Face of Clay

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In New York last week I had the unusual and fascinating experience of sitting for my portrait bust. The artist is Greg Wyatt, a distinguished sculptor whose many remarkable works include the Shakespeare-inspired sculptures commissioned for the Great Garden of Shakespeare’s home, New Place, Stratford-upon-Avon. Other works by him adorn many public buildings in America and he has exhibited widely, especially in Italy. I’ve known him for many years, and it was his idea that he would portray me in what will eventually become a bronze image.

An opportunity to start work on the project was afforded by my visit to New York to attend the opening of an exhibition at the Morgan Library centring on the Cobbe portrait of Shakespeare which also includes the recently identified portrait of Shakespeare’s patron, the Earl of Southampton. This was painted when he was still an androgynous-looking teenager, and at around the time that Shakespeare dedicated to him his two long poems, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece. Other items on show in the exhibition, which will be in place until 1 May, include the copy of the Cobbe portrait which went missing for over half a century. It turned up recently in Madrid, and now belongs to The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. This is the first it has been on show since we bought it.

The sittings took place in Greg’s splendid studio at the National Arts Club in Gramercy Square. A two-level suite of rooms, it is illuminated by a massive glass window overlooking the square, at the other side of which we could see the apartment block occupied in part, we learnt, by the film star Julia Roberts. The studio, simply but elegantly appointed, contains examples of Greg’s work in various media. As I entered it for my first sitting I saw a mobile stand on which was placed an armature of twisted wires around which Greg would construct the image of my head and shoulders. Behind was a stool for me to sit on. Greg worked with small lumps of grey clay, which he moulded with his hands. The clay was stiff. As he showed me, strong fingers were needed to pummel it into shapes that would slowly build up the image. He worked patiently, perceptively, and with evident enjoyment of his craft, his glance moving frequently from my face to the evolving portrayal of it. I sat no less patiently, occasionally drinking tea – even on a special occasion a glass of Veuve Clicquot generously supplied by Greg’s wife, Fay. ‘May I suggest something decadent?’ she had asked, and she did. The image evolved slowly, starting with the basic shape of the head, and gradually cheekbones, eyes, nose, ears emerged in clay, their shape delineated and refined by the motions of Greg’s skilful fingers. He very nicely suggested that the final version would include the C.B.E. insignia and two quotations from A Midsummer Night’s Dream: one from Shakespeare’s play, the other from Felix Mendelssohn’s incidental music (which incidentally was playing during the first sitting).

In all we had three sittings, each lasting for a couple or so hours. By the end of the third Greg declared himself satisfied with what we had so far accomplished, though more remains for him to do in my absence. After that the work will be encased in plaster, which in turn will be cast in bronze in a Paris foundry.

And there it will be, a visual image of me transmitted through the eyes and fingers of Greg Wyatt, sculptor, during the first week of February 2011, and I shall change and eventually die while it remains who knows where, fixed and static, treasured or ignored, but whatever, a generous gift from an immensely talented friend.

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Author:Stanley Wells

Stanley Wells is Honorary President and a Life Trustee of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, Emeritus Professor of Shakespeare Studies of the University of Birmingham, Honorary Emeritus Governor of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Follow Stanley on twitter @stanley_wells or visit his website

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