"The Face of Old Billy Our Bard"

There have been many studies of the Stratford bust of Shakespeare that Mark Twain wrote resembled nothing so much as it resembles a "bladder."

Experts in this field have no difficulty in tracing the present effigy to the 1750s.  The facial hair and curls resemble George Washington's far more closely than they do any Elizabethan.  

Sir George Greenwood who summed up our collective wisdom in 1912 wrote,

At all events if we may rely upon Dugdale, the present monument may be regarded as the first Shakespearean forgery.

Actually Greenwood would have been better served to have concluded, "If we may rely on both common sense and the historical record, the present monument is one of the earliest Shakespearean deceptions."   

The following observations will summarize a vast literature on this vexing subject.  And while we have stated our conclusion at the beginning, the inquiry was an objective one.  Your author being perfectly willing to accept the present bust as that of Shakespeare.

The Chorological Evidence:

Since we cannot, ourselves journey back into the past, we take as evidence books published and papers written during those now distant periods as primary sources.  They are the next best thing to a time machine:

Among the papers of Sir William Dugdale, then England's elite antiquarian, is a sketch from July 1634 of Shakespeare's Stratfordian bust.  

It was followed in 1656 by a printed version, via an engraving by Hollar.  

The two are very similar and it has been "loosely" or "traditionally" believed among scholars that Hollar based his engraving on Dugdale's sketch.  

As we shall see there is now divided opinion about this.  In any case neither the 1633 sketch by Dugdale or the 1656 engraving by Hollar resemble the present bust, which scholars know dates back to only c. 1750.  The scans below make this perfectly clear:


Dugdale's Sketch (1633) Hollar's Engraving (1656) The Present Bust  (c.1750)

The twenty year gap in Dugdale's work, represents the time lost to the English civil war of that period.  Indeed this war and its accompanying social upheavals was, no doubt, responsible for the solidification of the Shakespeare hoax into the realm of pseudo history. 

The evidence that Hollar made his own sketch of the bust has long been available to scholars.  Sir E. K. Chambers simply asserted that Hollar relied upon Dugdale's sketch.  However the original bears no signs or "marks" of this use.  If we consider the proportions, Hollar's engraving is closer to the modern bust than it is to Dugdale's sketch.  So it would seem Hollar took his own measurement.

My former colleague, Louis Ule, reminded us that Dugdale shows "the spacing between the columns to be greater than their height, whereas in Hollar's engraving and in what we see today, the reverse is true."  Ule speculated that this was, no doubt, due to the fact that Dugdale made the sketch from below the monument, which would tend to skew the proportions. 

Clearly if Hollar made his own measurements, as these differences suggest, the case for the accuracy of the engraving's likeness to the original is greatly enhanced.    There are other compelling reasons to suppose that Dugdale had it right from the beginning.

Editions of Shakespeare's works published as late as 1786 essentially followed Dugdale's sketch.  Why would they do this if the disagreement between the monument and the sketch were as pronounced then as it is today?

Rowe's famous edition of Shakespeare, published in 1709, also shows Shakespeare clutching that sack of grain.  Rowe, scholars know, had dispatched a then famous London actor, Thomas Betterton, to Stratford to make a personal inspection of the Bard's home turf or has Rowe put it, "to gather up what remains he could of a name for which he had so great value."

So why would Betterton, who had seen the monument in the flesh or at least in the stone, have oked an engraving based on Dugdale, if Dugdale's engraving was as far from the mark as it is today?

Why would inhalants of Stratford not have remarked on these obvious differences?  Why would Dugdale, himself a Warwickshire man, who seems to have been a great admirer of Shakespeare's line, allowed a less that perfect representation?   

In a letter of Dugdale's dated 20/30 May 1654, addressed to Sir Hervey Bagot, we can see how arduously Dugdale labored over these "plates:"

Honored Sir. 

By yours of the 14th which I received this morning, I understand that the proof of my plate concerning Sir William Bagot came safe to you, and that you like of it, which pleases me well.  I can assure you it is the most exactly done both in imitation of the letter (which is the grace of it) and in all other respects, for in these things I am very curious; but should the letter have been made bigger, it would not have borne a right proportion to the rest...At your command, 

                           Willian Dugdale, London, May 20, 1654

The modern "idea" that Dugdale's work was shoddy cannot be supported by either his own records or by a comparison of other engravings in the book to extant present artifacts.  Indeed one need go no further than the same page.  Hollar's engraving of the Combs monument is in near perfect agreement with the actual tomb, located just a few feet from Shakespeare's bust.


