What is 'prosopography'?

September 30 2014

Image of What is 'prosopography'?

Picture: Neil Jeffares/ National Archives

King of all things pastel, Neil Jeffares (consult his online Dictionary of pastellists before 1800 here) is a pre-eminent prosopographist, and explains what it is in this entry on his blog:

[..] archival research into the lives of the artists and the worlds they worked in.

You and I might think that's mainly what art history is all about, but no; as Neil explains, too many art historians are instead focused on:

the often dry theoretical discussions pursued in universities: these are characterised by abstract theories couched in ludicrous vocabulary, and are necessarily governed by the whimsical vogues that infect the institutions where such work is conducted.

Anyway, to see an important and indeed rather moving example of Neil's dedicated prosopography, I urge you to read his latest piece of research on the English seventeenth century pastellist Edmund Ashfield, here, in which he describes his quest to find out more about this previously elusive artist.

In this extract, Neil describes the eureka moment when he found a crucial line of text, above, hiding in an enormous document at the National Archives in Kew:

Unindexed, it consisted of twenty-five enormous sheets of vellum (double sided, each with up to 7–8000 words), folded to make photography impossible and so large that to read them (and comply with the National Archives handling rules) required bodily contortions that may have inspired Mats Ek’s choreography: at least Michelangelo had a scaffold. And try as I might I could find nowhere in the affidavit of her guardian’s son the statement I hoped to find. But as I was very close to giving up going through the rest of the bundle, I came across the statement made by the defendant, Sir Henry Goodricke, in which he does indeed refer to Eleanor’s first husband as “Mr Edmond Ashfield, the Plaintiff’s Father, who was by Trade a Painter…& had no visible Estate of his owne”.

Neil's main conclusion is that Ashfield died earlier than we thought, in 1679, and that therefore a group of c.1690 miniatures previously thought to be by him at the V&A (see one example here) must be by someone else.

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