'If my sign could speak': The Signboard and the Visual Culture of Early Modern London

Andrew Gordon

Abstract


This article studies the intersection of verbal and visual culture in the early modern period through a case study of the inn sign. Using historical and literary materials it uncovers the place of the inn sign in the urban experience of early modern Londoners and its appropriation in the drama of the period. The display of visual signs before inns, shops and private houses presupposes a series of specific cultural practices which this paper looks to interrogate. Locationally the use of spatial descriptors such as 'at' or 'near' 'the sign of', invokes a radial logic of spatial signification, operating at a neighbourhood level. In contradistinction to the precision of cartographic co-ordinates, negotiation of the urban environment by means of the sign, is dependent upon instances of social interaction. Further the visual sign is dependent upon the recognition and standardisation of visual imagery, a process further complicated in the transition to verbal description, and one which raises interpretative questions for the scholar attempting to access the cultural uses of the sign from textual resources. In addition, their presence in the visual environment meant that they were available to be read in a variety of other ways, offering possibilities for the play of signification, and for occasionally subversive readings in the context of religious and political upheaval. I argue that the early modern theatre allows for a full realisation of the spatial, visual and interpretative potential of the inn sign, helping to account for its widespread appearance in the drama of the period, and go on to analyse the specific uses to which it is put.

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