One of my correspondents, Professor Gregory m. Schnitzpahn, with the Department of English at Suffolk University, in Boston, Mass., gschnitz@suffolk.edu   has suggested that we should undertake a study of how many other busts from the period depict men clutching bags of grain.

While this is a novel idea and seems, at first blush, to suggest that the original was devised as a pillow for writing, second blush tells us that neither Dugdale or Hollar would have troubled themselves to depict a bag of grain if it were not customary.  

They knew period monuments far better than we do and far better than we can, since many of them will no longer be extant.

This objection is "intellectual" in nature.  Let's us consider it factually.  

Both Dugdale's sketch and Hollar's engraving, which as we have seen may well have been done independently, evidence the bag or sack.  Worse there is absolutely no indication in the placement of Shakespeare's hands and arms that he is in a writing posture.  In order to write on the bag, his hands cannot be clutching it.  

Yet that is unquestionably what he is doing.  The posture suggests he is pulling it towards himself.  So there are technical reasons to doubt that this bag or sack was a pillow upon which the Bard was writing.  

Not only does it not look like a pillow, but it is in the wrong place for a pillow and his entire posture is wrong for writing, not to mention the placement of his arms and hands.

It simply isn't reasonable to suppose the original drawing could have gotten all of this so very, very poorly.

Now as it turns out we have even more conclusive evidence that the original was just as Dugdale pictured it.  


An Early 20th Century Discovery:

In the early 1900s the monument that inspired this one was rediscovered in London. It is of John Stow and was dated 1605.  It is pictured below and I have reproduced both the present bust and the original Dugdale sketch so we can see them side by side.


It is a very lovely piece of work.  My eye, which has been by long custom, habituated to Elizabethan and early Jacobean styles of dress and habit, find it entirely suited to John Stow.  

It depicts its subject as a man of intellect, wealth and purpose.  Every aspect of the effigy strikes to Stow's writing, the act he is obviously engaged in in the effigy.  

His dress is completely apropos for his profession.  His focus and his concentration are entirely that of the scholar/writer.

Since this is the piece Shakespeare's was based on we must demand an explanation as to why Shakespeare's wasn't of the same cloth or stone and quality?  

Clearly Shakespeare's dress is not that of a scholar or writer, as is Stow's.  His simple jacket is that of a common tradesman and or an unadorned actor.  Gone too is the marvelous table or tabulature that is supporting Stow's writings.  

It appears as a marble table top, supported by Stow's knees.  About eight inches thick, a foot deep and three feet wide.  It afforded Stow just enough room to center his work and to place his arms in the proper position for writing.  

It is properly aligned with his body, so the designer/carver has accurately captured Stow in the act of creation.   I could want no more for my own father's memorial, who was also a well known writer. 

This leads us to conclude that since the original Shakespeare effigy was produced by the same craftsman, Gerald Johnson, that the differences were quite intentional.  

Here's Dugdale's Diary entry from 1653, three years prior to the publication of Antiquities of Warwickshire:

1653, Shakespeare's and John Combe's monument at Stratford-on-Avond made by one Gerard Johnson.  Sir Richard Verney at Compton and the Earl of Totnes' at Stratfprd-on-Avon by Mr. Marshall in Fetter Lane.

From this period evidence we know the original bust was made in London.  It may even have been made at the actor's order.  

From a simple comparison between the Stow monument, also by Johnson, and the Dugdale sketch, and indeed the extant monument, we can see the craftsman made no attempt to depict a scholar/poet, let alone a writer/thinker as he had done with Stow.


We are now at that place in our narrative where we can tackle the question of the earlier sack and present pillow.  What could it mean?


In a moment we shall produce evidence proving the present pillow entered the picture c. 1750.  However, now we need to recall a few facts about the mechanics of writing.  

We of the technological age, boast of ball point pens that will write upside down in a hard vacuum and even under water.  These marvels were still centuries in the future in 1600.  

As the present bust depicts, Shakespeare would have done most of his writing with a quill.   They are difficult and contrary devices to use.  First of all is the lack of uniformity.  As natural organic objects no two are alike.  The inks were difficult to mix and somewhat unpredictable.  The paper was also hardly of the uniform nature we demand today.  With this in mind, what do scholars of what is called paleography, know about 16th and 17th century writing habits?

Or more precisely was it customary to write on pillow?

Here the answer is an unequivocal no.  Writing surfaces were not pillows, improvised or otherwise.  

