Our Shakespeare in Oils

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One of The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust's oil paintings

The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust owns many works of art of various kinds – paintings, drawings, sculptures, ceramics, engraved glass, and so on. I’ve just returned from the opening of a Shakespeare portrait exhibition at the Morgan Library in New York, for which we loaned two items. I thought it might be of interest to tell readers of this blog about our oil paintings. I’ve often wished we had a gallery for display of a good selection of our treasures, but at present these paintings are either distributed among our various properties or kept in store.

 

With one exception our most historically important portraits of Shakespeare himself, by virtue of their early dates, are those by Gerald Soest, dating from around 1660 to 1680, and the Chesterfield (named after a former owner), of roughly the same date. Later portraits of more than ordinary interest include the Ely Palace Portrait, the charming ‘William Shakespeare between Tragedy and Comedy’, by Richard Westall (1766-1836) and Philip Sutton’s striking ‘William Shakespeare in the Globe Theatre’, of 1988. Visitors to the Wolfson Hall are confronted by ‘The Young Shakespeare Contemplating’ (actually it looks rather as if he’s sneezing into a handkerchief), by the Australian artist Ted May, commissioned for the 2006 World Shakespeare Congress in Brisbane. And very recently we’ve acquired what may well be the first copy to be made of the Cobbe Portrait. Previously known as the Ellenborough copy, it went underground for well over half a century. Last year it turned up in Madrid, and we were able to buy it with the help of a grant from the Friends of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. At present it’s on exhibition in New York, but we shall put it on show here in Stratford later this year. We’ve renamed it The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Portrait.

Some paintings in the collection have been acquired because of their value as illustrations of Shakespeare’s life and times. Most impressive among these is the depiction of ‘A Family Saying Grace Before a Meal’ by Antoon Claeissins, of around 1585, currently on show in Hall’s Croft. A fine early-seventeenth century still life of game, poultry, fish and vegetables which also shows a maid plucking a goose may have been painted as a shop decoration. The mid-seventeenth century painting of a doctor in his surgery examining a urine sample and the depiction of an apothecary’s shop with a pharmacist mixing a remedy both relate to the profession of Shakespeare’s son-in-law, Dr John Hall, as well as to specific features of Shakespeare’s plays. Similarly ‘We Three Loggerheads’, showing two jesters one of whom holds a staff with a jester’s head, relates particularly to Twelfth Night and has been reproduced in editions of the play. Our rather few oil paintings of scenes from Shakespeare include Carel Weight’s imaginative impression, dating from around 1960, of the closet scene from Hamlet, and Brian Organ’s reimagining of Millais’s famous painting of the death of Ophelia, acquired last year from funds raised on the retirement of Roger Pringle as Director of the Trust.

We have a number of late copies of paintings of actors of Shakespeare’s time, including Richard Burbage and William Sly, and of the playwrights Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher, some painted around 1900 from originals in the Dulwich Picture Gallery. The Trust also owns a good nineteenth-century copy of the ‘Tower’ portrait of Shakespeare patron, the third Earl of Southampton.

A central event in the development of Stratford as a place of Shakespearian pilgrimage, and of Shakespearian appreciation in general, was the Jubilee organized by David Garrick in September 1769. Fittingly our collection includes paintings relating to this event including a portrait of Garrick in his regalia as steward, a depiction of the High Cross decorated for the occasion, and other portraits of Garrick and his wife. Also relevant to the development of Stratford as a tourist centre is the fine and frequently reproduced painting which shows Sir Walter Scott paying homage at the grave. We’re not sure who painted it – David Roberts has been suggested, as has Benjamin Haydon. Understandably, too, the collection includes many paintings of Stratford and its environs as well as of men and women associated with the town and with the Trust’s work.

Understandably in a collection acquired over a long period of time by various means – purchase, donation, bequest – some items, interesting in themselves, are peripheral to the Trust’s concerns. Notable among these is a fine portrait, currently in Nash’s house, of John Evelyn (1620-1706) whose voluminous diaries contain only one entry relating to Shakespeare.

In addition to our oils we have numerous water colour drawings, too. I hope that as the years go by we may add still more paintings to our collections, and that we may be able to exhibit a good selection of them in fitting surroundings.

You can view the paintings I’ve mentioned through our on-line catalogue http://www.shakespeare.org.uk/museums/index.php

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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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