Decorating the Godly Household: Postscript (1)

I never intended my book Decorating the Godly Household (2010) to serve as a comprehensive account of every single example of biblical imagery in post-Reformation domestic decoration. I embraced the fact that many more examples would inevitably come to light after the book was published – indeed, I hoped my study might raise awareness of the significance of these previously overlooked and under-appreciated fixtures in historic properties and encourage further ‘finds’. But still, the nature and timing of a couple of my subsequent discoveries has been just a little galling. So, this is the first of a couple of posts(cripts) to share these discoveries and my initial thoughts about them, to prolong the life of that previous book project even as I become immersed in the next one…

A forgotten ‘Shakespeare Relic’

As Decorating was in production and just a couple of months before it was published, I happened upon yet another example of what I had identified as a widespread fashion for biblical scenes in fixed surface decoration during the approximate period 1560-1660. The discovery was frustratingly ill-timed; it was only after I had finally stopped looking for further examples that this one –with possibly the most impressive provenance of all– came to light. What I had found was a description of a plasterwork panel dated 1606 in the house in Stratford-upon-Avon known as the Birthplace of William Shakespeare; a property he owned until his death in 1616.

My source was a description in The Illustrated London News of 1847 of the buildings with Shakespeare associations in Stratford. The author described Shakespeare’s Birthplace in Henley Street as a dilapidated shell, with “naked walls” to “strike an irrepressible chill upon the imagination”. The kitchen in the rear had “nothing noticeable but the ample chimney nooks of the olden time” yet there is also a tantalising reference to a lost feature:

“A few years since, too, there existed in the northern wall of this room, a mutilated plaister representation, in relievo, of the battle between David and Goliah, originally surrounded by an inscription—

Goliah comes with sword and speare,
And David with a sling:
Although Goliah rage and sweare,
Down David doth him bring.

SAMUEL, XVII. A.D.,1606.”

This description relied on earlier accounts going back to 1795 when Samuel Ireland recorded the panel in his Picturesque views on the upper, or Warwickshire Avon. Ireland describes seeing it in situ: “in a lower room of the public house [the Maidenhead], which is part of the premises wherein Shakespeare was born” and, more specifically, that it was an “ornament over the chimney”. In 1759 it was, he records, “repaired and painted in a variety of colours by the old Mr. Thomas Harte…who assured me the motto then round it had been in the old black letter, and dated 1606”. Ireland was more impressed by the possibility that it was put up “by the Poet himself” than by its artistic quality; he explains:

“although a rude attempt at historic representation, I have yet thought it worth copying, as it has, I believe, passed unnoticed by the multitude of visitors that have been on this spot, or at least has never been made public: and to me it was enough that it held a conspicuous place in the dwelling house of one who is himself the ornament and pride of the island he inhabited.”

Ireland provided an illustration of this plaster panel:

Relic post 1

The panel was subsequently described and illustrated again by Robert Bell Wheler in his Historical and descriptive account of the birthplace of Shakespeare of 1824. The engraving by C.F. Green employs some artistic license in reinstating the motto in black letter in a surround, as described by Ireland:

Relic post 2

By this time the panel had been removed from its original position which Wheler described as “fixed over the fireplace in the south east angle of the front parlour of the Maidenhead” and adds “the chimney of which obtruded into the street, previous to its removal to the eastern side of the room when Mr. Court new fronted that house with brick”. An illustration of the south front of the building published in The Gentleman’s Magazine of 1769 shows this protruding chimneystack still in place at the east end of the building, so the panel must have decorated the room now presented as John Shakespeare’s glove-making workshop:

Relic post 3

The panel was almost certainly removed from the Birthplace by the widow Mary Hornby, tenant and ‘custodian’ of the Birthplace until 1820 when, after a dispute over the rent, she quit the property. Before she left she stripped the building of all original features and put them on display as the ‘Shakespeare Relics’ in another house opposite the Birthplace. This collection of fixtures and furniture served as a tourist attraction in various locations in Stratford for over 70 years until it passed to her nephew, Thomas Hornby, who moved the objects to his house at Kingsthorpe. At this time the ‘Relics’ featured in a couple of newspaper articles and one of these, The Graphic dated 1 April 1893, includes a photograph of the plaster panel:

Relic post 4

Though poor quality, the photograph nevertheless provides a more accurate record of its appearance. The various inscriptions scratched into the surface of the panel are obviously later additions, probably from the time of its first exhibition as a Relic. The detail of the imagery is consistent with the earlier illustrations but one curiosity is the shape of the panel. Ireland and Wheler’s illustrations depict the scene as an oval, while the photograph shows that it was in fact rectangular and cut across at the top left hand corner; this less picturesque form lends support to its authenticity because it suggests how the panel (and the chimneybreast it adorned) abutted the wall and slope of the ceiling on its left side:

Relic post 5

If the date 1606 is to be trusted then the panel was created at a time when the property was owned by William Shakespeare—but was probably installed by his tenant, one Lewis Hiccox, a farmer and inn keeper. Hiccox appears to have extended and remodelled the building to an extent that would be unthinkable under modern tenancy agreements but this sort of structural work was quite usual in early modern England. It was certainly not uncommon for tenants with long leases to embellish their homes with this sort of fixed surface decoration. Biblical texts or imagery in wall painting came into vogue in the later Elizabethan period—an example can still be seen in the White Swan Hotel, just around the corner from Henley Street—but in the first two decades of the seventeenth century there was a new fashion for sculpted imagery in carved wood or plasterwork as a single scene at the centre of a chimneybreast. The most popular subjects were taken from the Old Testament and the story of David and Goliath was depicted in work at several other properties, including in the tympanum of the stunning plasterwork ceiling of the long gallery at Lanhydrock House in Cornwall. Hiccox’s panel is far more modest in scale but it represents the sort of imagery that would have been found in the houses of the ‘middling sort’ in towns like Stratford-upon-Avon.

Shortly after being photographed, in 1896, the collection of Shakespeare Relics went to auction and was dispersed. Interestingly, the plaster panel attracted the highest price of all the items sold at this auction with a recorded price of £26, although frustratingly the identity of the purchaser is not recorded. This high value suggests that the panel would have been cared for, raising the hope that it might still exist in a collection somewhere. Do you know where? Please comment if you have seen anything similar…

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4 Comments

Filed under Tara

4 responses to “Decorating the Godly Household: Postscript (1)

  1. What a great find, Tara! It’s both encouraging and frustrating that so many fragments of English ‘middling’ or ‘popular’ culture from this period have been preserved thanks only to some tangental connection to Shakespeare. Imagine how little we would know about everyday life in early modern Stratford if not for the Bard and his many, many later admirers who thought fit to record, preserve or promote material that could be linked to him.

  2. Great post Tara. Somebody must know where that panel is!

  3. Pingback: Shakespeare at New Place: making the house a home | The Shakespeare blog

  4. Pingback: Decorating the Godly Household: Postscript (2) | Material Histories

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