Solving Mysteries in the SBT Archives: Ethel Webling and Herbert Beerbohm Tree
By Ella Hawkins
Tucked away in the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust’s Rare Books strongroom is an item that has until recently been shrouded in mystery: a unique edition of Julius Caesar with an undocumented origin, purpose, and past.
The item features printed pages of Shakespeare’s text pasted onto thick watercolour paper. On every single page, the playwright’s words have been surrounded by beautiful, hand-painted illustrations of moments in the play.
The illustrations are exquisite. Figures swathed in richly-coloured fabrics are depicted standing alongside Roman architecture. Portraits of characters in the play jump out from the pages, their features carefully crafted with watercolours, inks, and chalks. Some passages of text are accompanied by storyboard-style representations of the action unfolding; others are pasted opposite dramatic images that fill an entire page. Detailed studies of armour and costume designs complete the collection of images.
Who created this masterpiece, and for what purpose?
The title page reveals that the artist responsible for producing these illustrations was named Ethel Webling, and that the item was created in 1898. Though it appears at first that the images represent an imagined world, included to assist the reader in building a picture of the places and people referred to in the text, the title page suggests otherwise: it claims to be a ‘record’ of Herbert Beerbohm Tree’s 1898 production of the play, staged at Her Majesty’s Theatre, London.
Tree is considered a significant figure in the history of Shakespearean performance, noted for his spectacular stagings of the playwright’s work during a period in which theatre was a highly elaborate, visually-focussed affair. Some information has come down to us regarding Tree’s Julius Caesar: the SBT holds a black-and-white photograph of the production in performance, the Victoria & Albert Museum features a contemporary painting of Tree as Mark Antony, and a number of reviews survive in newspaper cuttings and printed texts. If accurate, Webling’s illustrations have the potential to reveal further valuable details of the production’s stage and costume design, and its actors’ facial expressions and spatial relationships.
Comparing Ethel Webling’s illustrations with existing sources suggests that the artist’s work closely resembles the production in performance. As can be seen in the image below, the fencing, pillars, architecture, draped fabrics, and even the structure pictured in the background of the scene have all been captured in the artist’s work. Further, Webling’s portrait of Mark Antony is a good likeness of Tree, who is known to have played this part in the production. It appears that this illustrated edition of Julius Caesar might have a great deal to tell us about this notable staging of Shakespeare’s play.
How can we further evaluate the reliability of Webling’s representation of Tree’s production?
Ethel Webling is known primarily as an artist specialising in miniature portraiture during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Her depiction of John Ruskin, a prominent 19th-century artist and critic, has been exhibited and reproduced in relation to Ruskin’s life and career (Dearden 168). Beyond this, however, little information about Webling’s work can be easily found.
Webling was in fact closely entwined with the world of theatre. Webling’s sisters were actresses, and contemporary correspondence reveals that the artist was well acquainted with Ellen Terry, Henry Irving, and Herbert Beerbohm Tree. Webling’s miniature portraits of Terry and Irving survive, along with a bound edition of Twelfth Night featuring sketches of the play in performance in the margins (held by the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, and claiming to depict Irving’s 1884 production).
In her 1923 autobiography, Peggy Webling (the artist’s sister) writes:
Ethel had made friends with Beerbohm Tree (not yet Sir Herbert), and the first thing we saw in our new home was his portrait as Hamlet. She had painted it in pastel at the Haymarket Theatre, spending five nights out of six behind the scenes, waiting for him to sit whenever he could spare a few minutes. She was also thinking of illustrating the acting edition of Hamlet for Tree, and full of excitement and enthusiasm over her work. (191)
It seems that Webling did illustrate Hamlet for Tree: an 1892 newspaper article reports that Tree ‘received a present of which he confesses himself to be as “proud as a child with a new toy.” It is a unique illustrated edition of “Hamlet,” . . . the work of Miss Ethel Webling’ (‘Gossip of the Day’). Although the whereabouts of this earlier work is unknown, the suggestion that the artist worked in such close proximity to Tree’s work in performance – and over a period of several days – is significant. Images created for the specific purpose of memorializing elements of a production ‘must be granted high status as visual evidence’ (Kennedy 18). While it is usually difficult or impossible to determine the reliability of such evidence, as the artists’ relationship to a production is rarely documented (Kennedy 18), this is clearly no longer the case for Julius Caesar.
Ethel Webling’s illustrative works thus hold a privileged position in the study of Shakespearean performance. The editions featuring in the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust’s Library Collections (Julius Caesar and Henry IV: Part I) have the potential to reveal details of the stage and costume design, staging practices, performance styles, spatial relationships, and approaches to textual editing in place for productions staged by one of the most prominent theatre practitioners of the 19th century.
In many ways, Webling’s illustrations for Julius Caesar are the equivalent of hidden treasure for theatre historians.
With thanks to Dr Dorian Gieseler Greenbaum for generously sharing details of the life and career of her great-grandaunt, Ethel Webling. Images included with kind permission from the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.
To view any of the items featured in this blog post, or to find out more about Shakespeare and illustration, visit the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust’s Reading Room
Dearden, James S. John Ruskin: A Life in Pictures. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999. Print.
‘Gossip of the Day’. Yorkshire Evening Post, 3 Oct. 1892, p. 2. British Newspaper Archive. Web. 10 Feb. 2017.
Kennedy, Dennis. Looking at Shakespeare: A Visual History of Twentieth-Century Performance. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Print.
Shakespeare, William. ‘Julius Caesar / by William Shakespeare. Her Majesty’s Theatre, London. A record by Ethel Webling.’ 1898. Ref. SR Folio – 50.15 texts/1898. Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Collections, Stratford-upon-Avon.
Webling, Peggy. The Story of One Score Years and Ten. London: Hutchinson & Co., c.1924. Print.