Tag Archives: Shakespeare

Shakespearean Forensics

IMG_2561 (2)A quick update on cutting-edge material practices in libraries and archives. Just looking through my photos from New Orleans, taken at the Shakespeare Association of America Annual Conference last month, and I came across this one of Wendell Pierce who played Bunk Moreland in The Wire talking about the political power of drama in the wake of the hurricane – captured here doing a bit of Macbeth I think. I’d like to point out at the start that making the (dubious) connection between his (inspiring) talk and a session on Shakespearean Forensics wasn’t my idea, one of the speakers in the session did it first (honest!), but it did get me thinking again about the material moves which that session made between technology, close work, and early modern cultures of reading and writing.

The premise of the session was that all the approaches it introduced required, relied upon, the analysis of early modern objects, but that none of the would have been possible without advances in technology. There was analysis, for instance, of the supply of the raw materials for writing, of scarcity and corruptibility and the ways in which these features of source material shaped communication. We heard that ‘libraries are full of animals’, about attempts to reconstruct or reassemble them from their skins, and about the massive reduction in the varieties of sheep which took place between 1700-1800 – connections between economics, agriculture and the textual record.

There were also human traces. We heard about ways in which the waste products of conservation were being analysed at the Folger – how their ‘dust bunnies’ could be used to see how many people over the centuries had interacted with the books (and, apparently, how many readers had had acne). We learned about the way bacteria from different parts of the body can be distinguished from one another, allowing us to know whether books have been kissed or caressed. Forensic archaeological techniques applied to bodies themselves revealed, for instance, lapis lazuli from Afghanistan in the mouth of a German nun, indicating that she had been a painter of manuscripts.

This kind of work broadened my sense of what it means to interact with texts far beyond annotation, and its focus on the physical interactions which individuals had with pages, letters and images as artists, writers or readers suggested interesting questions about moments of use and how we might analyse them. In some ways it was a controversial session – a question afterwards suggested that it flew in the face of the kind of political engagement which Pierce advocated for drama at least, its different kind of work running counter the liveness of text as spoken, social interaction. Understanding the histories of those interactions, and thinking through the scale on which we might need to understand them, seemed important too though – the questions for Pierce after his talk included one about his own infamous scene of analysis of a shooting in season 1 of The Wire, an episode which involved lots of minute looking and figuring out that eventually produces the bullet, but a notoriously limited dialogue!


If you want to know more about this work, these were the session participants: Joshua Calhoun, University of Wisconsin; Christina Warinner, University of Oklahoma; Matthew Collins, University of York; Michael Witmore, Folger Shakespeare Library; Peter Stallybrass, University of Pennsylvania.



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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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Materialities of Urban Life – April 17-19th – online booking now open!

screenshotYou can now see the provisional programme (at the bottom of the page) and register for the Materialities of Urban Life (Wednesday,  April 17 – Friday,  April 19 2013) conference here:


If you’re interested in what it was like living in early modern towns – what goods were available and the spaces in which they could be sold and consumed, or just in the material qualities of everyday life more generally in this period then there will be something here to interest you:

There are papers on life in Holland, Sweden, Italy, Scotland, Mons, Milan, London, Paris and Norwich amongst others; and on topics as diverse as disposession, trespass, exercise, lodging, Shakespeare in print, craft guilds and livery companies, tailors, civic colour, candles, relics, silver plate, cabinets, mirrors, musical instruments, portraiture, elite wardrobes, stage costumes, royal courts and blood.

In the next couple of weeks there will be blogs from some of the speakers, so do look out for those and we hope to see you there…

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by | February 21, 2013 · 12:37 pm