When you visit Shakespeare’s Birthplace today, you will see staff working extremely hard to keep visitors from leaving graffiti anywhere near the walls of the property. But this was not always the case. Today, visitors can still see the Birthroom Window on display upstairs in the Birthplace, proudly showing where visitors used to inscribe their names into the glass with their diamond rings. But did you know the entire Birthroom used to be covered in graffiti too?
One of the best bits of my job is working with our archival image collection, and I never get tired of seeing pictures of how the Birthplace has looked over the years and what collections items have been on display where. When I first saw the photos of the Birthroom I was startled to see the walls inscribed with layer upon layer of graffiti – it is just not the done thing today! Take a look at some of the archival images of the Birthroom.
Visitors diaries form the 18th and 19th centuries are full of anecdotes about leaving their mark or cutting off bits of the furniture – or even the building! – to take away as souvenirs, and indeed some of these “souvenirs” have made it back into our collection. To us it seems deplorable to vandalise historically important sites and monuments, but in the past it was seen as a mark of pilgrimage or veneration rather than vandalism. The whitewashing of the wall’s of Shakespeare’s Birthplace remind me very much of the recent project to restore Oscar Wilde’s tomb, expunging 20 years worth of kisses left by pilgrims and the backlash that has caused.
I have always wondered if those responsible for white washing the walls had thought to take note of any of the names or even to have documented the graffiti through photographs. Shakespeare’s Birthplace has long been a site of literary tourism before the SBT acquired it in 1847 – our earliest visitors' book dates from 1812 – and the walls were a visitors book in themselves, as the walls were not only marked with people’s names but with poems and dedications, often written on paper and stuck to the walls. A number of these notes still survive in our archive.
I found my answer last month when I came upon a box of 43 images of just that – a series of documentary photos of the Birthroom graffiti. After a bit of digging, letters in our archive tell me that these were taken in 1900/1901 by a local photographer L.C. Keighly Peach at the request of Richard Savage, who was librarian at the Trust in 1884-1910. I had assumed that these were taken in preparation for the white washing of the walls, but this appears to have either been ineffective or not to have gone ahead at all, as reports of this graffiti continues well into the 20th Century. I intend to dig a bit further into the archives to find out more about the timeline. In the 1930s a guidebooks stated that “the rooms should be as Shakespeare saw it, not with its walls scrawled on by every loon and lout who comes this way”. Over time the heartfelt 19th century passages and poems seem to have been overwritten by some bawdy, vulgar comments. According to Levi Fox in his memoirs about his time as Directors of the Trust, the “courageous decision on the part of the Trustees to obliterate this unique evidence of international homage to Shakespeare” came in 1947, and a second complete photographic record was made at this time, and that it was “necessary on aesthetic and hygienic grounds”.
This removal of the graffiti brings to mind John Shakespeare’s whitewashing of the murals in the Guild Chapel! And it certainly opens up a lot of questions about preservation and presentation of historic sites. Would we have done the same thing today? We will never know. But in the meantime I am enjoying making myself cross-eyed trying to identify some of the names on the walls.