Selfie Fashioning and the Self-Portraits of Calligrapher Esther Inglis

In this blog post, guest blogger Taylor Clement explores the richly complex self-portraits of Esther Inglis. 

By Taylor Clement

In 2013, the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary named “selfie” the word of the year and added the noun to the official English vocabulary. Since the rise of the selfie, art historians and media scholars have re-evaluated modes of self-representation, tracing a history of self-portraiture spanning from Dürer to Kardashian. Journalists and bloggers have also drawn comparisons between Renaissance self-portraiture and contemporary selfies. For example, a 2015 article in The Atlantic calls Matthäus Schwarz’s Klaidungsbüchlein (1520-1560) “the first book of selfies,” and Bustle’s “13 Selfie Lessons from Renaissance Portrait Paintings” gives advice to twenty-first-century photographers based on the sixteenth-century stylings of painters like Paolo Veronese and Hans Holbein the Younger. Earlier this year in Frontiers in Psychology, Claus-Christian Carbon examined the “universals” in depicting the self across centuries.

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Fig. 1. Portrait of Esther Inglis (unknown artist, c. 1595). National Galleries of Scotland. (Not a self-portrait.)

Curators and museum educators on The Getty’s blog The Iris and Alli Burness’s Museum in a Bottle critique these anachronistic comparisons between selfies and self-portraits, but they mostly discuss paintings on panels or canvas (often by Rembrandt) and neglect artwork in different media, like the paper-and-ink portraits in early modern books. French-Scottish calligrapher Esther Inglis (1571-1624) was one of the first artists in Scotland to create a self-portrait,[1] but she did not paint on panels or canvas. Instead, Inglis drew miniature portraits of herself on paper and tucked them away within the first pages of her handmade manuscript books. During her career as a scribe and bookmaker, Inglis created at least nineteen self-portraits that “authorized” her manuscripts.

Inglis was the child of Huguenot refugees; she was born in London in 1571 shortly before her family relocated to Edinburgh. Her father Nicholas Langlois worked as a French schoolmaster and her mother Marie Presot taught her to write calligraphy. Inglis made gift books on spec, copying French devotional poetry, the Psalms, and proverbs, among other texts in hopes of patronage from wealthy aristocrats and political leaders. Almost all of her self-portraits appear in gift books designed for royal patrons like Queen Elizabeth, King James I, and James’s sons, Prince Henry of Wales and Prince Charles. Her gift-books capitalize on both the private circulation of manuscripts and the novelty of print – two types of early modern social media.

Although Inglis’s drawings and paintings of herself are not selfies, they have more in common with millennial self-representation than one might assume. To understand this connection we have to move beyond assumptions that smartphone self-portraits are motivated by narcissism. Sure, twenty-first-century selfie photographers do promote themselves, but they also participate in online communities by mimicking others’ digital portraits. Many selfie photographers model their behaviors and self-representations on other photos already in circulation. In other words, a person may create a selfie using the same filters, poses, and/or backgrounds as her favorite celebrities on Instagram and her friends on Snapchat. At its core, the selfie is not so much about individual self-expression as it is about imitation and intertextuality.

Like postmodern selfies, Inglis’s self-portraits are conscious of other writers’ and translators’ presences and poses on the pages of early modern media. Although her work is in manuscript, Inglis’s self-promoting portraits have strong ties to Renaissance print culture where mass-produced portraits in books first appeared. Early modern printers created copperplate engravings or woodblock prints of authors’ or translators’ faces in the sticky, oil-based ink of the press, reproducing these faces again and again, stamping hundreds of books with portraits – some of the earliest “facebook pages,” so to speak. These pictures of authors or translators provided authorial credibility as they peered out at consumers from title pages and front matter of books.

Fig. 2. Esther Inglis, Type I Portrait in Le Livre de l’Ecclésiaste (1601). Spencer Collection, The New York Public Library, Digital Collections.

Inglis modeled her own image after printed author portraits, but her drawings are radically different from print in construction and context. First of all, she meticulously designed every portrait by hand, unlike the mass production of portraits stamped into printed books. Second, Inglis did not broadcast her image to the reading public in ways that authors in print did. Instead, she designed her manuscripts for a coterie audience of likeminded readers. In some ways, these portraits have the conversational intimacy that selfies have because of the function of manuscript as a text shared among close friends and acquaintances.[2]

Bibliographers A.H. Scott-Elliot and Elspeth Yeo catalogue four main types of self-portraits that Inglis created: Type I (1599-1602), Type II (1606-1607), Type III (1612-1615), and Type IV (1624). These self-portraits mark subtle changes in her self-presentation over time. Sometimes Inglis mimics print through black and white frontispiece portraits, and other times she uses color to enliven the image, painting her reddish-blonde hair and rosy cheeks onto the page.

