IV. Hermeneutics:
Ephelia's Portrait and Poems, Newly Decoded


 When Female Poems...by Ephelia entered the London literary market in 1679, Mary Villiers, then entering her sixth decade, could not have resembled the sitter in the book's engraved frontispiece (Image 10a). In keeping with the character of the book which it introduces, this frontispiece, which is both unsigned and undated, is but another witty trick of the book's author in simultaneously concealing and revealing identity. While the portrait is surely a fictitious representation of the author in 1679, it, nonetheless, is assembled with several articulate allusions to the author's life and circle. The invitation to read this image as a puzzle-picture and sight-gag is patent -- and profitable.

Mary Villiers's rhetorics of self-disclosure in the portrait begin with the small heraldic badge at the top of the canvas, circumscribed with laurels. This image, with its dominant heraldic ordinary of the St George Cross, may allude to the dominant cross in the coats of the two families to which the present candidate was connected: Tilly, which later devolved to the Mowbray-Howard line, Howard being the family of Mary Villiers's third husband (Wiffen II:237; Burke 1015); and her birth-family, Villiers (Papworth 637; Burke 1057). Moreover, this same cross may serve as a visual pun on the "crux" in the Villiers family motto, "Fidei curricula crux" (Thomson III: 353ff). Balthazar Gerbier's equestrine portrait of Buckingham and other (official) portraits of him, includes the family coat with the St George Cross and this motto.

Another curious piece in this frontispiece is the object on the portrait's plinth, apparently a knotted ribbon. This ribbon may allude to the clandestine royalist group, The Sealed Knot, whose six members included Mary Villiers's relative, Sir Edward Villiers (b. 1620), fourth son of Sir Edward Villiers, her father's half-brother (Underdown 73ff). As documented earlier in this piece, Mary Villiers herself was as a covert political intelligencer and unofficial royalist conduit during the Civil Wars (Image 7).

The sitter's portrait-miniature brooch, traditionally an amorous memento, may not be as generic as it first seems. It depicts a man with long dark locks, in a high-collar white shirt; and, as he is free of facial hair, he would not be either the first Buckingham, nor Charles I or Charles II, but probably the man nearest the sitter's heart in 1679: Colonel 'Tom' Howard, her recently deceased husband.

Turning to the image of the sitter herself, we see an amusing display of overripe womanhood, not altogether inappropriate in a book of "female poems." The sitter's forced sexuality is comical; moreover, her angle of vision is divergent (her eyes do not match). As the title-page it faces, the frontis may best be appreciated as a sight-gag, an in-joke, and the first of several clever tricks in the pages which follow. Its style of portraiture may allude to three popular types of woman in Restoration art and literature. Its strident eroticism may parody the pictorial type of the languorous courtesan in Sir Peter Lely's "Windsor Beauties" series, as well as the literary type of the sluttish woman writer ("Whore is scarce a more reproachful Name / Than Poetess," writes Ld. Rochester in female voice, in his most polished social satire, A Letter from Artemisia...to Cloe... [1679]).

But perhaps the most useful reading of this image of the Ephelia poet comes from comparing it to other author frontispieces in English poetry books of the 1670s, especially those written by women. This frontis, whose subject is enthroned on her own labeled pedestal, would appear to parody the most conspicuous contemporary instance of the cultural commodification of the Restoration woman writer: the iconic representation of Katherine Philips in Henry Herringman's posthumous edition of her collected work in 1667 (Mulvihill, "A Feminist Link...," 86, 98), (Image 10b ). This image of Philips, engraved by William Faithorne after a portrait-bust of Philips by Michael Vander Gucht, is an early location of mass-market imaging, at a time in English book history when literature began to aspire to the condition of commerce. Through a reliable third party, Mary Villiers could have commissioned a capable London engraver to discreetly produce a frontispiece portrait for her book-project of 1679, one meeting her special specifications.

An enticing pictorial text, the Ephelia frontispiece conflates elements of autobiographical truth and cultural commentary. In a masterful masquerade of disguise and disclosure, the curious pieces in this puzzle-picture -- from the dominant cross of the heraldic badge to the brooch and ribbon -- appear to be associated with the playful Duchess of Richmond. Little wonder, the portrait's armorial badge is encircled by laurels.