In editing for future publication the manuscript of Ivor Noel Hume’s book length report on the excavations he directed in the 1990s at Roanoke Island, historian and First Colony Foundation Vice President Eric Klingelhofer was informed of a problem by colleagues historian Dr. James Horn and archaeologist Nick Luccketti . Noel Hume had inserted into the manuscript an image to illustrate the scientist and 1585 Roanoke colonist Thomas Harriot. The picture is of an oil portrait at England’s Oxford University that has long been largely accepted as a depiction of the polymath employed by Sir Walter Raleigh. It’s the image you see when you look at Wikipedia for Thomas Harriot.
But there have long been doubts about the attribution. Horn and Luccketti are told by Clare Hopkins, archivist at Trinity College of Oxford University, that scholarship confirms a conclusion that it cannot be Harriot in the painting.
First of all there are notations on the work that don’t agree with what we know of Harriot’s life. The painting dates to 1602 and states the sitter is thirty two years old. This would mean the sitter was born in 1570, and that would require that Harriot be only about fifteen years old when he sailed to America. We also know Harriot was a student at Oxford in 1577. It isn’t likely he matriculated there at the age of seven. The painting once said the sitter was forty two years old, but cleaning revealed that this date was an overpainting. The original age was thirty two, but with an odd gap between the three and the two.
A scholar of English portraiture suggested several decades ago that the sitter is actually Dutch. Sir David Piper, curator at London’s National Portrait Gallery and author of The English Face, stated that the sitter’s clothing appears to be Dutch and the sitter may also have been Dutch with the painting by a Dutch artist.
Do we have a backup picture of Harriot?
Some sources suggest an engraving by Francis Delaram of a similar seated figure is Harriot and the table of writing on which he is working some indication of a phonetic alphabet developed to study the language of the Algonkians of Raleigh’s Virginia.
Not so fast.
The British Museum has a print of this portrait and initially identified the sitter as one John Napier of Merchiston because of the table’s similarity to something called a Scacchiac Abacus, which is sometimes called ‘Napier’s bones.’ The abacus is a “manually-operated calculating device” that might require a mind like Thomas Harriot’s for today’s person to utilize. This was then disputed because of the picture’s similarity to the above discussed Harriot portrait at the President’s House, Trinity College, Oxford. Plus Napier was already dead when the engraving was done in 1620, and it does not look like an oil painting of Napier now at the University of Edinburgh.
Recently D. J. Bryden has associated the engraving with Cambridge University, and identifies the sitter as William Pratt. With two associates, Pratt was granted a patent on 27 March 1616 “for the sole making of a table for casting accounts”.
These attribution doubts have not prevented the engraving from traveling the globe to be exhibited as a portrait of Harriot, but let’s return to our search for a true image of him. While it is possible Thomas Harriot appears in the John White 1585 watercolor of Sir Richard Grenville’s fortified camp on the island of Puerto Rico, these tiny figure are not capable of showing us any sort of true portrait of Harriot.
Where then can we find a picture of Harriot?
It would have to be in his writings, particularly his book A Brief and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia.
Many people are familiar with the 1590 folio version of the book which includes Theodore de Bry’s engravings of many of John White’s watercolor because it has been published in a popular and affordable form by Dover Press. But few are familiar with the smaller and earlier version, the 1588 quarto version that preceded the illustrated edition.
There are only five complete copies of this publication known to exist anywhere in the world. In 1951, the History Book Club published a facsimile edition copied from the quarto at the William L. Clements Library in Michigan. With an introduction by Randolph G. Adams, Librarian of Clements Library, it gives a view of the thoughts of Harriot, White, and Raleigh at a time when there was an substantial belief that 1587 Virginia colony was surviving, perhaps thriving in America. Publication came in February 1588 before John White’s attempt at resupply and reinforcement of the colony he had brought to Virginia was turned back in May. Harriot also wrote that the 1587 colonists had been “reasonably provided for the first yeere,” although he suggested that they were in need of more “Englishe sortes of cattaile.” This reminds us that Raleigh’s pilot, the Portuguese Simon Fernandez, had not taken aboard cattle as the colony passed Hispaniola in early July of 1587. It is possible that the colonists might not have agreed with Harriot on the assertion they had been “reasonably provided” as “the obtaining of supplies and other necessaries” was one of the reasons listed for John White’s return to England in the summer of 1587.
Biographer, poet and feminist activist Muriel Rukeyser in her book, The Traces of Thomas Harriot, was very interested in the title page of the 1588 quarto. Harriot is said there to be “imployed in discovering.” The quarto was not entered into the Stationers’ Register, an early form of copyright, and may have been commissioned by Sir Walter Raleigh.
Rukeyser also looked closely at the printer’s device or trademark found there, which centers on an image of Jesus carrying a lamp upon his shoulders. This is an allusion to the New Testament description of Jesus as the Good Shepherd. The device was used by the printer named Robert Robinson, but he acquired it from an earlier printer. The motto encircling reads “Periit et inventa est.”
While this is correctly translated as “lost and now found,” Rukeyser translated Periit et inventa est” as “lost, perished, discovered.”
Harriot’s book and the words describing him – “servant to the abovenamed Sir Walter, a member of the Colony, and there imployed in discovering” – may be as close to a portrait of him as we will ever see.