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John Hutton's Etched Windows in the Shakespeare Centre

The windows in the Marble Hall of the Shakespeare Centre were etched by artist John Hutton, and they are a marvellous exploration of Shakespeare's ability to create complex emotional figures.

Sheila McVey
John Hutton's Etched Windows in the Shakespeare Centre

This week sees the launch of the beautiful new cafe in the Shakespeare Centre, the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust’s headquarters on Henley Street. On this special occasion, I am blogging to highlight the glass etchings by John Hutton on the windows in the Stone Hall (now the cafe). The etchings show 19 of Shakespeare’s most recognisable characters from his various plays.

The artist, John Hutton, was born in New Zealand in 1906 and immigrated to England in 1935. He caught the eye of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust after completing the Great West Screen (also known as the ‘Screen of Saints and Angels’) in nearby Coventry Cathedral in 1962.

His work can also be found in Guildford Cathedral, Canada’s National Library and Archive in Ottawa, the Civic Centres in Newcastle upon Tyne and Plymouth (UK),  Dallas and New Jersey.

To coincide with the 400th birthday of William Shakespeare, a new Shakespeare Centre was opened next to the Birthplace in 1964. John Hutton’s etchings were commissioned to adorn its reception hall.

HRH Prince Philip and Levi Fox are looking at an exhibition case on the right, which contains wraith-like figures of Shakespearean characters.
HRH Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, and Levi Fox, former Director of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, at the official opening of the Shakespeare Centre in 1964.

The original commission from the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust was for Hutton to create actors’ portraits, but the artist insisted that his medium was not suited to portraiture. The project brief was then altered to Shakespeare’s characters.

Hutton selected the 19 characters based on two main criteria:

  • the character is instantly recognisable to any viewer (read: non-scholars)
  • the character can stand alone without any background detail or overwrought attention to costume

He wanted the characters to be accessible and focussed on showing their emotions in some of the most dramatic and psychological moments in the plays. As a result, the hall is filled with illustrations that reveal Shakespeare’s extraordinary ability to capture human nature.

One of the etchings is taken from the play Othello. The subject is Desdemona, and she is pictured in anguish as Othello grips her arm and confronts her with the handkerchief, making his deadly accusation about her infidelity.

The following passage inspired Hutton for this piece:

OTHELLO: Swear thou art honest.

DESDEMONA: Heaven doth truly know it.

OTHELLO: Heaven truly knows that thou art

                                                                      false as hell.

                                                  Othello, IV . ii.

I am struck by the way each character comes to life through Hutton’s etchings and how the sketched, ghost-like figures capture the intensity and intangibility of a reader’s imagination.

Macbeth and Lady Macbeth windows overlooking the Birthplace (along with Richard III and Antony & Cleopatra)
Macbeth and Lady Macbeth windows overlooking the Birthplace (along with Richard III and Antony & Cleopatra)

My favourite of Hutton’s creations are Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, because the moments that the artist chose for them play with this idea of imagination. Macbeth hallucinates that there is a dagger in his hand, and Lady Macbeth smells the figurative blood on her hands.

These windows also happen to look out on the Birthplace and from some aspects, the characters appear to inhabit the garden. I love how that view merges Shakespeare’s life and work together.

I hope you will come visit the new cafe and enjoy Hutton’s windows for yourself. Leave a comment, and let us know which are your favourite character etchings!