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Watercolour of Robert Stephens as Falstaff

This painting holds not only cultural meaning, but also personal meaning as it embodies Shakespeare's ability to portray human nature in all its colours.

Catherine Simpson
Robert Stephens as Falstaff by Arthur Keene
Robert Stephens as Falstaff by Arthur Keene

This week’s painting Shakespeare is looking at this watercolour and pen and ink painting of Robert Stephens as Falstaff in the RSC’s 1991 production of Henry IV, parts 1 and 2. It is by the distinguished artist Arthur Keene and is one of a number of portraits produced by Arthur which are held at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, one of which is a self-portrait.

Arthur Keene was born in 1930. After leaving school he went to Coventry Art School before serving in the army, during which time he produced several portraits of officers.  Following service, he studied at Birmingham Art College and also spent four months in Rome where he focused on portraiture and architecture.

Arthur first worked in advertising and then later for the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust as a chief guide at  Hall’s Croft during which period he continued to produce portraits and other paintings, mainly watercolours, in his spare time. On leaving the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in 1989 he became a full-time freelance artist; this was when he produced this watercolour of Stephens as Falstaff.

I was struck by the way the watercolour shows not just one depiction of Stephens as Falstaff but three and had to ask myself why the painting was produced and why the artist chose to depict  the character in three poses and not just one.

Part of the answer to this may lie in the fact that the play itself was notable and received much attention at the time. It was the first production of Henry IV to appear at the RSC in over ten years and was directed by Adrian Noble who had just taken over as Artistic Director at the RSC.  Added to this was the inclusion of Robert Stephens as Falstaff.  Stephens was a renowned actor with a long career in theatre, film and television, yet despite all this he had not appeared at the RSC in Stratford before. Therefore, the production was keenly anticipated and in the end one that was critically acclaimed, with Stephens performance of Falstaff be singled out for much praise.

I was struck by how each sketch appears to show a different side to the character of Falstaff. Falstaff is often perceived as a drunken almost comical character but in this watercolour we see many different sides to his character.

The contrast between the full length sketch— where Falstaff is depicted as a jolly, almost Father Christmas like character complete with fluffy white beard and rounded stomach — and the close up on the head and shoulders is sharp. In the latter, Falstaff has an intense, serious look on his face. Gone is the jolly buffoon of the former sketch and in its place is a thoughtful man.

In my mind, Keene and Stephens together have managed to represent the multiple personalities of the character of Falstaff which is probably far closer to what Shakespeare intended when he wrote the character then many of our modern day interpretations. As a result it reveals Shakespeare’s remarkable ability to capture human nature in all its colours.