Sunday, February 17, 2019

The Vertue Stratford Bust of William Shakespeare Remains a Beautiful Mystery

Drawing of the Stratford bust in 1734 by George Vertue (Folger Shakespeare Library)
Politicworm has posted an excellent article concerning the antiquarian George Vertue and his strange relationship with Shakespeare portraits. In it, the author argues that Vertue was involved in a plot to sabotage the traditional image of Shakespeare and replace it with another likeness.

Above is one of my all time favorite renderings of Shakespeare. Vertue drew the Stratford bust in profile at Trinity Church around 1734. This seems odd when you consider that the Stratford bust today looks nothing like this sitter, and in fact this portrait would seem to be based on the Chandos portrait (NPG1) or any number of the very Jewish-looking Shakespeare candidates portraits kept at the Folger Shakespeare Library.  

How did the respected Vertue wander into Trinity Church and emerge with this drawing? To even understand this mystery you have to explore the history of hijinks related to the Stratford bust, including the many accusations the original bust was switched or stolen.   

We know that the Stratford bust was sketched as early as 1636, some 20 years after Shakespeare’s demise, by the antiquarian William Dugdale.  When this sketch was later engraved by Hollar for publication in Dugdale’s Antiquities of Warwickshire (1656), another debate was born, one I will not much dwell on here (an entire book could be filled with its particulars).  Suffice to say, the sitter of the Hollar engraving (and two subsequent engravings by other artists) did not at all resemble the current bust at Trinity Church.

In 1918 the scholar Charlotte Stopes was the first to point out that either the Dugdale-Hollar representation was incorrect or the bust had been radically modified or replaced.  The battle ranged on, but it wasn’t until 1997 that Diana Price’s article “Reconsidering Shakespeare’s Monument,” offered an intelligent counterargument by stating that 17th century antiquarians were not literalists. I'm not sure I buy that theory, but it's worth considering. 

In 1748 the Stratford schoolmaster Reverend Joseph Greene, who had recently signed as a witness to the planned renovation of the Stratford monument, stole into the chancel with a cohort and made a plaster mould of the bust.  Twenty-five years later Greene confessed his crime while arranging to ship the stolen mould to his brother.  

"In the year 1748 the Original Monument of Shakespeare in the Chancel of Stratford Church was [to be] repair’d & beautifi’d; as I previously consider’d that when that work should be finish’d no money or favour would procure what I wanted, namely a mould from the carv’d face of the Poet; I therefore, with a Confederate, about a month before the intended reparation, took a good Mould in plaster of Paris from the Carving, which I now have by me . . ."

After shipping the stolen mould, which has since been lost, Greene then penned an even stranger letter to his brother in which he disparaged the Shakespeare monument at Westminster and introduced a new player to this drama, Methuselah: 

"I think a bust from the Original Monument, as your is [the stolen one], must be much more valuable & satisfactory, than one from his pompous Caenotaph in Westminster Abbey; which . . . though in a venerable & majestic attitude, is more likely to represent Methuselah, than our Poet, who died at the age of 53."

Methuselah was Noah’s grandfather who the Torah tell us died at age 969.  The Westminster statue portrayed Methuselah, Greene wrote, whereas “our poet” was immortalized in the mould stolen from Stratford, begging the question: did Greene steal his mould because he suspected the Stratford bust was about to be transformed too?

 Good luck solving those mysteries.

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