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12 Days of Collections

Take a whistle-stop tour of some of our Collections items in an alternative version of this classic carol.

Jennifer Reid

We often say that we can find something in our vast and varied collection to illustrate just about any anniversary, holiday or “national day of”, which is why I thought that coming up with a rewriting of “12 days of Christmas” would be easier than it turned out to be!

On the twelfth day of Christmas my true love gave to me...twelve portraits hanging
I am always amazed by how different portraits of Shakespeare look from each other when grouped together, but all recognizably Shakespeare.  These range from the SBT portrait of Shakespeare painted during his lifetime (second from the left on the top row), to a contemporary interpretation by the Australian artist Ted May titled “Young Shakespeare Contemplating” (second form the right on the bottom row). Our most recently acquired portrait is on the top row, second from the left. It is a pop art interpretation of the Droeshout portrait of Shakespeare by American pop artist Steve Kauffman.  You can see it currently on display in Shakespeare’s New Place.

On the eleventh day of Christmas my true love gave to me...eleven coins for counting
We have a lot of coins and tokens in the collection, dating from Roman times all the way to this year’s fantastic Shakespeare £2 coins produced by the Royal Mint.  In this picture you can see eleven coins from the reign of Elizabeth I.  Money is used frequently by Shakespeare's characters and the image of the coin or 'coining' was something that the playwright explored across many genres

On the tenth days of Christmas my true love gave to me...ten people sleeping
Here we have a selection of production images and from our historic picture collection showing people sleeping in Shakespeare plays. Much debate went into whether or not some of the characters may actually be dead in these images, so we ask that you use your imagination!

On the ninth day of Christmas my true love gave to me...nine Romeos romancing
Ah Romeo, probably the most famous of lovers in all of literature. These nine images are all taken from RSC productions and show a real range of interpretations of the play.  The oldest is in the middle and shoes Richard Johnson in the lead role in 1958. The most recent is on the middle left and shows Ray Fearon playing the part in 2008.

On the eighth day of Christmas my true love gave to me...eight cups for drinking
We have so many cups in the collection, from Tudor posset cups to commemorative mugs from the 21st Century.  The oldest in this selection is the little black cup on the bottom row. This is made from Cistercian ware, which is a hard, lead glazed earthenware produced in England in the 16th and 17th centuries.  On the bottom left, the little white tea cup is one of my favourite things. It’s called a “moustache cup” and has the arms of the Borough of Stratford-upon-Avon on it.  It has a little circular ledge inside it with little opening to allow liquid to pass through.  This ledge served the purpose of keeping men’s moustaches dry when drinking tea. I love the idea that there was such a problem with wet moustaches they actually had to come up with a solution.

On the seventh day of Christmas my True love gave to elephants swimming
When I first saw this picture I thought it was something someone imagined, but no, it did really happen! In 1890 Sanger’s Wild Beasts Show visited Stratford, and their owners took them down to the River Avon for a swim. A news article described the scene: “They played with each other, rolled their huge bodies over and over, and dived throwing up their huge hind legs in the most comical manner, provoking great peals of laughter. Several abreast marched down the centre of the river, and so great was their enjoyments that all the efforts of the man in charge to induce them to come out were for some time futile”

On the sixth days of Christmas my true love gave to me...six games for playing
There was great excitement in the town this year when the new Stratford-upon-Avon edition of Monopoly was released and of course we were quick to acquire on for the collection.  Shakespeare’s plays and characters make a great foundation for games, and we have a number of examples in the collection, the earliest of which being this Twelfth Night game from 1820 (middle bottom).  The little bone dice you can see was excavated at the New Place.

On the fifth day of Christmas my true love gave to me...five unknown things
Every memory institution has items in their collection that they aren’t quite sure what they are – and we are no different. A well meaning curator from the past might just have forgotten to note down the provenance, and fifty years later the staff are scratching their heads!  These items are from archaeological digs at Bidford, and the archaeologists were unable to identify their original purpose.

On the fourth day of Christmas my true love gave to me...four Richard III’s
This is one that you really need to sing out loud to see how it rhymes with the original song. Here we have four very different portrayals of King Richard III from RSC productions, including of course the famous Richard III by Anthony Sher (top left) from 1984.

On the third day of Christmas my true love gave to me...three ugly men
This painting is called “We Three Loggerheads” and dates from the early 1600s. It shows two jesters holding a staff carved with a jesters head. They are probably the court fools Tom Derry and Muckle John.

One the second day of Christmas my true love gave to me...two embroidered gloves
These beautifully embroidered gloves are made of kid leather and would have been worn by a man in the 1600s.  Gloves like this were a real sign of status – you often see sitters in portraits off the time either wearing gloves or holding them in their hands.  Shakespeare’s father John was a Glover, though it is unlikely he would have made gloves as elaborate as these.

On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me...a scion of a mulberry tree
Yes, we really do have a tree in the collection! The story goes that Shakespeare planted a mulberry tree in the garden of his house at New Place, and after his death it became a point of interest for tourists.  The large number of tourists peeking over the wall to see the tree annoyed the owner, Francis Gastrell, so much that he chopped it down sometime in the 1750s. He also later went on to demolish New Place itself too.  A great number of souvenirs supposedly made from the wood of this felled tree have made it into our collection over the years. The tree in our song, located in the Great Garden at Shakespeare’s New Place, is supposedly grown from a scion of the original tree that Shakespeare himself planted. 

Dig further into our collections for yourself using our online catalogue.


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