Friday, 7 February 2014

A Fig for the Heralds: Bloomfield's bookplate

In 1812, Bloomfield devised for himself a spoof heraldic bookplate with the motto, “Friends in Need and a Fig for the Heralds”. It occurs in two versions, dated 1812 & 1813, both engraved by W Jackson of Gutter Lane, Cheapside. Angus Whitehead suggests that an encounter with the pompous Lord Ongley may provide a context, or perhaps even a catalyst, for Bloomfield’s mock-heraldic bookplate. Bruce Graver has suggested the engraving reflects Bloomfield during his residence at Shefford as “a little feisty, subversive, more than a little jaded, still clinging to ‘the honest pride of haveing proved […] that a poor man may still possess qualities which [the learned and wealthy] are forced to admire’” (66). But Bloomfield’s design also parodies closely & aggressively the coats of arms of aristocratic families such as Lord Ongley’s.

Shield, crest, & motto, with elaborate scroll work.
DESCRIPTION Coat of arms of Robert Bloomfield; on right of shield a shoemaker, and on the left shoemaking and farming emblems, including tools and animals; at top a boy riding a cow holding a broom; the motto below “Friends in Need, and a Fig for the Heralds”. 1812
DATE 1812
TECHNIQUE engraving
DIMENSIONS 149 x 101 millimetres
INSCRIPTION lettered with title, the date 1812, and at bottom left “W. Jackson Sc. Gutter Lane Cheapside”.
<British Museum. Department of Prints & Drawings>

The scroll work has disappeared, to be replaced by supporters (a ploughman and a waggoner). Clearly this is a competely new engraved plate, the 1812 version presumably having been lost or damaged.
DESCRIPTION Satirical coat-of-arms of Robert Bloomfield, shield with farming and shoemaking equipment, flanked by standing farm workers, crest with another sitting on a cow, motto “Friends in need and a fig for the heralds”. 1813
DATE 1813
TECHNIQUE engraving & etching
DIMENSIONS 125 x 80 millimetres
INSCRIPTION lettered below image “Robert Bloomfield | 1813. | W Jackson Sc, Gutter Lane Cheapside”.
<APKD; British Museum. Department of Prints & Drawings>

The crest

A ploughboy riding a cow does duty as a crest.

The motto

As with the aristocratic arms it parodies, Bloomfield’s motto hangs on a scroll or cloth below his “coat of arms”. But the motto itself (in plain English) “FRIENDS IN NEED AND A FIG FOR THE HERALDS” seems to privilege the “lower orders” (“FRIENDS IN NEED”) while dismissing the pretensions of the nobility (Whitehead, 15).

The supporters

Bloomfield’s “arms” also break the rules of traditional heraldry by including supporters (two farmworkers), an exclusive privilege of the nobility.

To the left a ploughman. The plough extends across the image, behind & beneath the shield.

On the right, a waggoner with his whip.

The shield

The engraver employs standard hatching to represent the heraldic tinctures.

The design on the right depicts on a white/silver (argent) ground an agitated or even drunken shoemaker, perhaps meant for Bloomfield himself. Here Bloomfield makes his most aggressive parody of aristocratic heraldry: in profile with right leg and both arms raised the figure appears to be imitating the martial heraldic symbol of a lion rampant (Whitehead, 15). The figure’s stockings, apron, shoemaker’s stirrup waved aloft, and small hammer tell us that he is a shoemaker, as Bloomfield had been since the 1780s.

A gold/yellow field (or) representing a wheatfield, crossed by a broad green diagonal stripe (a bend vert). The upper part of the field shows a sow and piglets grazing the stubble; the lower sheaves of wheat. On the green stripe a wheelbarrow, a harrow, and a plough.

A red field (gules), perhaps signifying the shoemaker’s morocco leather, divided by a gold horizontal stripe (a fess or). On the upper part a pair of crossed awls; on the lower crossed paring knives. On the horizontal bar more shoemaking tools including a shoemaker's rule or caliper measure.

Green farmland (vert) crossed by a gold stripe (a fess or). On the upper part a saddled horse; on the lower a duck (is this an homage to Stephen Duck?). On the gold stripe a hay-wain.

Two compartments gold (or) and blue (azure). In the upper compartment an aeolian harp and a sheet of music; in the lower compartment three open volumes; across the pages of one is lettered “Farmer’s Boy”.

The mask

A disembodied head wreathed in vegetation like a Green Man stares us in the face, “with a laugh that is more like a sneer” (Graver, 66).

The imprint

So far I have failed to find any information about Jackson, engraver or printer.

Further reading

Bruce Graver, “Illustrating The Farmer’s Boy” in Simon White, John Goodridge & Brigid Keegan, eds.—Robert Bloomfield: lyric, class, and the romantic canon.—Lewisburg : Bucknell University Press, 2006, pp.49-69.
Graver discusses & illustrates the 1813 bookplate. He is apparently unaware of the earlier (1812) version.

W J Hardy.—Book-plates.—London : Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., Ltd, 1893.—Books about books.

Sam Ward, “Robert Bloomfield's bookplate”, The Robert Bloomfield Society Newsletter, no 1 (June 2001), 6-8.
Not seen.

Angus Whitehead, “The poet angling: an anecdote concering Robert Bloomfield and a previously unrecorded epigram”, The Robert Bloomfield Society Newsletter, no 19 (Spring 2010), 7-16.


  1. I'd suggest that the two objects on the fess in the first quarter, to the left (heraldic dexter) of the hammer, are a last and a cobbler's bench.

  2. Looking again, I think you may be right, but I'm puzzled that I can only find illustrations of the cobbler's bench on US websites - no British examples.

  3. There's a much-copied image of the Portsmouth shoemaker John Pounds (1766-1839) with his Ragged School children, and he's seated in an ordinary chair while trimming a leather shoe. No sign of a cobbler's bench. Why should Bloomfield include an image of something he may not have used?