2019 marks the 250th anniversary of the Shakespeare Jubilee in Stratford-upon-Avon. The three-day Jubilee began on 6th September 1769 and is often described as the event that created the town we know today. It was the first official celebration of William Shakespeare in Stratford-upon-Avon and many of the subsequent Shakespeare celebrations in the town have taken their inspiration from it.
The origins of the Jubilee go back to 1767. In this year, the Town Council decided to rebuild the old Town Hall. The old building would have been too expensive to restore and so it was decided that it should be demolished and a new one built in its place. This new building, which still exists today, was to have a large ornamental niche on its north wall. The Town Council promised £200 and it fell to the Town Clerk, William Hunt, to come up with the rest of the money (the total estimated cost was over £600). By the end of the year, money was tight and it looked as though building work might have to be suspended. There was certainly not enough money to put aside for interior decoration, or provide a statue for the ornamental niche.
In those days, money for public projects like this one was often raised by inviting people to ‘subscribe’, or donate, to a project. William Hunt had already written to many wealthy friends and townspeople to ask for their help towards the Town Hall. Meanwhile, Hunt’s friend and fellow lawyer, Francis Wheler was in London on business. While he was there he arranged for a mutual friend, the poet George Keate, to approach David Garrick with a request from the Town Council of Stratford-upon-Avon. Garrick was the most famous actor of his day, and manager of the Drury Lane Theatre in London. He had made his name playing Shakespearean roles on stage and he was a great champion of Shakespeare’s. He had even had a temple in honour of Shakespeare built in the gardens of his home on the banks of the Thames.
In order to flatter Garrick into contributing to the Town Hall, the Council proposed to make him an honorary Burgess of Stratford. They would, they said, present him with the Freedom of the Borough of Stratford in a special presentation box made of the wood of Shakespeare’s mulberry tree. All Garrick had to do in return would be to present a statue or picture of Shakespeare to decorate the Town Hall, as well as a portrait of himself so that the memory of the two men could be ‘perpetuated together in that place which gave him birth and where he still lives in the mind of every inhabitant’ .
Garrick was only too delighted to oblige and throughout 1768 into the early months of 1769 the special mulberry wood box, statue of Shakespeare and portraits of Shakespeare and Garrick were commissioned.
The mulberry wood box, known as The Garrick Casket, is in the collection of The British Museum. It was made by Thomas Davies in Birmingham. The statue of Shakespeare was commissioned of John Cheere and was a copy of the famous statue of Shakespeare that had been installed at Westminster Abbey in 1741.
Garrick commissioned the artist Benjamin Wilson to produce a portrait of Shakespeare. He asked his friend Thomas Gainsborough to do his own portrait at the expense of the Town Council. Sadly both of these paintings were destroyed in a fire at the Town Hall in 1946. A copy, by Dance, of the Gainsborough portrait of Garrick now hangs in the ballroom there.
On 8th May 1769 the special box was ready and Francis Wheler and George Keate visited Garrick in his London home on Southampton Street to make the formal presentation. Garrick had evidently been putting a lot of thought into the particulars because he announced through The St James’ Chronicle days later that ‘A jubilee in honour and to the memory of Shakespeare will be appointed at Stratford the beginning of September next…’ during which his statue of Shakespeare would be presented to the Town Council. The announcement was seconded by the Town Council’s own piece in the same paper which included Garrick’s official response and soon the Jubilee was being reported in newspapers across the country. This if from The Salisbury Journal 22nd May 1769.
Now that the official announcement had been made, Garrick and the Town Council had only 4 short months to prepare.
Watch this space for more blogs on the events of the summer of 1769 and the Jubilee itself in September.
 Deelman, Christian, The Great Shakespeare Jubilee (London, 1964)