Fig. 3. Jan van der Noot, translator portrait. Frontispiece in Het theatre (London: John Day, 1568). Folger Shakespeare Library copy (on EEBO).

Ingils created eight renditions of the Type I portrait, and one of these appears in Le Livre de l’Ecclésiaste [and] Le Cantique de Roy Salomon (1601; Fig. 2), which Inglis dedicated to French poet and humanist Catherine de Parthenay. In the self-portrait, Inglis sits at her table with writing and music books; she holds a pen in her right hand and looks out at the reader. To produce this image, Inglis used a penwork style that mimics the engraver’s burin and framed her portrait with adapted designs from Clément Perret’s Exercitatio Alphabetica (1569). The architectural and symmetrical framework of the drawing also resembles other author portraits in sixteenth-century print. For example, if we compare Inglis’s portrait with the frontispiece portrait of Dutch writer Jan van der Noot (1568; Fig. 3), we see the same kinds of architectural scrolls and flower/fruit designs that frame the portrait. Various other author and translator portraits also used these kinds of borders and decorative scrolls. Inglis rendered her own portrait by appropriating designs she encountered in other books.

Fig. 4. Esther Inglis, Type II Portrait in Cinquante Octonaires… (1607). Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017.

One of Inglis’s Type II portraits can be found in the Cinquante Octonaires… (1607; Fig. 4) dedicated to Prince Charles. She depicted herself in a black dress and decorated the frame around her portrait with colorful scrolls, fruit, and animals. A. E. B. Coldiron has shown that additions of animals to translators’ portraits can signify fidelity to the original text; she argues that dogs can symbolize loyalty, while the monkey denotes the translator/printer’s “aping” or imitating the original text through translation.[3] Coldiron uses the example of John Harington’s translation of Orlando Furioso (1591), in which the title page frontispiece features an oval-shaped portrait of Harington near the bottom of the page. To the right of Harington’s portrait, an image of a dog rests in the corner. Inglis’s portrait frame also includes a dog below her portrait, but the squirrel in the right corner is a new addition. Inglis depicts the squirrel holding but not consuming an acorn, perhaps indicating her own role as a “collector” of verses. The two parrots that sit above Inglis’s portrait also denote mimicry. Again, Inglis constructs her own self-portrait by imitating and adapting others’ portrait conventions, and perhaps her strategies can be likened to modern trends in which selfie photographers frame their faces with flowers or use the popular deer and dog filters to capture their own likenesses on Snapchat.[4]

Fig. 5. Esther Inglis, Type III Portrait in The Psalmes of David (1612). Folger MS V.a.665.

The Type III portraits appear in the smaller books in Inglis’s oeuvre, and they present a minimalist approach to self-representation. One of these Type III portraits appears in The Psalms of David in English (1612; Fig. 5), a manuscript dedicated to Henry, the Prince of Wales. The tiny book, smaller than the smallest iPhone (at around 3×2 inches), is a new acquisition by the Folger Shakespeare Library. In this portrait, Inglis wears the same black dress, ruff, and hat as she does in the Type II portraits. Below her image, Inglis included a sonnet upon the anagram of her name: RESISTING HEL. Anagrams were very popular among poets and other educated elite in the seventeenth century.[5] Inglis imitates and appropriates the self-stylings of writers in print, demonstrating her awareness of early modern popular culture.

Fig. 6. Esther Inglis, Type IV Portrait in Octonaries (1600; portrait dated 1624). Folger MS V.a.91.

Inglis’s Type IV portraits are direct imitations of French emblematist Georgette de Montenay (Fig. 6).[6] In De Montenay’s Cent Emblemes Chrestiennes (1584), engraver Pierre Woeiriot depicted the French poet with a pen and inkwell, a small book at her right hand, and a music book at her left. In a similar fashion, Inglis displays her writing materials and books, as well as her lute, compass, and other objects that signify her status as an educated woman and artist. She models almost all of her poses and settings in portrait Types I, II, and IV on the portrait in Emblemes Chrestiennes. Inglis relies on De Montenay as an imitable icon throughout her works, much like twenty-first century selfie-photographers look to Kim Kardashian West for lighting tips and contouring tricks to enhance the appearance of their own portraits.

As I have written in my article “Moveable Types,” the copying of portraits and faces in print informs early modern readers’ conception of selfhood. Much like the intertextualities of her transcriptions, Inglis’s self-portrayals are always in conversation with other authors and artists as she mimics their costumes, settings, and decorative frames. When we compare her self-portraits with postmodern selfie photography, the similarities might cause us to question how much of individual self-depiction relies on representations of others. Especially when we consider that millions of Snapchat and Instragram users are circulating similar photographs, constantly fashioning themselves with the same filters and frames.

