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Recreating New Place: Behind-the-Scenes

Recent changes to our New Place house model have been spearheaded by period interpreter Phil Watson, the designer of the new vinyl adhesives that have been added.

Rio Turnbull

Recent visitors to Shakespeare's New Place might have noticed that our house exhibit has undergone some upgrades. Where once we had a blank, internally-lit house model, we now have added vinyl decals that cover the outer walls. These new adhesives have been designed to depict what Shakespeare's adult home might have looked like from both the inside and the outside.

In light of these changes, Mary Way and I interviewed Phil Watson, who was the Principal Designer in this undertaking. He was able to shed some light on what instigated this project, what went into the process of these designs, and what his takeaways were from the endeavour.

New Place Model Exhibit
Shakespeare's New Place House Model with Vinyl Adhesives

Phil Watson is a Period Interpreter at New Place, but his background happens to be in Design - which, he says, "probably explains how I became involved in the illustrations that populate Finding New Place: An Archaeological Biography." This book, written by people such as our very own Paul Edmondson, "...explores the archaeology of New Place, and puts flesh on the bones and helps us understand what the house looked like and how it functioned."

Due to the fact that the actual house of Shakespeare's New Place no longer exists, the model in our exhibit was created in order to help our visitors get a better understanding of what Shakespeare's adult home might have been like. "The problem," Phil says, "was that visitors craved to see interior detail, so while they can more or less understand the exterior, they want to know how it functioned and how it was carved up."

Surely something like this - where there can only be so much we can know about the inner workings of a building that no longer exists - takes a lot of contemplation and imagination. We asked Phil about his creative process in his designs, and he talked to us about consulting the experts, making various artistic decisions, and how to contribute to the visitors' learning experience.

Watch the video below to hear Phil Watson describe the start of his approach to creating a visual representation of the interior design of Shakespeare's New Place.

In this second part, Phil Watson delves into the new vinyl adhesives to the Shakespeare's New Place house model and the decision to keep them in grey-scale.

In our next video, Phil Watson elaborates on a specific graphic design process he used in the vinyl adhesives of the Shakespeare's New Place house model.

In our final video excerpt, Phil Watson details the step-by-step process of creating the visual adhesives for the house model at Shakespeare's New Place, and highlights some of its specific visual features.

Read the rest of our interview below!

WAY: What kind of research did you have to do for this project?

WATSON: So just as we do in the original illustrations for Finding New Place, your first port of call is comparative architecture. This is where one of our experts, Tara Hamling, was absolutely vital to the operation. Tara’s specialism is to understand the lifestyle of the middling sort. And she became part of the project at about the second design stage, when we were really getting down to saying, “How were these rooms populated with furniture?”; “What kind of furniture?” But this is where an interesting dynamic came in, because she was able to explain to us not just the look of these spaces but how they’re actually used by the occupants, and that dictates the layout of the rooms. So for example, a typical parlour would have not just furniture you would associate with a sitting room in modern terms, but also, most likely, a bed. So when you look at a building like this, you have to forget your modern perception about how rooms are defined and about how they are used.

A reconstruction of Shakespeare's New Place - timber frame with wattle and daub at the front, timber frame with brick at the side and for the hall at the back parallel to the front. Four pairs of tall chimneys, and five gables on the three-storey front.
A sketch of Shakespeare's New Place in "Finding New Place: An Archaeological Biography"

Are there any exciting new discoveries you found while doing this?

Very much so. The way the interior is used, as I mentioned, pointed us to the fact that we didn’t appear to have a viable access to the long gallery on the first floor of the gatehouse or street range. Now one of the things we do know for sure is that New Place, during Shakespeare’s tenure, had a long gallery installed - not from the archaeology, of course, that doesn’t tell us that - but from the fact that we have an eyewitness account from George Vertue’s visit in the early 18th century, when he spoke to an elderly gentleman named Shakespeare Hart. Now, obviously he has family connections, and his great- great-uncle was none other than William Shakespeare. He had remembered New Place as a boy. He’d been inside it, and he gave us snippets of information that told us there was a long gallery.

Coming up to date, how do we access the long gallery? One of the discoveries we made was that most likely: a left turn from the entrance from Chapel Lane - which is in one of the accounts of a way to get into New Place - would take us to a room that would need a staircase. A staircase in that area had never before been considered. With Tara’s expertise, it seemed the most likely explanation, and it would be a high-status staircase, so… bordering on Jacobean, because, of course, the developments of New Place would have rolled well into the 1600s. That changed our perception of the front quadrant of the building. So, instead of a ground floor which is entirely given over to servants, on the right-hand side of the gate, you would have a high status part of the building, and on the left-hand side, a shared servants’ area. Again, Tara’s input taught us that servants wouldn’t have a salubrious area with separate rooms. Most likely a shared space, and they would be sharing that space with baskets of kindling, sacks of malted barley, brooms, herbs, and hams hanging from the rafters - so, fairly squallid existence, considering it's such a grand house. That makes a lot more sense in terms of the layout of the building. So that’s the most notable change from our current perception in doing this project.

new place peep holes
A peek into one of the many peep-holes on the New Place house model

What was your favourite part about working on this project?

