William Shakespeare Playwright and Poet 1564 -1616
2016 is the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death which will be marked in Stratford-upon-Avon and around the world by a series of special projects and events led by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and the town and district councils. On Saturday 23rd April 2016, celebrations will take place in Stratford to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, during which 15,000 masks based on ‘The Tristram Shakespeare’ will be distributed to the street crowds, to add some joviality to the day that marks the death of possibly the world’s greatest playwright and poet.
William Shakespeare died on April 23, 1616 at the age of 52 but his plays and poems are still hugely popular worldwide. His legacy is being preserved by educational institutions, theatres and historical societies. There are many mysteries that surround the life of William Shakespeare but one question about the poet has continued to trouble historians, Shakespearean’s and admirers to this day, just what did he really look like? While hundreds of portraits of the writer have been produced since his death 400 years ago, only two or three are generally accepted to be his actual likeness, with just a handful of others said to have come close.
Geoff Tristram a highly successful professional artist and illustrator for 40 years was invited by Stratford Council to create a new masterpiece of the greatest writer the world has ever known. By studying other depictions of the world-famous playwright, Geoff has created a refreshing, large-scale oil painting of Shakespeare. The painting has the support of Stratford’s Town and District Councils and will be on display in Stratford’s magnificent Town Hall during the Birthday Celebrations in April after which it will be available to buy. During the Celebrations on 23 April 2016 15,000 masks, based on Geoff Tristram’s portrait, will be distributed to the crowds in the streets. Signed limited edition prints of this fantastic image will also be for sale and it’s hoped that the money raised will help to fund the Celebrations of Shakespeare’s Birthday into the future.
I was honoured to be invited into the home and studio of the 61-year-old artist, illustrator, and novelist recently, where I got to see the official portrait of William Shakespeare in the flesh. And, it didn’t disappoint, I could hardly take my eyes off the piece whilst we talked about all things Shakespeare.
You were chosen by Stratford-upon-Avon’s town and district councils to create the 400th-anniversary portrait of William Shakespeare, that must make you very proud?
Yes, absolutely! I’ve been a professional artist for 40 years, and I’ve done many high-profile commissions over the years. I’m a Shakespeare fan anyway, ever since I studied Hamlet at A level, so to be offered this opportunity is an absolute honour. It almost felt like it was meant to happen and is certainly the pinnacle of my career. If I never painted anything else, I’d be pleased to end on this note. It’s a lovely feeling to think that after I’m long gone, people will hopefully refer to this portrait as ‘The Tristram Shakespeare’!
Do you know why the Council specifically chose you to paint this portrait?
Being a council job, I had to tender for the mask painting (the ones which will be given to the public at the festivities and having been successful, it gave the Council confidence in me to take on the full-size portrait. I’d also like to think my long-standing reputation as an established and trusted artist and illustrator helped!
Where do you begin with such a mammoth task?
I began by studying as many existing portraits of Shakespeare as I could, from etchings and woodcuts to busts and paintings; even a death mask. I spent two solid months working on the portrait and I did as much research as I could about how every aspect of the painting should look from the clothing, furniture and fittings right down to the Elizabethan writing. I wanted to be able to answer any question that might be thrown at me.
There are three portraits of Shakespeare which are deemed to be faithful likenesses: the Cobbe portrait (1610), the Chandos portrait (the early 1600s), and the Droeshout etching (1622). What are your thoughts about these pieces?
Well, the Droeshout is the only one credited with the Ben Jonson seal of approval. Jonson was a fellow playwright who knew Shakespeare well. Stratford Council and the town, in general, are very protective of anything to do with the Bard and that’s the image they regard as gospel, in spite of its relatively crude execution. The Cobbe and the Chandos are also front-runners, but they don’t shout out ‘Shakespeare’ to me. In my opinion, they could just as easily be Sir Walter Raleigh or some other Elizabethan gentleman. This doesn’t mean they weren’t accurate, they could have been but they don’t have that definitive look about them. What the Droeshout etching lacks in finesse, it makes up for with provenance and is the basic image of Shakespeare that the world seems to accept. It was used on the cover of the first folio, which cemented that particular image in the public’s consciousness.
Out of the three depictions of Shakespeare mentioned above, is there one in particular which influenced your painting?
