Charles Nicholl

Charles Nicholl is preparing a revised edition of A Cup of News, his biography of the Elizabethan pamphleteer Thomas Nashe.

Fetch the Chopping Knife: Murder on Bankside

Charles Nicholl, 4 November 2021

WhenCrimewatch first aired on the BBC in the mid 1980s, its presenter Nick Ross promised: ‘This is about real-life crime, not the stuff of fiction.’ Nowadays the distinction is rather less clear, and our screens are filled with true crime dramas that seem to offer both. They are essentially factual – ‘based on real events’ – but they have the feel of...

Picture in Little: Hilliard’s Trajectory

Charles Nicholl, 19 December 2019

The house​ was ‘at the sign of the Maidenhead’ in an alley off Cheapside called Gutter Lane. The address sounds disreputable but those who visited were not in search of bawdy pleasures: they came to have their portraits painted ‘in little’ by the Elizabethan miniaturist Nicholas Hilliard, who lived and worked on Gutter Lane for 35 years. If you were very posh or very...

On the Sixth Day: Petrarch on the Move

Charles Nicholl, 7 February 2019

Images of the author nestle in historiated initial letters, reading in a garden or writing in his study, typically with a dreamy, abstracted air. Marginal illustrations depict, with faintly comic Ladybird book fidelity, the metaphorical events of the adjoining poem: Petrarch shot through the heart by an arrow; Petrarch metamorphosing into a laurel tree; Petrarch shipwrecked. Another genre of illustration shows him reading or discoursing to a group of listeners. His cat is often present.

This latest reprint​ of Iris Origo’s The Merchant of Prato celebrates it as a ‘modern classic’, though it can’t have seemed very modern when it first appeared in 1957. Various books published that year had some kind of finger on the pulse – On the Road, Room at the Top, The Uses of Literacy – but a biography of a medieval Italian businessman written by a...

That Wild Mercury Sound: Dylan’s Decade

Charles Nicholl, 1 December 2016

This process of invention on the hoof is palpable in the sessions, and required a lot from the musicians who played with Dylan. He comes in with a buzz of ideas, half-formed songs and sound qualities, and everyone on both sides of the glass has to play catch-up as best they can. ‘His intent was very strong,’ one of the musicians on the session, the guitarist Bruce Langhorne, said.

On 16 March 1810​ a Mrs Martin, a ‘labourer’s wife’, was working a field near Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon when she turned up an old gold signet ring bearing on its bezel the initials ‘W.S.’ It was bought for 36 shillings by Robert Bell Wheler, a local historian, and later donated to the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, where it still resides. When...

The engraving​ called A Literary Party at Sir Joshua Reynolds’s shows nine men seated around a table convivially cluttered with decanters and after-dinner debris. From left to right they are James Boswell, Samuel Johnson, Joshua Reynolds, David Garrick, Edmund Burke, Pasquale Paoli, Charles Burney, Thomas Warton and Oliver Goldsmith. Their names appear below the image, cursively...

A Common Playhouse: The Globe Theatre

Charles Nicholl, 8 January 2015

The district​ of Blackfriars, a squeeze of old streets between Ludgate Hill and the north bank of the Thames, takes its name from the Dominican monastery built there in the 13th century. The Dominicans were known from the colour of their capes as ‘black friars’, as distinct from Franciscan ‘grey friars’ and Carmelite ‘white friars’. The monastery was...

Everything is ardour: Omnificent D’Annunzio

Charles Nicholl, 26 September 2013

In 1897, in a letter to his publisher, Gabriele d’Annunzio wrote: ‘The world must be convinced I am capable of everything!’ One might think he was being ironic – the subject of the letter was his decision to stand for the Italian parliament, of which he had a very low opinion – but in a life so devoted to grandiloquent self-promotion there was little room for...

