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The Mystery Women in the Museum Collection

Collections Care Assistant Amy Davies takes a close look at some of the portraits of unknown women in the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust's museum collection

Amy Davies

The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust holds in its collection over 150 paintings. Many of these are portraits; of Shakespeare himself, his contemporaries, and significant individuals in Stratford’s history. The majority are men whose identities are well-established, but the identity of many of the female sitters remains a mystery. What makes it all the more interesting is that hundreds of years ago portraits were expensive to commission and therefore they were a luxury only afforded to the wealthy. With wealth comes prominence and status, which makes it even more fascinating that these women’s identities have been lost to time. Unfortunately we may never be able to identify them, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not worth examining their portraits to try and find some hint of who they were and what they were like.

The first portrait dates from the 1700s but has been associated with a woman from the 1500s. She is wearing a white silk dress, white cap and has a white rose pinned to her dress. Although she is wearing a cap this doesn’t necessarily mean that she is a married woman or a spinster. In the 1700s caps were fashionable accessories that were worn by women (and indeed young girls) of every rank. The association between caps and mature women came about a bit later in the 1800s. The colour white has for a long time symbolised innocence and purity, so again this could symbolise that young woman is unmarried.

Portrait of an unknown woman in a white dress and cap. She has brown hair and wears a white rose over her right breast.
Unknown woman (STRST : SBT 1993-31/249e)

It has been suggested that the subject of the painting could be Charlotte Clopton who supposedly lived in Stratford-upon-Avon in Shakespeare’s lifetime, but the style of the portrait and the clothes of the sitter make this extremely unlikely. No documentary evidence surrounding Charlotte Clopton is known to exist, but there is a legend about her that was frequently mentioned in 19th century written sources. The story goes that Charlotte died during an epidemic of the plague or sweating-sickness and was quickly interred in the family tomb. When another family member died of the same disease soon after, the body was taken to the same tomb. There the body of Charlotte was discovered not where it had been left, but leaning against the wall. Now indeed dead, she had taken a bite out of her own shoulder presumably out of despair and hunger.

This story became popular during the Victorian period so we should probably take it with a pinch of salt and perhaps regard it as a bit of Victorian sensationalism. The Victorians had a morbid fascination with death and many other popular gothic stories of the day featured themes of resurrection. Coincidentally Charlotte’s story isn’t too dissimilar to the final scenes of Romeo and Juliet where Juliet awakens in the crypt as the sleeping draught she has taken to fake her death wears off. A description of Charlotte’s story in a paper from 1868 even remarks that “it is singular that such a Capulet tomb should have actually been in the church of Stratford-upon-Avon.”

The second portrait dates from around 1720 and depicts an Italian noblewoman. It was once thought that the woman was Eva Maria Garrick, who was the wife of the famous Shakespearean actor David Garrick. The woman is wearing very colourful and lavish clothes and has a little white dog on her lap. She is obviously very wealthy: she has pearls in her hair, a bracelet with precious stones and her clothes are of the most luxurious fabrics with bright colours and patterns and delicate lace.

Dogs are fairly common in portraits throughout history. Quite often they represent the sitter’s real-life pet, but they can also be symbolic and were added to paintings to represent fidelity, faith and loyalty. Dogs were also fashion accessories. Small “toy” breeds had no purpose other than that of a pet, so only the truly wealthy would be able to afford such a frivolity. Although this depiction of a dog doesn’t look terribly realistic, it could be an Italian greyhound. This breed was popular among royalty and nobility across Europe, and although they were bred as sighthounds, they were more commonly used as companion dogs. The dog looks up at its owner thereby showing its loyalty to her. It even has a fashionable collar with possibly silver embellishments and a pretty pink ribbon as a leash. Its ears have been cropped, a popular practice at the time which was thought to make pet dogs more aesthetically pleasing. The dog is an extension of the woman’s stylish tastes which further elevates her fashionable status.

There are a lot of flowers in the painting: in the vase behind, in the woman’s hair, and on her dress. She has daffodils attached to the front of her dress and also in the vase behind. Also in the vase are tulips, bluebells, a rose and possibly carnations. These flowers do not bloom in the same season so it is interesting to note that the artist decided to create this artistic fantasy, perhaps using the most beautiful and rare flowers to highlight how beautiful and rare the woman also is.