I decided on the Droeshout etching given its pedigree, but I transformed it from a stiff, old illustration, to a more photographically realistic man of flesh and blood, someone we could all believe in. However, I placed every available portrait I could obtain of Shakespeare on my drawing board and overlaid a sheet of tracing paper on them all, with the famous Droeshout hair, moustache, and beard combination. Miraculously, the pictures, which at first appeared to have very little in common physically, suddenly began to look extremely similar to each other. It was then I had my Eureka moment! I even drew open eyes on a copy of the death mask and added hair, and it too began to look very similar to the others. After all, these were depictions of Shakespeare at many stages of his life, ranging from the thin-faced Cobbe portrait with a full head of hair, through to a more portly bald-headed man, as seen in the Holy Trinity bust. Nobody looks the same throughout their life!
What age did you choose to depict the Bard and why?
It was important for me to depict Shakespeare in his late-30s because in my painting he’s writing the soliloquy from Hamlet, which was believed to be written around the turn of the century. I also asked my friend and neighbour, Simon Millichip, if he fancied being a stunt double for Shakespeare. I was looking for someone who had the general physique, good looks, and incredible intellectual prowess, and I couldn’t find anyone… so I used Simon instead!
You’ve discussed how you explored the many faces of Shakespeare, can you go into more detail about how you researched other elements of the painting?
The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust allowed us to take photographs in the bedroom at Henley Street, where Shakespeare was almost certainly born. My friend Steve Jolliffe took the photographs, and I hired an authentic costume in terms of the era, social class, and wealth for Simon Millichip to wear. The Birthplace provided a period writing desk, a snipped-off quill pen, candlestick and a chair. They also supplied a photograph of Shakespeare’s signet ring. I even researched the impact of a candle as a secondary light source to see how much it would illuminate. I taught myself to write with an Elizabethan hand so that I could write the first soliloquy from Hamlet – ‘Oh that this too, too sullied flesh would melt’. Even the quite modern looking floral wallcovering is technically accurate for the period!
What does the inscription around the edge of the piece mean?
It’s a song from the play Cymbeline about mortality. ‘Fear no more the heat o’ the sun’ – which seemed fitting, as the painting was created for the anniversary of Shakespeare’s death.
You must have been nervous about painting someone who is so famous and recognisable?
You do start to become paranoid, and it doesn’t help that you’re in a studio alone for the better part of two months, but I had to go with my instinct and use the face that felt right, based on the research I did. I became more confident after all of the investigative work I did for the other elements in the painting, and I believe in my technical abilities as an artist, so there’s not really much more I could have done than that!
What do you think Stratford-upon-Avon’s most famous son would make of your interpretation?
Being a sublime wit, he’d probably say: ‘It’s a perfect likeness Geoff, but not of me!’ If nothing else, I’d hope he would appreciate the work that went into it.
You are also a novelist, with currently thirteen comedies sold in shops and online, do you think you resemble the world-renowned playwright in any way?
The lack of hair maybe, only in that I write comedies and Shakespeare did too. Strangely enough, one of my earlier novels, Vincent Gough’s Van, is a complete spoof of Hamlet, set in 1970s Wolverhampton.
Shakespeare is widely considered to be the greatest writer in the English language. He wrote 37 plays and 154 sonnets, with themes of love, beauty, death, decay, and the inevitable passing of time. Which one stands out the most to you?
Hamlet by a mile. We had to analyse it so thoroughly at the grammar school that I used to know it line by line. I can still quote great chunks of it now, which is a testament to the power of the writing, and also to Miss Titley, my English teacher!
Your artwork has been on fine-art prints, collectors plates, magazines, postage stamps, jigsaw puzzles, greetings cards, press advertisements, billboards and even packaging. Does painting Shakespeare top the lot?
Most definitely! It was gruelling and nerve-wracking, and the enormity of what I was doing got to me. I became paranoid and obsessed with every little detail, but it’s that obsession which drove me to make it the best that I could. So yes, you could say this one tops the lot.
Not only do you write comedy novels, but you hold frequent humorous talks across the country about the trials of being an artist. Were you tempted to add any humour to the Shakespeare painting?
No, I decided to play it straight in case I was lynched! That said, by sheer coincidence, his velvet pantaloons do look uncomfortably like… no, let’s move on.
What are your expectations for the original Shakespeare piece you have created?
Preferably that someone famous or rich will buy it, and to know it’s gone to a good home where it will be appreciated. Ultimately, it would be lovely if I could look another 400 years into the future and see that ‘The Tristram Shakespeare’ is still being enjoyed, whether it’s in somebody’s home, or in one of the Shakespeare dwellings in Stratford-upon-Avon.
Signed limited-edition prints of Geoff’s masterpiece are also for sale via his website in two different sizes. For more details email firstname.lastname@example.org or have a look at the website: www.thetristramshakespeare.co.uk