This post, on one of the oldest books in LJMU’s Special Collections, was researched and written by Jamie-Lee Purnell, a second year History and English student currently undertaking a work placement with the Library team. 

Henry Peacham (1576-1644) studied at Cambridge University as a Master of Arts. Graphice, the first essay he published, was a practical treatise on art. Its full title was‘Graphice, or the most auncient and excellent Art of Drawing with the Pen and Limning in Water Colours’. His interest in the links between art, mind, body and soul endured into future works such as The Compleat Gentleman, the handbook he intended as a guide for young men of good birth – a kind of complete, gentlemanly ideology – which he produced in 1634. In it, Peacham illustrates the importance of traditions in courtesy books that dealt with ideals, education and conduct befitting a gentleman or lady of the court.
Studies of the concepts and practices of nobility were common during the period. However, most of Peacham’s works are quite unusual for 17th century texts. They survive largely in manuscript form due to the precious illustrative designs. These consist largely of emblems which were used as mottos and verses designed to serve as morals for the purpose of self-reflection. For example, The Compleat Gentleman’s first plate has elaborate figures of Nobilitas and Scientia. The engraving is by Francis Delaram (1590-1647), who was renowned for his royal portraits. The handbook is full of expressions of Peacham’s theories on education,and includes a table of contents. This demonstrates Peacham’s wide range of interests in the text, including practices of nobility, parenting, eloquence in writing, speaking, reading, history, cosmography, poetry, music, art, exercise and fishing.

Peacham’s concept of nobility is not just for the rich. Though the typical 17th century gentlemen might be considered to be affluent and aristocratic, he argues that “riches are an ornament, not the cause of nobility”. Nobility in Peacham’s eyes is a quality within, and can be practiced without the materiality of riches. Therefore, anyone can strive to be a gentleman, no matter their individual level of opulence.

New understandings of knowledge and reasoning are well detailed in the Cosmology chapter. Peacham gives a nod to the importance of history, religion and imperialism, and explains that, without history, man would be ignorant of knowledge and devoid of growth. He also dives with enthusiasm into the new-found 17th Century sciences, illustrating concepts of astronomy and geological aspects of the world as essential fields of knowledge for the modern, ‘compleat’ gentleman.

The handbook has been carefully edited and well preserved and is a must read for any student who is studying in humanities or at their own leisure; whether that be comparing the ideals of gentlemen in the court to women of the 17th Century, or considering how society has changed vastly over the centuries. As others have noted, an index would be handy to locate specific information, but its lack does not detract from the concepts and beautiful illustrations with in Peacham’s handbook. This literary treasure is located within our own Aldham Roberts Library at Special Collections, and can be easily accessed by students. The Special Collections department houses many historical documents, art, literature and more for ambitious students who wish to dive into history for excellent primary sources and expand their historical knowledge.


Edwards, J. The Scottish Historical Review, Vol 4, 1907, (Edinburgh University Press).

MacClintock, C. Readings in History of Music and Performance, (Indiana University Press).

Peacham, H. The Compleat Gentleman, 1634. LJMU Special Collections 395.1232 PEA

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