The Devil upon Two Sticks: Samuel Foote

Charles Nicholl, 23 May 2013

The career of the Georgian comedian Samuel Foote is a chequered story of twists and scrapes, setbacks and rebounds, but its ending is bleak, and out of apparently lightweight materials there emerges a sort of tragedy. In theatrical lore the most famous of his setbacks was the amputation of a leg (probably his left) after a riding accident. Foote is a pretty good name for any comedian but for...

The Other Thomas

Charles Nicholl, 8 November 2012

‘The tale of the apostle Thomas is a sea unspeakably vast.’ Thus the Syriac poet Jacob of Sarugh, who lived in upper Mesopotamia in the late fifth and early sixth centuries. The words are stirring but to our ears perhaps surprising, because in the West we think we know Thomas’s ‘tale’ and its significance pretty well. He was ‘one of the twelve’, the...

‘The Battle of Anghiari’

Charles Nicholl, 26 April 2012

Leonardo da Vinci is seldom out of the news. The story of 2011 was the Salvator Mundi, a serene and ringletted image of Christ formerly considered the work of a pupil or imitator, but now – after restoration, analysis and a substantial helping of hype – attributed to the brush of the master. No sooner had this excitement died down than the long-running saga of Leonardo’s...

Death in Florence

Charles Nicholl, 23 February 2012

Andrea del Castagno was one of the greatest Florentine painters of the Quattrocento – masterful in technique, spare and hard-edged in style, idiosyncratic to the point of strangeness. He was a hill farmer’s son from the Mugello, born in about 1419 in the hamlet of Castagno on the western flank of the Apennines. The first record of him is as a six-year-old bocca – a ‘mouth’, or dependant – in his father’s tax return. He is listed as Andreino, a diminutive which persisted throughout his life, possibly suggesting he was a small man.

Cardenio’s Ghost: The Bits Shakespeare Wrote

Charles Nicholl, 2 December 2010

Lewis Theobald’s Double Falsehood had its premiere at the Theatre Royal on Drury Lane on 13 December 1727. It was a romantic tragicomedy in a Spanish setting; the story was from an episode in Don Quixote. Theobald’s statement that it met with ‘universal applause’ is untrue, but it certainly created a buzz. The play ran for ten consecutive performances – no mean...

Among the cases before the magistrates at the Middlesex Sessions of 1 December 1613 was one which involved three French ‘goldworkers’ resident in the parish of St Giles without Cripplegate, and a woman from Whitechapel called Frances Williams. The charge was fornication. Though not in itself unusual, the charge had an extra twist, repeated with minor variations in most of the...

It is more than eighty years since he disappeared, deep in the Mato Grosso of Brazil, but the name of Colonel Fawcett still resonates. He was the last of the old-style Amazonian explorers, on the cusp of a new age of light aircraft and two-way radio, time-saving and sometimes life-saving conveniences which he disdained. In the words of David Grann, whose compelling new book, The Lost City of...

Who was he? Joe the Ripper

Charles Nicholl, 7 February 2008

They found Mary Jane Kelly lying on her bed, in the dingy room she rented in Miller’s Court, off Dorset Street in Spitalfields. She was about 25 years old, a colleen from County Limerick, ‘possessed of considerable attractions’. Widowed young, she had turned, like thousands of others in late Victorian London, to prostitution. One of her clients had taken her for a spree to Paris, and she had started to call herself Marie Jeanette. She was also nicknamed Ginger. She lay with her head ‘turned on the left cheek’. One arm was across her stomach, the other turned outwards ‘& rested on the mattress’. She was naked and ‘the legs were wide apart, the left thigh at right angles to the trunk’. These are the words of the police doctor summoned to the scene, Thomas Bond. It was the morning of Friday, 9 November 1888, and Kelly had just become – at a conservative estimate – the fifth and final victim of the serial killer known as Jack the Ripper.

In the annals of French literature, Arthur Cravan is more often a colourful footnote than a sober paragraph. He is usually referred to as ‘the poet and boxer Arthur Cravan’, and this odd-seeming conjunction is often fleshed out with more disreputable terms such as ‘con man’ or ‘adventurer’. He is also described as Oscar Wilde’s nephew, which is true up...