My favourite part about working on this project is actually two-fold, because first of all, it has to be said there are probably better artists out in the world. I guess my USP [Unique Selling Point] is I have a very three-dimensional brain, and I enjoy bringing to life two-dimensional subjects and taking information in and making it flesh, turning it into a building. On my bucket list is to build a complete scale model of New Place, interior and exterior - I’d love to do that. But this part of the process, actually making it appear real, making it three-dimensional is very exciting.

The second thing I enjoy most is the opportunity I have to speak to the experts in this field, which, of course, builds my own knowledge and understanding. I’ve been extremely fortunate from the outset, because I’m working with Paul Edmondson on Finding New Place: An Archaeological Biography, which was what really started all this. I was working with Will Mitchell, the archaeologist from Staffordshire University; two timber framed experts - so Nick Molyneux, who I believe is Principal Buildings Inspector of English Heritage, and Nat Alcock, of Warwick University - but in doing this project, the part that was missing was how the interiors work, and this is where Tara Hamling of the University of Birmingham input absolutely vital information, and this has been quite an interesting journey: so she’s able to not just tell me which are the correct items of furniture - the soft furnishings, the dressings - but also how people used them. And we also, of course, have on the team Nic Fulcher, who, apart from being our Projects Manager, has expertise in Tudor attire - so between Tara and Nic, we have, if you like, that missing element that, before, we didn’t have access to.

So that is incredibly exciting for me, because it’s helping build my knowledge and understanding, and it’s really putting flesh on the bones. You really could not have a better and more informed group of people at this stage of the project.

new place house model first floor plans
Sketch designs for the first floor plans (Credit: Phil Watson)

What challenges did you face while working on this project?

Among the challenges I faced working on this project were to overlay this visual story - which is, if you like, architecturally quite accurate - onto a shape which is quite stylised. Now the model’s highly stylised, so it was designed originally as an interior space, if you like - a void of air, should we say. So the illustrations on the outside have to take [into] account that, when you look at the side of a timber-frame building, you cannot see the uppermost wall plate in the timber frame, because it’s hidden under the eaves. So rather than creating flat surfaces for each wall and illustrating it as though I were building a doll’s house, I have to take account of the fact that part of the upper frame is hidden by the overlapping roof, so the illustration has to work in that context.

And similarly, there are lots of protrusions on the outside of a building like this. In the gatehouse, the upper floor of the roof section is jetted out with decorative brackets. That obviously protrudes further than the footprints of this three-dimensional model. The way we get around that is to actually shrink the graphics within the perimeter of the models. And that’s not a bad thing, because it pulls the vinyl back from the edge of the model, and wear and tear - and, should we say, inquisitive fingers picking at the edge of the vinyl - stand less of a chance of damaging it. So allowing the corners to remain without vinyl on them makes the whole project more long-lasting. (cont. below)

shakespeare's new place house model
Shakespeare's New Place house model

Other challenges included actually scaling it up to the correct dimension, because, while the model is broadly correct, again, it is stylised, so dimensionally, there were quite a few calls that had to be made. One of the things I keep referring back to is, from my work with Will Mitchell originally, where we put dimensions against the ground plan and then projected them vertically to get the height of the buildings, I’ll take the average height of a Tudor man - so one of our illustrations (and they weren’t much shorter than us, 5’ 9”ish), and I will move, on the screen, in Photoshop, one of these characters - I’ve got a rather nice William Shakespeare, who’s a good model - and I’ll place him in the room settings, and kind of step back and squint at them and look at it say, “Does that make sense? Is that window the right height against a sitting person? Would he get through that door? Is that lit in the right place? Would that step work where it is?” So this goes on in the background the whole time I’m creating the artwork to make sure it’s credible, so when our visitors look at it, it doesn’t jar - it looks as though it would work.

New Place blue print sketch
Sketch designs for the Gatehouse West Face (Credit: Phil Watson)

Can you talk about the difficulties of creating a ‘purist drawing’? Trying to create a drawing that wasn’t stagnant, about wanting to create something that was factual but it without making it the ‘end all, be all’.

One of the things to consider is that while we’re making this as accurate as we can, we have to bear in mind that there’s a big slice of conjecture, so even though we depict things realistically, we have to consider that there should be a degree of flexibility in that. If somebody came along hence thirty years and found some new information that changed our perception of where a doorway was or how parts of the building was used - a good example: the five gables on the front of New Place. That was a typical upgrade that took place in the 1590s, and one of the houses that we used as a reference for drawing New Place initially is the house along Itchington of a similar period that had five gables and a small extension added to the front later in its life. Now, it’s entirely possible that somebody could come along 30 years hence and say, “Actually, New Place was built with five gables from the outset.” So we always have to caveat what we do with this flexibility, this conjecture, if you like. But at the same time, it needs to work, so if we’re saying, “Yes, that is where a doorway would be,” structurally, it has to function. When I’m illustrating, I have a physical plan - a sketch plan - but I also walk around it in my head to try and understand what the volume of those rooms would like.

It’s a challenge, but it’s an enjoyable one.

shakespeare's new place house model
Shakespeare's New Place house model

Our house model can be viewed at Shakespeare's New Place. Book now to get your tickets!