Stratford-upon-Avon’s Town Hall is one of the most important of the town’s buildings, associated with Shakespeare through its dedication at the time of the Garrick Jubilee in 1769. This summer its familiar stone frontages have been covered in scaffolding as it has a facelift. Without any fanfare, on Friday 20 August 2021 its most historic feature, the lead statue of Shakespeare, was removed from its niche and sent away for restoration.
I’ve written before about the Town Hall itself and its history.
Since it was dedicated the building has undergone many changes: the open lower floor was only enclosed in the 1860s, and the building suffered a fire in 1946 in which the famous painting of David Garrick by Gainsborough was destroyed. The statue has survived it all, including pollution and two hundred and fifty years of British weather. High up, and obscured by pigeon-deterring wire though, this culturally-important object is often overlooked. Let’s look closer.
The statue is a copy, in reverse, of the marble statue of Shakespeare that stands in Poet’s Corner, Westminster Abbey, designed by William Kent and executed by Flemish sculptor Peter Scheemakers (1691-1781). It dates from 1740. There is a full description on Westminster Abbey’s website.
The two men had already been involved in the creation of the Temple of British Worthies at Stowe in Buckinghamshire. Kent, again, had designed the monument in which a series of niches are filled by stone busts. Shakespeare was one of the worthies: his bust created by Michael Rysbrack, but many of them were by Scheemakers, completed 1734-5.
The Westminster Abbey statue proved to be extremely popular, inspiring many copies in the form of pictures, statuettes and stained glass. It’s hardly surprising then that the statue commissioned to decorate Stratford’s Town Hall was a copy of this statue. John Cheere (1709-1787) was a follower of Scheemakers, and although he worked in a variety of media he was particularly well-known for his lead statues which were commissioned for garden settings. Many examples that stand in National Trust properties are illustrated of this page of the National Trust’s website.
There’s one other statue, though, that has a particularly strong link to Stratford’s. A lead statue of Shakespeare now stands in the foyer of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, thought to be a later cast of the one on the Town Hall.
It appears that the statue was presented to the Theatre by brewer Samuel Whitbread Jr in 1809. He inherited his father’s estate Southill Park in Bedfordshire in 1796 and around that time he purchased a collection of Cheere’s statues that were being sold off, presumably with the aim of displaying them in the grounds. He and his brother shared the running of the hugely profitable Whitbread brewery, though worries over his financial involvement in Drury Lane Theatre may have contributed to his suicide in 1815.
It’s identical: not only is it a mirror image of the statue in Westminster Abbey, looking at the Stratford statue once it was off its plinth the details are revealed. The pattern on the stockings, the folds of the clothes, and the lacy collar, all the same. It’s also clear how much damage has been caused by being outside for so long. Apart from a spell on top of the portico, the Drury Lane statue has spent most of its life indoors.
I’m very much indebted for information about the Drury Lane statue to the Bath, Art and Architecture blog written by historian David Bridgwater who has a particular interest in John Cheere. His post contains many photos of the statue and a huge amount of information. The photos of the Stratford statue were taken by Pat Bojczuk.
But why did John Cheere chose to make his sculpture a mirror image of the Westminster Abbey one? Apart from these two statues, every version shows the stand to the left as you look at it. Shakespeare leans his right elbow on a pile of books, pointing with his left hand at an unfurled scroll.
Even the engraving showing Garrick delivering his Ode at the 1769 Jubilee shows the statue that way round, presumably done by an artist more familiar with the Scheemakers original. Perhaps Cheere just wanted to make his own mark on this famous subject.
I’ve been really excited to see David Bridgwater’s photos that show how beautiful the Stratford statue was originally, but they also demonstrate how much the restorers have to do. Let’s hope the Stratford statue can be brought back to something like its original condition, and when it returns in spring 2022 that it will be given a big welcome back.