The list of Leonardo da Vinci’s accomplishments is long and famously various – painter, inventor, anatomist, mathematician, musician and so on – but it seldom includes the word ‘writer’. This is curious considering his enormously prolific output. His extant manuscripts and notebooks run to something like seven thousand pages (though some of them are very small)...

And out of this little huddle of snoops and counter-snoops there emerges, within a space of a couple of weeks, a barrage of allegations about Marlowe’s heretical views, allegations uttered by Baines and Cholmeley, but in each case orchestrated by Thomas Drury.

Venus in Blue Jeans: the Mona Lisa

Charles Nicholl, 4 April 2002

Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa may be ‘the world’s most famous painting’ but almost everything about it is obscure. We don’t know precisely when it was painted, we don’t know for certain who she is, and as we stare at her puzzling features for the umpteenth time we are inclined to ask ourselves: what is it about her? It is that question, in all its...

The winter night falls early in the small Czech town of Sobeslav, and with it comes a cold, creeping fog laced with coal-smoke that leaves a bitter coating in the mouth. The town square is deserted; the tall-spired church a hulk. There is a cramped little beer-cellar full of gaming machines, but it is decidedly not the old ‘inn’ which stood on the square in the days when Sobeslav...

In early September 1878, an old woman named Sarah Tomkins lay dying at her lodgings on Penton Place, an undistinguished terrace in the South London district of Newington. The street was poor but it clung to respectability: one might call it ‘shabby genteel’. Once it had led down to the popular Surrey Gardens, but now the gardens had closed and a rash of new housing was spreading across the area. No. 65 was a typical three-storey house of sooty grey London brick, with a thin garden out back and a pub nearby on the corner (the Giraffe, named after a popular attraction at the Surrey Gardens Zoo). The railway passed close to the back of the house: the busy London-Dover line. Here Sarah Tomkins lived her last days, with the trains rattling her window and the smell of the sperm-oil works blowing over from Newington Butts. She was 77 years old, a relic of the days of mad King George. She had outlived both her husband and her son. It was her daughter-in-law Caroline, now married to a clerk named Eastwood, who was with her when she died.

Diary: At the Maison Rimbaud in Harar

Charles Nicholl, 16 March 2000

Little has changed in the old city of Harar, secluded in the hills of south-eastern Ethiopia. The rusting military hardware still sits beside the road from Dire Dawa, as it did when I last passed by six years ago. The waiters still move like somnambulists through the drowsy lobby of the Ras Hotel. The spider’s web of twisting cobbled streets; the tall boys playing table football in a corner of the main square; the recumbent figures browsing on sprigs of khat; the beautiful eyes that flash suddenly out of shadowy interiors – it is all much as I remember it. So too is the smell, a gamut of aromas, from that quintessential Ethiopian fragrance of frankincense and roasting coffee, to the stench of sewage in a city beset by an almost continuous shortage of water. For searchers of the picturesque – a quality which Harar has in spades – this continuity is reassuring. The place has not yet been ‘spoilt’. It remains pungently itself. For the average Harari this may be less of a good thing: a sense of stagnation and lassitude are the reverse of this coin. It is a fairly general rule that the picturesque is based on someone else’s inconvenience.’‘

The old fortress city of Mandu stands high on a rocky plateau above the plains of central India. It is entered from the north; after a tortuous dusty ascent from Dhar, the road squeezes between two stone bastions and enters through the Delhi Darwaza, or Delhi Gate, where the remains of inset blue enamel can be seen on the dilapidated sandstone archways. Up this road and through this gate, on a day in late August or early September 1617, came the eccentric English author, polyglot and traveller Thomas Coryate. He was a smallish, bearded man with a long, rather lugubrious face – ‘the shape of his head’, according to one description, was ‘like a sugar-loaf inverted, with the little end before’. He wore simple native clothes, and was thin to the point of emaciation. He had travelled down from the city of Agra, four hundred miles to the north, and it is a fairly safe bet that he had done so on foot.’‘

