait of Humphrey Gilbert and Thomas Cavendish.

The more common later states consist of a single portrait and a short verse, printed from two separate plates. Arthur M. Hind, who wrote a three-volume catalogue of engraving in England in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, knew only that the later states were cut down in width from larger plates, as he had seen three of the six portraits in the earlier state. However, Hind did not guess that the plates had been engraved with two portraits, and he catalogues them as six separate engravings (Hind, Engraving in England in the sixteenth & seventeenth centuries, volume 1, pp.188-92).

Hind thought it likely that the first states were intended as book illustrations, perhaps because none of the portraits bears a publisher’s name, and because one of the impressions he had seen had a title printed from type. He thought the series could date as far back as 1583 because Francis Drake looks the same age as engravings by Jacobus Hondius and Thomas de Leu which date from that time. But if it is correct that Boissard was born in 1570 then he would only have been thirteen when he engraved the plates! Hind concluded that they were probably engraved around 1590. Frobisher and Hawkins, who are labelled ‘Knight’ in the title of the impression reproduced here, were knighted in 1588, so this plate must date from this year at the earliest.

Sir John Hawkins (1532-1595) wears a round hat and a gorget (a piece of armour to cover the neck, deriving from the French word gorge meaning ‘throat’). He holds a baton in his right hand, the symbol of military authority. In the upper-right corner is his coat of arms and underneath a motto ADVAVNCEMENT BY DILLIGENCE. The coat of arms was given to him in 1565 by Queen Elizabeth I as a reward for his voyages in the first half of the 1560s. The crest of the coat of arms is a bound slave, which points to Hawkins’ occupation as a slave dealer. Hawkins was in fact the first English slave trader: he made three voyages to Sierra Leone between 1564 and 1569, taking a total of 1,200 Africans across the Atlantic to sell to Spanish settlers in the Caribbean. The slaves were sold for hides for the most part, but also gold, ginger, sugar and pearls. Two of the three voyages had the financial backing of the Queen and Hawkins was even given the use of her ships. In 1571 Hawkins became MP for Plymouth, and rose in ranks to treasurer of the Navy in 1577. He fought in the Spanish Armada with three of his ships as a rear-admiral and then vice-admiral, and was knighted in July 1588. He died in Puerto Rico in 1595 on his final expedition to capture Panama and disrupt Spanish trading routes, and was buried at sea.

Sir Martin Frobisher (1535?-1594) is depicted wearing a breast plate and gorget and holding a baton. His family’s coat of arms is also engraved in the background – an arrangement of griffons’ heads and a greyhound. Martin Frobisher tried to discover a route through to the Far East by way of the north-west passage, so avoiding territory dominated by Spain and Portugal. In 1576 his first voyage reached Baffin Island, situated between Canada and Greenland. In 1577 and 1578 Frobisher lead two more voyages to the same place to bring back quantities of black ore which was mistakenly believed to be high in value. Frobisher became one of the principal commanders in the English navy against the Spanish Armada, and was knighted in July 1588 for his successes in command of the Triumph. In 1594 he died from an infected gunshot wound, received during a raid on a Spanish fortress in Crozon, Brittany. Boissard labels the land in the background of Frobisher’s portrait BREST (the great naval harbour) and CROIDON (Crozon was often called by the English name Croydon).

John Charrington (Honorary Keeper of Prints from 1910-1939) realised the rarity of this impression (and the related object P.2243-R), because he very untypically stamped his collection mark on both sides of the sheet, perhaps ensuring that it would be visible on both portraits if the sheet was ever divided. In 1933 Charrington gave over 4,000 portrait prints to the Fitzwilliam Museum, and continued to donate others up until his death in 1939.

Museum Number P.2244-R

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