Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Pen Portraits

I’m a history nerd, I admit it freely. I’ve always had an avid interest in Elizabeth I and her father Henry VIII. I have a collection of books on their era that would rival the local library. Living in England has fuelled my passion for history, especially recently when I was digging in the garden and unearthed some shards of Tudor pottery, which was quite a thrill in itself.

Lately my interest in history has widened and I’ve been reading biographies of noteworthy people of the 18th century, including Georgianna, Duchess of Devonshire and Marie Antoinette. A lot of these biographies rely heavily on correspondence to form a more personal view of the individual’s lives. Because of my interest in letter writing, I’ve paid more attention to the correspondences these books cite. These letters are very in depth glimpses into the daily lives and loves of the subjects and it’s that detail we depend upon today that allow us to see life as it was then.

One thing I’ve noticed throughout my reading is the term “pen portrait” being used. Pen portraits were often given when referring to someone that your correspondent may not know very much about. It was quite a detailed description which not only included the physical attributes, but also various mannerisms, expressions, and thoughts on the person’s temperament and demeanour. Its purpose was to give a vivid picture of the person in question. In a time when only the wealthy had portraits done, pen portraits were a vital resource for gaining a view into others’ lives you may not typically meet.

As pen pals, even with the ability to send photos, we still create pen portraits to an extent when we write about our everyday life and interests. They give our pals a deeper look into who we are. We form opinions through the descriptions we give and receive. Before we get a photograph from our pals it’s through these pen portraits we tend to form an image in our minds of who we are writing to. Oftentimes, when we do eventually get a photo it is interesting to compare the picture to the mental image we have conjured up. Sometimes I get it all wrong, I must admit, and it makes me wonder if the descriptions I’m giving to my pals are at all accurate!

Keeping the whole premise of the pen portrait in mind, I’ve been trying to perfect my own powers of description so that they bring to the mind of my prospective pals the image I am trying to convey. I’ve written a little pen portrait of one of my other history heroes. See if you can identify him.

Born the son of a chandler, this 18th century gentleman is mainly remembered for his roll as a founding father of our country, although he had many other accomplishments. An inventor, amateur scientist and writer, his lesser known achievements include helping establish the first university in Pennsylvania, the first hospital and the first fire department. He was also the first Post Master General and as a result of trying to find the easiest routes to deliver the mail, invented the odometer. This Revolutionary fellow was a man of average height, with a muscular build that tended toward a stout frame. He wore his brown hair long, as was the custom of the time, and yet did not tie it back in the fashionable ponytail as his contemporaries did. A serious fellow, one could still detect the mirth in his hazel eyes, even behind his studious reading glasses, another of his inventions, which were usually perched on the bridge of his nose. A “thoughtful” fellow, he had many ideas and observations about how things work, some leading to experiments, like the flying of a kite one stormy day. At times impatient, he was always determined to succeed, and is remembered for his tact and charm.

If I’ve done this correctly you should have an image of Benjamin Franklin in your mind. Coincidentally on this day in 1752 Ben Franklin flew his kite during a thunder storm demonstrating the electrical nature of lightning. And on an eerie note we had a thunder and lightning storm today!
I’ll leave you with one of the many adages he is remembered for:

If you would not be forgotten as soon as you were dead & rotten either write things worthy reading or do things worth the writing.


  1. I learn something new every day, either on purpose or accidentally. :) I shudder to think what has been revealed that might paint my pen portrait! LOL! The images I come up with never match the actual people. :)

    The image you offered up for Franklin was easy. I happen to have a Nat' Geo special magazine with his portrait on the cover in the drawer next to me. It almost landed in tomorrow's trash but an impulse saved it. How funny is that? ;)

  2. Some of the pen portraits I've read in books are so detailed you feel like you are looking at a photo. I can only hope to get that good. BF is an intriguing guy. I just found out he has a house in London you can visit, which is amazing considering his house in Philadelphia long longer exits.