‘Self-satisfied pork butcher’: Shakespeare grave effigy believed to be definitive likeness | William Shakespeare
They say you should never meet your heroes, which has been just as well for literature fans who for centuries have been told they would never see an accurate likeness of William Shakespeare.
Until recently, there were only two definitive portraits of the playwright widely regarded to be the greatest writer in the English language and both were thought to have been painted posthumously. Art critics have even argued that the most famous – the Cobbe portrait – was more likely to have been a painting of courtier Sir Thomas Overbury, not the Bard at all.
But now it seems the mystery has been solved. A groundbreaking discovery means we finally know at least how Shakespeare wanted to be seen.
The effigy above his grave in Holy Trinity church in Stratford-upon-Avon was thought to have been installed several years after his death in 1616 and, as a posthumous memorial, not an actual likeness. The 20th-century critic John Dover Wilson once characterised it as that of a “self-satisfied pork butcher”. But new research has found that the bust was in fact modelled from life by a sculptor who knew him.
Prof Lena Cowen Orlin, a professor of English at Georgetown University in the US, said: “It is highly likely that Shakespeare commissioned the monument. It was done by someone who knew him and had seen him in life. We can think of it as a kind of life portrait, a design for death that gives evidence of a life of learning and literature.”
Dr Paul Edmondson, the head of research at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust (SBT) in Stratford-upon-Avon, said: “This is truly significant. We can therefore say that is how Shakespeare wanted to be represented in our memories. This is massive. It is compelling new light on what he looked like and how he operated.”
Orlin’s evidence now attributes the bust to a sculptor “other than we’ve been given to understand”, a craftsman who specialised in creating such memorial monuments from life and whose workshop was “just steps from” the Globe Theatre in London, where many of Shakespeare’s plays were first performed.
The painted effigy is a half-height depiction of Shakespeare holding a quill, with a sheet of paper on a cushion in front of him. In the 17th century, a Jacobean sculptor called Gerard Johnson was identified as the artist behind it. Orlin believes that the limestone monument was in fact created by Nicholas Johnson, a tomb-maker, rather than his brother Gerard, a garden decorator.
She said Nicholas Johnson also worked on another monument in Holy Trinity church dedicated to Shakespeare’s friend John Combe. “The evidence is that this man’s monument – he died in 1615 – was created by a London sculptor whose practice was to travel with the sculptures to see their installation,” Orlin said. “If this sculptor followed his usual practice, he would have been in Stratford some time in the year before Shakespeare’s death. Even if not, his workshop was round the corner from the Globe. It’s highly likely that he would then have seen Shakespeare’s face.”
She argued that the painted inscription on the memorial’s plaque shows that it was done during Shakespeare’s lifetime, as a space was left for funerary data to be added after the playwright’s death. “Whoever came in to fill in the date after Shakespeare died didn’t understand that he was supposed to use a whole line to give that important information,” she said. “The fact that it’s squeezed in there so awkwardly is another bit of evidence that the rest of it would have been done during Shakespeare’s life.”
Orlin concluded that this would explain why Shakespeare, unlike other eminent contemporaries, did not give directions for a memorial in his will. “It would suggest, further, that he designed or oversaw the creation of his own monument,” she said.
Her research also links the effigy to monuments that were then specifically connected with Oxford. The figure is wearing an Oxford University undergraduate’s gown, and the cushion detail is found in monuments memorialising lives of distinction in its college chapels.
She said the fact that he wanted to be memorialised with links to the university – despite never going to university himself – “now suggests some collegial association that we don’t know about”.
She conducted part of her research at the SBT, where she is a trustee. She will reveal her findings in this year’s Shakespeare birthday lecture on 23 April, organised annually by the SBT and the Shakespeare Institute at the University of Birmingham. She will include them in a book, The Private Life of William Shakespeare, to be published by Oxford University Press in July.
“Lena shows that the person we thought had sculpted the monument for years, Gerard Johnson, is not the right person and that Nicholas Johnson instead produced monuments of people while they were still alive. It’s just amazing. I think that the monument will never be the same again after Lena’s research. She’s made us look at it with fresh eyes,” Edmondson said.
He described the research as “a kind of portrait”, noting that in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, Hermione’s statue comes to life at the end. “Lena’s bringing Shakespeare’s monument to life,” he said. “What she’s saying is groundbreaking.”
Tickets for the lecture, priced at £5, are available from the SBT.