Stow is depicted writing on a stone table.  In real life it would have been wood.  A desk.  It might have had a small stand on it used to elevate the surface slightly.  However any elevation would encourage the ink to run and thus be frowned upon by most writers. 

So it simply isn't very likely that Johnson or any one else for that matter would depict a writer using a pillow as a writing surface.  

Perhaps we should ask Professor Gregory M. Schnitzpahn, if he can find us any example of a writer working off a pillow in late 16th and early 17th century cenotaphs?

If we take a close look at he extant work, we'll see the "pillow" is actually a "pad" that appears to be resting on something unseen, something strong enough to support the pad without deforming it.

The left hand of Shakespeare is holding a folded sheet of paper(s) over the surface...holding it in such a fashion as to imply that he is pulling it towards himself.  As if he were bracing it from falling off his knees. 

The pad has two tassels, where as both the Dugdale sketch and the Hollar engraving show four.  The present pad is horizontal while these other ones are more vertical, particularly the Hollar engraving.

The modern one, which we know was executed by a John Hall is actually well done in this regard.  His right hand is in the proper position for writing and there is a quill in the fingers which are also in the correct position.  The quill has to be periodically replaced, since it wasn't part of the statue as was Stow's.  

There is, however, a large problem.  The body position is all wrong for writing.  The head is square on the shoulders and the face is looking outwards towards the viewer.  The glace is downwards, but the posture is not.  Suffice it to say no writer every wrote long in such an unnatural position.  


Stow, on the other hand, could have sat all day in his pose.

So again we are forced to conclude that the the original intent of the effigy was not to depict an writer at his task.  Rather it seems to have been to give us a merchant type, proudly displaying his wares.  Strong and robust, easily able to hold a grain bag.

I been been alluding to the fact we know the present effigy dates to the 1750s.  We know this for a number of solid reasons.

Sam Schoenbaum, as orthodox as they come, writes,

"We are reminded that the monument too has a history. Over the years it deteriorated, until by 1748 the statue, several fingers amputated, required repair and beautifying... later...Malone ...persuaded the vicar...to whitewash the bust... in 1861 a limner applied fresh colours to the bust..."

As we shall see Schoenbaum is being either uncharacteristically naive or disingenuous.  The fact is the present effigy's hands are intact.  So we know they have never had their fingers broken off them and repaired.  

Stone is not flesh and it will not simply nit itself back together seamlessly.   The hand is carved out of a single piece of rock and no craftsman can replace a missing finger without leaving obvious traces, even if he is lucky enough to have a piece of the original stone.  For one each piece evidences a different color, grain and texture.  So even a left over piece will not "match."  And then there is the problem of the joint.  It cannot be made seamless. 

Sometimes in these projects an entire hand will be replaced.  It is sawn off at the wrist....but these fixes were way beyond the powers of the man hired by Stratford to repair the bust, John Hall. In truth they are techniques of the 20th century.  

We don't have to take my word for it.  The correspondence about the "repairs" are extant.  They prove that soon after the appearance of the Westminster monument, the Rev. Greene, who was Headmaster of the free school in Stratford, want to have the bust remade.  

He corresponded for several years with Edward Kenwrick, who was then Vicar there.  The Vicar was anxious to keep the new monument as close as possible to the original.  Greene simply wanted a new monument and was not interested in what is called historical integrity or accuracy.  Greene won.  In the end John Hall was given a free hand to rebuild, not restore, the monument.  Thus the present one is his work.

Nearly any student of these monuments and the various styles of dress to which English people have accustomed themselves, should be able to see at a glance that the present bust resembles, in its hairstyle and moustache,  the customs of the 1750s and thus more of George Washington than John Stow.  

And or the first bust as evidenced by the Dugdale/Hollar works.  In that engraving the moustache dips deeply, while the present one heads for the stars...and what's that ridiculous goatee doing on his chinny chin chin? 

Even the clothing has changed to them more contemporary styles.  Gone is the simple jacket of a merchant/actor and in its place is the more artful attire of a would be writer of the mid 1700s. 

More importantly the hands have been moved and the skillful carver has replaced the sack with a writing pad with complete with tassels, albeit just two.   

Flat and horizontal, as custom would decree. 

Below it, in our imagination, would be a board balanced on the writer's hypothetical knees. It is a masterful "renovation" that kept some of the aspects of the old sack and yet preserved some of the structure of a writing surface.  

Side by side, the Stow memorial is still superior and it is much, much easier to fabricate, than the writing pad. Shakespeare's pad had to be shaped by hand, Stow's slab could simply be sawn out and then polished in place.

