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Dragons in the Night Sky or Gunpowder for Pleasure

Dragons in the Night Sky or Gunpowder for Pleasure

‘Dragons in the Night Sky or Gunpowder for Pleasure’
The frontispiece from: Pyrotechnia or A Discourse of Artificiall Fireworks For Pleasure
London : Printed by Thomas Harper for Ralph Mab,  1635.
Canterbury Cathedral Library H/G—6-13(1)


This month’s image is a dramatic and complex title-page concerned with firework displays, which is most appropriate for a November edition of ‘Picture this…’. Little is known of the book’s author, John Babington, except that he was baptised in the City of London in 1604 and was ‘one of the inferiour gunners of his Majestie’. This volume, his sole work, was published in 1635 and is called, Pyrotechnia or A Discourse of Artificiall Fireworks For Pleasure.

Babington heralds his book as being a work:

In which the true grounds of your art
are pleinely and perspicuously
laid downe. together with sundry
such notions both straight and
circular, performed by ye helpe
of fire, as are not to be found
in any other Discourse of this
kind extant in any language

It consists of three parts, the first being an instruction manual on how to engineer fireworks with accompanying illustrations, the second a treatise of geometry and the third tables of logarithms. There are two title-pages, as was not uncommon with printed books of the seventeenth century. The first one is the visual front of the book, advertising the contents of the first section on fireworks, and the second title page is in plain text, with the added mention of the last two sections.

The main title page deserves our attention as it is a flamboyant example of the type that graced seventeenth-century printed books.  The technique of line engraving was pivotal in the development of artistic creation for frontispieces. This method gave a greater flexibility in art form which was sometimes lacking in earlier woodcuts and also meant that the subject matter of frontispieces were more regularly directly related to individual books, rather than being the generic printer’s tropes of the previous century.

This particular frontispiece introduces the reader to the contents and tries to arouse curiosity through a dramatic rendition of a truly theatrical firework display, which complements the textual introduction to the book’s contents. The page is constructed by a simple architectural framework within which fit square cases. Its design is inspired by the facade of an antique temple with a rectangular pediment, two sides and a central part flanked by columns and topped by a rounded arch. The central area is occupied by text outlining the contents and below this a portrait of John Babington himself within a cartouche. An encircling inscription reads, ‘VERA EFFIGIES JOHANNIS BABINGTON ANNO AETATIS SVAE 31’ (a true portrait of John Babington, his age 31). This strongly implies that it bears a genuine likeness of the author, rather than merely being a model from the printer’s panoply. It seems that John Babington was involved in the design of the page and that he created the technical drawings himself. These are contained within the rest of the frontispiece, a kind of pictogram of nine images, each confined within their boxes, four on each side and one at the top. The latter depicts a jousting scene, with two automaton riders facing each other down at full gallop on a stretch finished at each end by a square tower spewing fireworks from the turrets. As the book is printed in black ink on white paper, it cannot give the effects of colourful explosions in a night sky, although the whole background has been blacked out in order to give as faithful an idea of night time as possible; the effect is eye-catching, especially as such large blocks of black are not particularly common features in engravings.

Four compartments on each side contain an image or a diagram of machines or firework devices: a flame-spitting dragon, a table sphere, an engine, a frame with the initials CR (Charles Rex) and a few rockets, arranged as in a toy catalogue, for the perusal of the reader. These images are copied from the ones found alongside the instructions on how to make the framework and the explosive cocktail found within the body of the book. Some of the machines are included in the jousting scene which is explained and developed, so that it can be recreated as it is depicted on the front cover.  Catherine wheels fixed to the ramparts, snakes with wings hovering above, rockets and a flame- throwing dragon are added to the merry joust.

The book is addressed to the right honourable ‘The Earl of Newport, Master of his Majesties Ordnance’, and it could be possible that the author was hoping to attract the attention of the King and his courtiers in order to obtain a commission for the many feasts, masques and celebrations popular at court. He introduces himself as a ‘gunner and a student of Mathematicks’ and proposes that his crafts in artillery and fireworks might be used in ‘halcyon days of peace and tranquility’. As we can surmise from the initials CR engraved on one of the machines and the date of publication, our master gunner produced his manual during the reign of Charles I. There was peace with the usual suspects, Spain and France, and Ireland was subdued for the present. What better use for idle gunpowder than for fun and celebration? As for the last two sections of the book, the author meant them to be used for instruction by fellow students and pupils, and they consist of numerical tables as their titles indicate plainly. However, the true interest resides mainly in the first section with its practical instructions and illustrations and engaging title page, which throws a light on the prevailing fashion for the frontispiece to act as a kind of shop window displaying the wares found within the book.

Christine Oakland: Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Studies, University of Kent

Editor: Jayne Wackett

Further Reading

  • Margery Corbett and Ronald Lightbown , The Comely Frontispiece, the Emblematic Title-Page in England 1550-1660. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul
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