Beatrice Cenci was – to take a sample of sound-bites over the centuries – a ‘goddess of beauty’, a ‘fallen angel’, a ‘most pure damsel’. She was also a convicted murderer. This is a charismatic combination, not least here in Italy, and her name has lived on, especially in Rome, where she was born and where she was executed in 1599.’‘

Nolanus Nullanus

Charles Nicholl, 12 March 1992

The files of the Elizabethan intelligence service are a rich and oddly neglected source: rich in historical detail, in the surprising appearance of famous names, in the whole tawdry but fascinating psychology of the spying game. There is in them a curious sense of déjà vu. Under the directorship of Sir Francis Walsingham, the security services featured much the same cast of moles, buggers, double agents and dirty tricksters that has entertained us in more recent spy ‘scandals’. The technology has improved – in Walsingham’s day, the fastest intelligence could travel was the speed of a horse – and the targets have different names, but the methods and motives of the secret world have not really changed.’’

Oliver’s Riffs

Charles Nicholl, 25 July 1991

Julian Barnes is a writer of rare intelligence. He catches the detail of contemporary life with an uncanny, forensic skill. His style is a model of cool and precision. He is often very funny, and if his humour tends somewhat to jokiness, then at least the jokes are good ones. At his best – in Flaubert’s Parrot and A History of the World in 10½ Chapters – he uses his skills as a literary entertainer to put across complex, resonant ideas.’

‘Faustus’ and the Politics of Magic

Charles Nicholl, 8 March 1990

Marlowe’s Dr Faustus was an Elizabethan spine-chiller. People came for thrills, and early productions pulled out all the stops to provide them. ‘Shagge-hayred devills’ ran ‘roaring over the stage with squibs in their mouthes’. Drummers thundered backstage. Stage-hands hung aloft to ‘make artificiall lightning in their heavens’. At times the play seemed to generate a power more than dramatic. At one performance in Shoreditch the wooden walls of the theatre suddenly ‘crackt’ and ‘frighted the audience.’ At another, in Exeter, the players stopped dead in the middle of the conjuration scene, ‘for they were all perswaded there was one devell too many amongst them.’ They explained the situation to the audience, and said they ‘could go no further with this matter’. The audience promptly fled – ‘every man hastened to be first out of dores’ – and the players spent the night in unaccustomed prayer and meditation.’

Great Instructor

Charles Nicholl, 31 August 1989

Ben Jonson is remembered as a master of English comedy, but you would hardly think so from his portrait. The earliest dateable likeness is the engraving by Robert Vaughan, done in the mid 1620s, when Jonson was around fifty. The face is jowly, bearded, dour, heavily lived-in. The shadowed eyes remind me of photos of Tony Hancock. Comedy, they seem to say, is no laughing matter. It was one of Jonson’s sayings that ‘he would not flatter, though he saw death,’ and his look seems to challenge the artist not to flatter him either. You can see the glisten on his skin from too much canary wine, and the warts and blemishes which more malicious caricaturists like Thomas Dekker dwell on: ‘a face full of pockey-holes and pimples … a most ungodly face, like a rotten russet apple when ’tis bruised’. You can confirm that, as Aubrey noted, he had one eye bigger and lower than the other. And you can guess at what was by then his vast bulk. In his youth he was tall and rangy, a ‘hollow-cheekt scrag’, but by middle age he had swelled to a corpulent 19 stone. In his poem ‘My Picture Left in Scotland’ (1619) he mocks his unwieldy frame –’

Canterbury Tale

Charles Nicholl, 8 December 1988

William Urry’s researches on Marlowe have been available in bits and pieces, and his ‘forthcoming book on the Marlowes in Canterbury’ was mentioned by one of Marlowe’s biographers, A.D. Wraight, as long ago as 1965. Here at last it is, seven years after Urry’s death, edited from drafts by his former colleague Andrew Butcher. The text runs to less than a hundred pages, but there are ample appendices and source-notes, and anyway these hundred pages of dense documentary detail are worth a thousand of theorising.