Taylor Clement is a doctoral candidate in English Literature and History of Text Technologies at Florida State University. Her research interests include early modern print, illustration, remix, and copies. She is the recipient of a Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Completion Fellowship for her project, “Visualizing Verse in Early Modern England.”

Further Reading

On Esther Inglis

Bracher, Tricia. “Esther Inglis and the English Succession Crisis of 1599.” Women and Politics in Early Modern England, 1450-1700. Ed. James Daybell. Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2004. 132-146.

Frye, Susan. “Materializing Authorship in Esther Inglis’s Books.” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 32.3 (Fall 2002): 469-491.

Frye, Susan. Pens and Needles: Women’s Textualities in Early Modern England. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010.

Ross, Sarah Gweneth. “Esther Inglis: Linguist, Calligrapher, Miniaturist, and Christian Humanist.” Early Modern Women and Transnational Communities of Letters. Ed. Julie D. Campbell and Anne R. Larsen. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2009. 159-182.

Scott-Elliot, A. H. and E. Yeo. “Calligraphic manuscripts of Esther Inglis.” Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America 84 (1990): 11–86.

Tjan-Bakker, Anneke. “Dame Flora’s Blossoms: Esther Inglis’s Flower Illustrated Manuscripts.” English Manuscript Studies 1100-1700 9 (2000): 49-72.

Van Elk, Martine. “Courtliness, Piety, and Politics: Emblem Books by Georgette de Montenay, Anna Roemers Visscher, and Esther Inglis.” Early Modern Women and Transnational Communities of Letters. Ed. Julie D. Campbell and Anne R. Larsen. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2009. 159-182.

Ziegler, Georgianna. “Hand-ma[i]de Books: The Manuscripts of Esther Inglis, Early Modern Precursors of the Artists’ Book.” English Manuscript Studies 1100-1700 9 (2000): 73-87.

Ziegler, Georgianna. “‘More than Feminine Boldness’: The Gift Books of Esther Inglis.” Women, Writing, and the Reproduction of Culture in Tudor and Stuart Britain. Ed. Mary E. Burke, Jane Donaworth, Linda L. Dove, and Karen Nelson. New York: Syracuse University Press, 2000. 19-37.

On portraits and print

Bizer, M. “The reflection of the other in one’s own Mirror: The Idea of the Portrait in Renaissance Imitatio.” Romance Notes 36.2 (1996): 191-200.

Clement, Taylor. “Moveable Types: The De-Individuated Portrait in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Renaissance Studies 31.3 (2017): 383-406.

Howe, Sarah. “The Authority of Presence: The Development of the English Author Portrait, 1500–1640.” Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America 102.4 (2008): 465-499.

Loh, Maria. “Renaissance Faciality.” Oxford Art Journal 32.3 (2009): 341-363.

Mann, Alastair J. “The Anatomy of the Printed Book in Early Modern Scotland.” The Scottish Historical Review 80.210 (2001): 181-200.

Woods-Marsden, Joanna. Renaissance Self-Portraiture: The Visual Construction of Identity and the Social Status of the Artist. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998.


[1] Art historian Duncan Macmillan calls her the first Scottish artist to paint a self-portrait. See Macmillan, Scottish Art 1490-1650, 2nd and Revised Ed. (Edinburgh: Mainstream Publishing 2000), 65.

[2] Alli Burness argues that selfies are “part of a conversation, a series of contextual interactions and are connected to the selfie-maker in an intimate, embodied and felt way.” See her 2015 blog post, “What’s the Difference between a Selfie and a Self-Portrait?” here.

[3] See Coldiron’s forthcoming chapter, “The Translator’s Visibility in Early Printed Portrait Images and the Ambiguous Example of Margaret More Roper,” in Thresholds of Translation: Paratexts, Print, and Cultural Exchange in Early Modern Britain, ed. Marie-Alice Belle and Brenda Hosington (Palgrave, forthcoming). Coldiron discussed Caxton’s image of the ape in her talk “Visibility, Collaboration, and The Author-Function in Early Modern Translators’ Portraits” (presentation, Renaissance Society of America, Chicago, IL, March 31-April 2, 2017).

[4] While early modern viewers saw the dog as a symbol of fidelity and loyalty, apparently some 21st century viewers see Snapchat’s “puppy filter” as a symbol of promiscuity. See

[5] Alastair Fowler “Anagrams,” The Yale Review 95 (2007): 33–43. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9736.2007.00307.x

[6] You can read more about Inglis’s imitation of De Montenay in Martine van Elk’s blog post below.






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