“Shakespear’s Monument in the Chancell (not in the Parish Church of Stratford Upon Avon) by adjoyning it (I have seen it) Mr Garter Anstis offer’d to get me a cast of it his face . . .( I have got it)”
George Vertue, c.1737.
Writing an, “about me” page or biog is daunting. Attached to my blog, I inevitably feel that I have to somehow justify why I would have the knowledge or know-how to interest you. The other question that it confronts me with is, why blog? And then, why WordPress? The simple answer is that I’ve been told to. Along with, ” If you want to write you must read a lot, and write every day.” As well as the idea that when you blog you put yourself on the line. You have to push yourself to be clear in your thoughts and focus on communicating your ideas. Because WordPress was the buzzword at writer’s festivals, I chose this platform. I think it was a good choice as we who blog here are a part of a writer-reader community. I think it’s paid off. Why?
I’ve just had my first short story published in the Anitpodean SF – issue 206. My story is Regene-eration and, yes, there is a theatrical element to it. If you are interested in reading it – GO AWAY NOW!!!!! Because I’m going to write about the inspiration behind it before my thoughts trail off.
We write about what we know, what we think we know or what we can imagine. In my case I had recently read Hildegard Hammerschmidt-Hummel’s, The True Face of William Shakespeare and was inspired. I read the coffee table version of her thesis that used forensics, professional criminology techniques, old fashioned reading and archival research to find the true likeness of William Shakespeare and in the process test the authenticity of the Darmstadt Death Mask. What is the Darmstadt Death mask? Why, it’s an authentic plaster cast of the face of the man from Stratford, complete with an inscription date of its execution, 1616, and with the down turned moustache and gaunter face of the first sketch-picture of the Stratford monument by antiquarian William Dugdale! So we are told. Hammerschmidt-Hummel’s thesis is an impressive case study.
Her extraordinary research techniques are fun and fascinating, if not convincing. (I can’t have faith in the results of a study that seriously considers images painted with the subjective eye of another human being as being true and precise testimonies of the appearance of their sitter. One of the first pitfalls I was warned against in studying life drawing is that we who draw/paint portraits will err with our judgement primordially making our sitter look a little like ourselves.) Where I admire Hammershimidt-Hummel’s work is in her archival research. The Darmstadt Death Mask turned up in the 19th Century with the claim that it was Shakespeare’s Death Mask but its provenance was incomplete. How did it come to be in Germany?
Hummel tells us that it first appeared in 1842 in an auction catalogue for the possessions of Count Franz Ludwig von Kesselstatt, former Canon at the Cathedral in Mainz. It was displayed in the British Museum in 1864 as Shakespeare’s Death Mask, despite the lack of explanation of how it came to be in Germany. Hammerschmidt-Hummel came across the following quote in her archival searches:
“After his return from Vienna, he (Franz Ludwig von Kesselstatt) went to Strasbourg and Nancy to improve himself, stayed there until March 1775, and then set off on his Journey to London.” (1)
So he went to London. She presents no evidence for his having purchased the mask and indeed whose mask it may have been. Many men died in England in 1616. It could be anyone’s death mask. Where is the evidence that Shakespeare of Stratford had a plaster death mask made?
When I read The True Face of William Shakespeare, I got sooooooo excited. You see I had gone through the Walpole Society’s compilation and publication of the 18th Century English antiquarian, George Vertue’s (1684-1756) Notebooks, and read this:
“Shakespear’s Monument in the Chancell (not in the Parish Church of Stratford Upon Avon) by adjoyning it (I have seen it) Mr Garter Anstis offer’d to get me a cast of it his face . . .( I have got it)”(2)
Vertue I [v.106, BM 586],The Volume of the Walpole Society, XVIII (1929–1930)
And then he repeats this in a different notebook:
“. . . to Stratford on Avon – W(m) Shakespear Poet his monument in the Church his bust got a cast of it in plaister”
Vertue [v.47 BM 30] (3)
Vertue furnishes us with two mysteries here.
The First Mystery
Could Kesselstatt’s mask be the plaster cast John Anstis made from a monument to Shakespeare residing in a room adjacent to the Church in Stratford? The Charnel House perhaps? George Vertue’s notes are intriguing. He was compiling information about all the painters, limner’s and engravers who were active in England to his day. Like many early antiquarians, he gathered a lot of information that he never edited into a history. His Notebooks were not kept for the use of anyone outside of himself. They are lists of art and in whose household he had seen them or where one of his antiquarian buddies had. Entries are not dated nor in chronological order and he seems to have filled some of them simultaneously.
Just before Vertue’s death, Horace Walpole (1717-1797) purchased his Notebooks and compiled the first history of artists working in England. Walpole, a connoisseur in his own right, edited the Notebooks and presented the history from his own understanding.Could he have also purchased the plaster cast? The plaster cast is not listed in the auction catalogue for the sale of Vertue’s books. He may have sold it privately before his death. Walpole being a connoisseur with a taste for the macabre would have been a candidate to purchase it.
Walpole is credited with writing the first English Gothic novel, The Castle of Ortranto (1764). Shakespearean scholar, Samuel Schoenbaum, in his Shakespeare’s Lives(4) reports his more macabre interest in Shakespeare. Apparently in 1769, Walpole offered a challenge to anyone who could furnish him with the skull of Shakespeare. When it was presented to him in 1794, he declined to pay. If we entertain the idea that Walpole purchased the mask along with the Notebooks in the 1750s, he may have offered the challenge so that he could validate the authenticity of the mask. By the time he was offered the skull, he may have already on-sold the mask and therefore had no need of its authentication. Why would he sell the mask you may ask? In building his dream manor, Strawberry Hill, he was conscious always of his available funds.
Walpole is remembered today as a letter writer as well as an art historian and connoisseur. His letters are an important source of information for his times. He wrote them with his eye on posterity. He is said to have asked them all back and edited them and so they survive in a form that he would have approved for print. Did he mention the mask or Kesselstatt in any of his letters for 1775-6? Not that I could pick up. Would he have wanted posterity to know of such a deal if he did?
Thus the mystery of the provenance remains. But then there is the other mystery. George Vertue makes reference to there being TWO monuments in the 1730s – one in the Chancel and one in the room beside it! Are these the two he meant. . .?
(1) Hammerschmidt-Hummel, Hildegard, The True Face of William Shakespeare, Chaucer Press, London, 2006, p.117.
(2)George Vertue, “Notebooks”, The Volume of the Walpole Society, XVIII (1929–1930), XX (1931–1932), XXII (1933–1934), XXIV (1935–1936), XXVI (1937–1938), XXIV (1947; Index), XXX (1951–1952; Index).
(4)Schoenbaum references Argosy and C.C.Langton, A Warwickshire Man, How Shakespeare’s Skull was Stolen and Found, (1879) in:
Schoenbaum, Samuel, Shakespeare’s Lives, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1991.
The cover of Antipodean SF issue 206 features the cover art – Who wins? (credit – Photovision, Pixabay)
1636 thumbnail sketch by Dugdale (1605-1686) of the Stratford Monument, from Wikimedia Commons
Stratford Monument as we know it: