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Shakespeare in Spain: the Chesterfield Portrait on Loan

Our Museum Collections Officer travelled to Spain to oversee the loan of one of our portraits of Shakespeare to the Cervantes Birthplace Museum.

Jessie Petheram

The Chesterfield Portrait of Shakespeare (SBT 1967-3) has just returned to the Shakespeare Centre after a couple of months on loan to the Cervantes Birthplace Museum in Alcalá de Henares, Spain. It arrived safely back in Stratford on the 10th May and will shortly be returning to its usual place, proudly overlooking our Conference Room.

The loan was organised as part of the Museum’s own anniversary celebrations for the death of Miguel de Cervantes (author of Don Quixote), who, it is claimed, died almost on the same day as our own Shakespeare (although accounting for differences in calendars undermines this claim somewhat). Cervantes was born in Alcalá, and the Birthplace Museum takes a very similar approach to interpretation to the SBT’s in the houses, using recreated period rooms full of some very lovely early modern furniture and tableware.

Installation of Chesterfield
The Chesterfield being hung by the art handlers

I travelled to Spain to oversee both the installation and de-installation of the painting - one of the more glamorous parts of my job, although still hard work. The experience was made somewhat daunting by the fact I don’t speak any Spanish and once I got to Alcalá, it turned out most of my Spanish colleagues didn’t speak much English. Having seen the painting off from Stratford, my job in the installation in Spain was to make sure the painting was unpacked properly, to condition check it, and to give guidance on the hanging and confirmation that I was happy. When the Chesterfield came off the wall at the end of the display period, I had to condition check it once again and see it get packed back safely and securely into its crate for the drive across Spain, France and England. Despite not sharing a vocabulary for the task at hand (the Spanish for ‘relative humidity’, anyone?), things went very smoothly in both instances - the Chesterfield looked particularly impressive under good lighting and in a new space.

Alcalá is a small city just outside Madrid and its historic centre is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This is partly due to its medieval university buildings, cathedral and Archbishop's palace, where Catherine of Aragon was born and Christopher Columbus planned his voyage to the Americas. Once I had overseen the work at the museum, it was an absolutely beautiful and fascinating place to spend the day wandering around. The weather was also considerably sunnier and warmer than Stratford! The city is famous as well for its white storks, which can be seen all over the place, nesting on the high towers and spires of Alcalá’s many churches and made a curious alternative to Stratford’s population of swans and geese.

Alcala 1
Evening in the old town of Alcalá de Henares
Alcala 2
Hospital de Antezana, next to the Cervantes Birthplace

The warmth, kindness and generosity of everyone at the Cervantes Birthplace Museum was something that superseded any language barrier, and the enthusiasm with which they welcomed the Chesterfield portrait was a joy to experience. They also have a wide collection of books, prints and artworks and the curator, Eva, was kind enough to show me the first English translation of Don Quixote, published in 1620, which was a real highlight of the trip.

Chesterfield in Alcala
The Chesterfield Portrait in position at the Cervantes Birthplace Museum

A huge amount of credit must go as well to Jennifer Reid, Collections Development Officer, who did all the hard graft of managing the loan, chasing paperwork, organising conservation and so much more, ensuring that everything ran smoothly both here and in Spain. Loans are a really important part of our work, because they mean even more people can access the items we look after and it also helps us build strong relationships with other museums. Over 31,000 visitors saw the Chesterfield while it was on display in the Cervantes Birthplace Museum, an audience we might never have reached otherwise. The best thing about working with our collections is seeing people take pleasure in them; whether that is in Stratford-upon-Avon or further afield, it never stops being rewarding.

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