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The Shakespeare Centre

Nearly 100 years after the acquisition of William Shakespeare's Birthplace, the Birthplace Trust decided to build a Shakespeare Centre to house their growing collections.

The Birth of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

Following the acquisition of William Shakespeare’s Henley Street house in 1847, the museum staff initially were housed in that building alone. However, the organisation quickly began to acquire a significant amount of Shakespeare-related books, manuscripts and documentation. In 1891, the trustees were incorporated by an Act of Parliament, thereafter becoming known as the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. By 1903, the collections had grown too big to be stored in the house itself. The Trust moved into a house adjoining the site, but that too was quickly filled. Despite this house being extended twice, by the 1950s the Trust realised it needed a purpose built property to house its ever-growing collections.

Architects T. Spender Wood and Laurence Williams were brought in to plan the new building. The Director of the Trust at the time (Levi Fox) and Williams collaborated on the design. The emphasis was on simplicity, dignity, and practicality. Provisions also were made for the expansion of the collections and the extension of the building if needed in the future. Right from the initial plans, a modern design was favoured. Not all the trustees were in agreement, with some favouring neo-Georgian designs. It was concluded that the building would be judged as 'a product of its time' so it should reflect contemporary tastes. The architectural designs were referred to the Royal Fine Art Society for recommendations, and after some minor alterations, approved in 1959.

Scott Jones Shakespeare Centre is on the left, with the Birthplace on the right. Only the end of the centre is shown, brick-built with a fully-glazed upper storey and a sculpture on the wall. The mulberry tree stands between the Centre and the Birthplace.

A Huge Fundraising Effort

Given the significant funds that needed to be raised (the projected sum was £100,000, which rose to £200,000), a huge fundraising campaign was launched. As part of the money-making effort, Laurence Williams designed a temporary pavilion to be erected in the garden of the Birthplace. It housed plans and models of the proposed building. Donors could contribute modest sums (sponsoring a single brick would only cost 2 shillings and 6 pence), while corporate sponsors could pay for component parts. The Nuffield Foundation gave £77,000 to fund the entrance hall and the library facilities, while Stratford’s businesses, schools, societies, and clubs raised £25,000 to equip the Stratford Room.

In June 1961, Princess Alexandra of Kent laid the foundation stone, and demolition of the existing building began in December that year. The main structure of the Centre was completed by 1963 and officially opened on the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's birth, a year later. The initial plans for the opening ceremony included both Her Majesty the Queen and First Lady, Jaqueline Kennedy. However, the assassination of President Kennedy in late 1963 meant that the former First Lady was no longer attending public engagements. Around the same time, the royal household announced that the Queen would be giving birth to her fourth child in March 1964, making her unavailable for the ceremony. 

Nevertheless, the opening of the Shakespeare Centre went ahead on 23 April 1964, and the Trust had the privilege of welcoming as its honoured guest, His Royal Highness, Prince Phillip.  

HRH Prince Philip and Levi Fox are looking at an exhibition case on the right, which contains wraith-like figures of Shakespearean characters.
HRH Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, and Levi Fox, at the official opening of the Shakespeare Centre in 1964.

The New Centre

The finished Shakespeare Centre was a multi-functional building to be used as a study centre, public exhibition space, and offices for the Trust’s staff. It included a library, archive, and reading room. The ground under the Shakespeare Centre and surrounding areas was excavated, then built into safe rooms and climate controlled storage areas for the expanding collections.

This new centre not only allowed for the expansion of the administrative aspects of the Trust, but would also become a centre for Shakespeare studies. The Trust's learning department began as a few members of staff giving small student lectures and introductory talks for visitors. It has now grown significantly, delivering world-class bespoke residential programmes for international universities, schools, and leisure learners, as well as a rich suite of sessions for primary and secondary school pupils.

Contemporary artworks were commissioned for the Shakespeare Centre, including a relief and sculpture of Shakespeare by Douglas Wain-Hobson, glass panels that had been etched with life-sized figures by John Hutton, carved timber-work by Nicolete Gray, and John Skelton, and furniture by Gordon Russell.

In the 1980s, the building was extended to the north-west. The new building works incorporated a second reading room and additional office spaces. In 2010 the Shakespeare Centre became a Grade II listed building.  

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