Gone too are the leopards and the naked boys. Notice however how careful he has been to maintain the over all proportions.  This was to be the simplest part of his chore.  The only thing he had to improvise on was the bust itself.  I suspect the naked boys had been broken.... they were, it is reported, movable and could have fallen off during cleaning.

The new ones are not movable and are inside the roof, so they are not likely to fall off.  

Now how do we prove all this?  

The proof is before our very eyes.  In the preserved correspondence, Greene boasts about how the remade effigy is of local stone. We know that Gerald Johnson, who built the original, would not have worked with local stone.  

Situated there in London, Johnson had access to the best materials. Materials shipped in from all over the world.  These materials are evidenced in the Stow memorial and in some of the remaining panels of the present monument.  Hall would not have needed to remake the entire niche, some of it's structural pieces could simply be repolished and returned to their former glory. 

Only that woeful effigy with a missing finger and thumb, at the very least, would require a new stone. And that stupid looking sack, which was part of the piece would also have to go to scrap.

The record is quite clear the present effigy is of the softer local stone, Rev. Joseph Greene wrote about. Here he is on February 28, 1787, speaking about the restoration forty years earlier, i.e., c. 1747:

About 40 years ago, an ingenious limner from Bristol, of the name of Hall, being at Stratford on a visit to an acquaintance, Mr. West the elder, if I mistake not, employed him to copy the original monument of Shakespeare in the chancel of Stratford Church, with its several architectural decorations, such as its columns, entablatures, etc. 

And here he is early in 1749 attempting to answer complaints that the effigy had not simply been "restored" but substantially modified or rebuilt:

Dear Sir, When you was with me at Stratford, you imposed me to talk, as to which I question whether I am capable of giving you full satisfaction. You wanted me to inform you of what materials the original monument of Shakespeare in the chancel of our collegiate church was composed.  Having had, since I saw you, a favorable opportunity (never perhaps to be repeated) of seeing and examining the figure of the bard, when taken down from his niche to be more commodiously cleansed from dust, etc., I can assure you that the bust and the cushion before it, (on which as  on a dais this image of our poet seems preparing to write), is one entire lime stone of a texture and solidity about equal to common marble, yet naturally of a bluish or ash-color cast, which could be had from no quarry in our neighborhood, except from a village called Wilmcote, a few miles from Stratford and which kind of stone is generally used for paving halls, or ground rooms; though a finer sort, which lies deeper in the same quarry, is truly a marble, and takes a polish sufficiently beautiful for chimney pieces, even for persons of high distinction. 

The two columns which support the entablatures and ornaments above the bust, as well as the interior tables of their pedestals, are of black polished marble, if not of jet...there are two distinct entablatures...and were all originally all of white alabaster, a little veined with red; but the old architraves being much shattered and decayed, it was thought proper to substitute new ones of white marble, which look at least as beautiful as the alabaster ....

With this evidence in hand, there can be no doubt that the monument was changed, not just in style, but its very materials as well.  Reverend Greene, in describing the stone of "the bust and the cushion before it," as of local stone from "Wilmcote, a few miles from Stratford," has given away the whole show.  

The important part of the monument, the image of the poet and the "cushion before it" were recarved from local stone. And are all of one piece, as they must be to work.  Gerald Johnson, the famous London carver and limner, who produced the original bust and the Stow memorial, could not have worked with local stone from Wilmcote.  

So we can see that Greenwood was correct.  The present bust has no authentic provenance and is among the first of the Shakespeare forgeries that have plagued scholarship down through the ages.

For some unknown reasons whoever commissioned the original bust wished to show Shakespeare as a simple rustic...clutching a bag of gain.  Only after his reputation as a poet grew, did the need arise to remake the effigy. 

Now the question is why would someone making this "Stratford Monument" for the Bard wish it to depict the rustic?  Well the simplest explanation, Occam's famous route, is that William Shakspere commissioned it himself.  

Indeed as a professional in these matters, I have observed that if one is to ensure one's memorial is proper, it must be done whilst one is still alive.  

This would explain why it had been accepted in Stratford back in 16teens or 20s.  It was really "the face of Old Billy our bard." This new creation dating to 1747 was, as Greene wrote in 1787, "a Unique."

Twain would not agree.  He'd no doubt say, "if you've seen one bladder, you've seen them all."

This account also explains why Sir William Dugdale printed that sketch and why editions of Shakespeare's works carried it over and over for a solid century and a half.  The Dugdale/Hollar image(s) were true to life.  This thing in Stratford has as much claim to be the Author's face as the one in the Moon.


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