What Marlowe would have wanted

Charles Nicholl, 26 November 1987

The best, perhaps, has survived, but a great deal of Elizabethan drama has not. The number of titles mentioned in contemporary documents – the account books of the impresario Philip Henslowe, the registers of the Stationers’ Company, and so on – far exceeds the number of plays now extant as texts. Many never made it into print. Some did and have since perished: booksellers sold their wares unbound, and plays were often considered too trashy and ephemeral to merit the cost of binding. Many must have ended up ‘bequeathed to the privy’ or ‘stopping mustard pots’ – the literary chat of the period is full of such references – and others would have gone up in the fires that commonly broke out in the crowded wood-built cities.’

Plague Fiction

Charles Nicholl, 23 July 1987

It sounds like it’s something to do with helping, but that is very far from its meaning. I can’t remember when we first started hearing it; no more than five or six years ago, surely. It’s an Eighties word. When they open the decade up, they’ll find it engraved on its heart.

The Literature Man

Charles Nicholl, 25 June 1987

Malcolm Bradbury has what the political image-makers call ‘high definition’. We know who he is, where he’s coming from, what he stands for. As a novelist he belongs to a recognisable literary stable: specifically the ‘university novel’, more generally the humorist-humanist vein of embattled liberalism in post-war British fiction. He is a familiar face on the TV arts circuit, a familiar voice in the literary press. He has stood on both sides of the fence in the Booker stakes, being chairman of the judges in 1981 and a short-listed nominee (for Rates of Exchange) in 1983. He is Professor of American Studies at the University of East Anglia. He is an editorial director of the magazine Granta. Influential, lucid and topical, he has become a kind of quality control manager for the literary industry. One might almost call him – to adapt the title of his best-known book – the Literature Man.’

Getting high

Charles Nicholl, 19 March 1987

You don’t frequent crack-houses. You don’t shoot smack, drop acid, skin-pop speed or blow dope. You have nothing to do with the 1.8 billion tranquillisers prescribed in Britain every year, or with the two thousand tons of pain-killers purchased over the counter. You don’t even smoke or drink. Okay, but the chances are still pretty high that you take drugs.


Going Rate

4 November 2021

Charles Nicholl writes: Christopher Whittick is correct and my arithmetic wasn’t. I have checked the documents and 20 marks was indeed the payment; 1 mark = 13s 4d, therefore Chapman received £13 6s 8d. The sum could well be described as considerably above the going rate. However, the payment was not an arbitrated settlement by the court, but the fee paid to Chapman by the man who commissioned...

What with all those Henrys being succeeded by all those other Henrys in the histories, and all those worryingly ghostly patriarchs looming over the tragedies – Julius Caesar, Old Hamlet,...

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Delirium: Arthur Rimbaud

Jeremy Harding, 30 July 1998

Jean-Nicolas-Arthur Rimbaud, poet and ex-poet, took a 41 shoe – about a seven and a half in British sizes, an American eight. We have his own word on this, in a letter written shortly...

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Behind the Waterfall

Lorna Scott Fox, 16 November 1995

He was a middle-aged had-been, returning in a flurry from his entrada into the Spanish Main with a crop of tall stories and a bag of glittery sand, to the yawns of Queen and country. More...

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Blame it on the Belgians

Hilary Mantel, 25 June 1992

‘You don’t want to see him,’ said the porter at Corpus, when Charles Nicholl went to Cambridge to look at the portrait that is probably Christopher Marlowe. ‘He died in a tavern...

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Turning down O’Hanlon

Mark Ford, 7 December 1989

In The Orators W.H. Auden classified bird buffs as ‘excessive lovers of self’: they illustrate the psychological type who is ‘unable to taste pleasure unless through the rare...

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