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Shakespeare in 100 Objects: A ‘Fine Picture’

Object 100 - The final post in our journey through some of the Trust’s collection of Tudor and Stuart artefacts

Tara Hamling

There has been a long pause since our last post in this 100 Objects series. This is because we’ve been busy creating a print publication – Shakespeare and the Stuff of Life: Treasures from the Shakespeare Birthplace TrustIf you have enjoyed our ‘100 Objects’ series then do check out this book, which features a different range of objects, with beautiful new photography, set within a narrative based on the ‘Ages of Man’ theme from As You Like It.

Shakespeare and the Stuff of Life

But here, at long last, is the final post completing this journey through some of the Trust’s collection of Tudor and Stuart artefacts. This post is by Dr Tara Hamling of the History Department at the University of Birmingham.

Object 100: A ‘Fine Picture’

Judith and Holofernes

Several posts in this series have shown that religious imagery remained popular in the decoration of houses long after the reformation (see post number 12 about a cushion cover, and post number 15 about a painted cloth). The establishment of Protestantism as the official religion required the stripping of icons from churches, as discussed in the previous post, but there was wide agreement that stories from the Bible could be depicted in other places, provided they were not used for worship.[1] Indeed, people were encouraged to draw parallels between biblical stories and their own circumstances. In his Defence of Poesy, published posthumously in 1595, Sir Philip Sidney compared the art of poetry with the painter “that should give to the eye either some excellent perspective, or fine picture fit for building…or containing in it some notable example as Abraham sacrificing his son Isaac, Judith killing Holofernes, David fighting with Goliath”. Sidney uses these three biblical stories to argue that “figuring forth good things” could be beneficial: “it is a good reason, that whatsoever, being abused, doth most harm, being rightly used…doth most good”.[2] In other words, Sidney accepts that pictures could be harmful if abused (by worship) but could also do good if used correctly to edify and inspire.

This small picture in the collection of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust represents the type of ‘fine picture’ Sidney probably had in mind. It is just 41 cm x 29 cm (about the size of a tea tray) and dates to around 1575. The style, known as Anglo-Netherlandish, reflects the influence of art and artisans from the Low Countries in England. It depicts the beheading of Holofernes by Judith, from the Book of Judith. Holofernes, an Assyrian general, was leading an assault on the city of Bethulia. Judith, a beautiful widow from Bethulia, went into the Assyrian camp the night before the attack and seduced Holofernes, plying him with drink until he passed out. Judith then cut off his head. The painting shows Judith at the centre, about to drop the head into a bag held open by her maidservant. To the left is the decapitated body of Holofernes, still gushing blood, in his lavish green tent. The background in the far right of the painting shows the Assyrian encampment and, in the distance, the city of Bethulia.

In defeating the leader of the Assyrian army, Judith saved her city. It was an improbable victory by a supposedly ‘weak’ woman. She was therefore celebrated as a righteous heroine, an example of how God’s favour could secure victory over vice. This meaning made the story of Judith and Holofernes popular across the visual arts of early modern Europe; examples survive in wall painting, textiles and furniture (Judith holding the head of Holofernes features in one of the carved panels of the oak chest discussed in post no.16). The picture treats the subject in detail, inviting the viewer to study the painting up close to appreciate the quality and embellishment of the textiles and other objects, such as Judith’s jewellery and the lamp hanging from the tent.

Oak chest
SBT 1993-31/268. A late 16th-century oak chest; French, c.1575. Dimensions: 750mm (H) x 1110mm (W) x 555mm (D)

Though very few examples have survived, pictures are often recorded in probate inventories of people’s possessions in Shakespeare’s England. One such inventory is of particular interest because it concerns the house on Henley Street owned by Shakespeare - the Birthplace. After the death of his father, William inherited his childhood home and leased it out to Lewis Hiccox, a farmer and inn keeper. When Hiccox died in 1627 an inventory recorded his furniture and furnishings. This tells is that Hiccox’s parlour contained a joined bedstead with a truckle bedstead, table and joined chest with three crafted wooden chairs, eight stools and eight cushions, so could accommodate gatherings of company. This room was also adorned with ‘two pictures’.[3] The subject matter of these pictures is not recorded, but they might well have depicted this type of religious theme.

I have suggested elsewhere that a plasterwork panel with a scene of David and Goliath, apparently dated 1606, was created for Lewis Hiccox to adorn his parlour. While the Birthplace has lost its original decoration and furnishings, it is possible to imagine visitors to the property in Shakespeare’s time looking from picture to plasterwork and commenting on the heroic behaviour of Old Testament figures such as David and Judith. Such stories had great visual impact and provided particularly vivid examples of God’s will acting through his chosen people – a message that must have chimed with the patriotic side of English Protestant identity. This picture reflects the kind of imagery and stories Shakespeare would have seen in the houses of his fellow townsmen and, quite probably, also adorned the walls of his own home at New Place.[4]

[1] Tara Hamling, Decorating the Godly Household: Religious Art in Post-Reformation Britain (Yale University Press, 2010).

[2] Philip Sidney, The defense of poesy: otherwise known as An apology for poetry, edited with introduction and notes by Albert S. Cook (1890), p.38.

[3] Jeanne Jones, Stratford-upon-Avon Inventories, 1538-1699, no. 178.

[4] This post features material discussed in more detail and in the context of a wider study of the visual narratives favoured by the middling sort of early modern England; Tara Hamling and Catherine Richardson, A Day at Home in Early Modern England: the materiality of domestic life 1560-1650 (forthcoming, 2017). On the likely decor of Shakespeare’s New Place see Tara Hamling, ‘His ‘cousin’ Thomas Greene’ in Paul Edmondson and Stanley Wells (eds), The Shakespeare Circle (Cambridge, 2015).