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Shakespeare in 100 Objects: We Three Loggerheads

Object 50 - Take a closer look at 'We Three Loggerheads', a 17th century painting from our collections

Victoria Jackson

This post was written by Victoria Jackson, Doctoral Researcher in the history department at the University of Birmingham.

Early 17th century oil painting; oils on wood; two jesters, one holding a staff carved with a jester's head. A inscription painted onto a banner at the bottom of the painting reads 'Wee Three Logerhds' (loggerheads).
Wee Three Loggerheads, c.1600-25 Oil on wood, 61cm x 40.5cm

How now, my hearts!  Did you never see the picture
of ‘we three’?
(Twelfth Night, 2.3.15-6.)

When you look at this painting of two fools, one holding a wooden staff carved with the head of another fool, and you read the inscription ‘Wee Three Loggerheads’ on the bottom, what sense do you get as a viewer?  Does the reference ‘three loggerheads’ allude to the two fools and their wooden bauble?  Or, by engaging with the image are you, the viewer, placed in the position of the third ‘loggerhead’, immediately incorporated into this group of fools?  

We cannot be certain whether we make up the third loggerhead or not, especially as the term ‘loggerhead’ could refer to pieces of wood with long handles, like the bauble shown here.  But some art historians have suggested that images like these abounded in early-modern England and were intended as ‘trick pictures’, visual gags which could be pinned up in pubs or used as inn signs.  This early seventeenth-century trick picture, held in the collections of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, may be an example of the type of “picture” referred to in Act 2 of Twelfth Night, where Feste the Jester, greets Sir Andrew and Sir Toby with a similar caption to that in the painting, “Did you never see the picture of ‘we three’?”. Other versions of the image are known to have existed where the fools are replaced with two asses, which might explain Sir Toby’s reply to Feste: “Welcome, ass.”

Although the artist of this painting is unknown, the fools have been identified as Tom Derry (left), who was employed by Queen Anne of Denmark, wife to James VI and I of England, and Muckle John (right), who is thought to have been associated with the court of Charles I.*  Queen Anne  commissioned several portraits of Derry, one of which is held in the National Portrait Gallery in Scotland, seen here - National Galleries of Scotland Portrait of Tom Derry. Both Derry and John wear a fool’s cap with asses’ ears fixed to either side.  Derry carries a feather on his cap and John wears a ‘coxcomb’, a hat shaped like the comb or crest of a cock.  While John looks out toward the viewer, a sly smile formed on his lips, Derry turns toward John, raising his hand and opening his mouth as though about to relay something he finds amusing.  As viewers, we might feel like this joke is at our expense.  Derry could be whispering something to the effect of ‘he is one of us now’ while John confirms this with a knowing smile.

The court fool was expected to create amusement through such things as lively gossip, gluttony, an apparent lack of intellect, and sometimes, deformity.  In this painting, Derry is depicted with six fingers on his right hand.  Whether this was a playful addition by the artist or Derry actually had six fingers is not clear, but it highlights the connection of fools and physical deficiencies so frequently seen in visual representations.  This painting thoroughly destabilizes perception, confronting its viewers with six-fingered hands and forcing us to question whether we have been branded as fools.

*For more information see John Southworth, Fools and Jesters at the English Court (Sutton, 1998).