Portrait of an Italian Noblewoman. She is wearing a yellow dress and a powdered wig. There is a small dog on her lap looking up at her face, she holds its leash between the thumb and forefinger of her right hand.
Portrait of an Italian Noblewoman (STRST : SBT 1994-19/229)

The next portrait is painted in a 17th-century style and shows a couple holding hands, perhaps recently married. It has been suggested that the painting dates from the late 19th century or early 20th century, so is perhaps a copy of an earlier painting or a convincing attempt at a portrait in an earlier style. It was once thought that the couple may have been John and Susanna Hall or Thomas and Elizabeth Nash, but there is no provenance to confirm either identification. However, it’s possible that it may have been produced with the intention of being sold as an original portrait of either Shakespeare’s daughter or granddaughter, as Shakespeare “relics” fetched high prices from people wanting their own piece of the Bard. Certainly the artist has succeeded in portraying a young woman of some wealth and respectability like Shakespeare’s daughter/granddaughter would have had, as well as a gentleman with a scholarly air about him (perhaps John Hall the physician). The man appears to be a fair bit older than the woman. There were 8 years between John and Susanna Hall and 14 between Thomas and Elizabeth Nash (with the man being the senior in both cases), so again this strengthens the idea that the portrait may represent one of those couples. However, a different interpretation could be that the couple are in fact father and daughter, in which case their pose could be interpreted as the father presenting his eligible daughter to any would-be suitors. Perhaps it is in fact John Hall with his daughter Elizabeth.

The couple have an air of gentility about them and they clearly have some wealth as is shown by the pearl jewellery, silks and expensive black dyes. Compared to some portraits of the time there are significantly fewer embellishments; there are no ruffs, lace, feathers, jewels or vibrant fabrics. If the portrait is indeed a copy of an original 17th-century painting, their relatively sober appearance could be explained by the couple’s motivation for wanting the portrait commissioned. Many of their contemporaries would have wanted to convey a sense of nobility, power and wealth with their portraits. Perhaps the couple simply wanted a portrait that expressed their devotion to each other. If instead it features a man with his daughter, perhaps it was intended to portray their strong familial bond or as a way for him to present his daughter as an eligible young woman.

Portrait of a young couple holding hands.
Portrait of a young couple (STRST : SBT 1993-31/335)

The final portrait dates from around 1616 and depicts a woman who luckily we can identify: Joyce Clopton. The painting was acquired by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in 1930 at a sale at Clopton House near Stratford-upon-Avon. This was the house in which Joyce lived with her husband George Carew. Carew was a prominent figure who served under Elizabeth I, James I and Charles I. He was a soldier and statesman and was appointed President of Munster after his success in the Tudor conquest of Ireland. He was also made Earl of Totnes in 1626 and was the first High Steward of Stratford-upon-Avon. Carew married Joyce Clopton in 1580. She was a member of the renowned Clopton family of Stratford-upon-Avon. They are both buried in the Clopton Chantry Chapel of the Church of the Holy Trinity in Stratford-upon-Avon.

Although we know a lot about her husband we don’t know much about Joyce herself. We know that she would have been about 48 when the portrait was painted. The portrait reveals to us just how wealthy Joyce was and how she wanted anyone who viewed the painting to know this. She is wearing clothes that were the height of fashion at the time: a ruff around the neck, a large pearl earring, her dark dress is heavily embroidered with silver thread and has lace around the neckline and cuffs, a necklace with silver and red stones. Her dress is slashed which allows the lining to be pulled through thereby showing off another expensive fabric. One of the most notable aspects of the painting is Joyce’s cleavage, but again this aligns with fashions of the time. Low necklines were popular and they accentuated the woman’s pale skin. Pale skin meant you were rich because you didn’t have to work outside in the sun. Ruffs worked in a similar way because they revealed how little work the wearer did: it would be hard to get much done with that around your neck!

A portrait of Joyce Clopton. She wears a ruff, a black dress, and her hair has been combed back.
Portrait of Joyce Clopton (STRST : SBT 1993-31/302)

With portraits such as these we may never know the true identities of the sitter or what they were truly like, but the mystery makes them even more fascinating. These women had lives and yet only left behind elusive glimpses of who they were for us to guess at. It is possible that one day discoveries will be made which unearth their true identities, but until then we will just have to make do with our imaginations.

To explore more of the portraits in our collection visit