As I have suggested, Wallis’s A Sculptor’s Worship, which he painted between his two major RA successes, has remained a largely unexplored work (Hickox). However, Simon Stirling in his recent bookWho murdered William Shakespeare?, makes a number of interesting suggestions regarding the picture. I shall examine his theories and offer possible alternative explanations (Stirling).
A Sculptor's Workshop, Stratford-upon-Avon — 1617. Henry Wallis. Exhibited Royal Academy 1857. Oil on canvas. Source of image: Wikipedia.
Stirling sees a contrast between Ben Jonson, holding the death mask for the sculptor to copy, and Shakespeare, as central to the picture’s meaning He argues that Jonson is pointing to a small indentation or mark on the death mask matching a similar mark on Shakespeare’s skull which, he claims, was removed by grave robbers in the late eighteenth century. This indicated a blow he had received in his life time which was probably the cause of his death. However there are problems with this theory as applied to the picture not the least being the mark itself is not visible either on the mask or on the bust, neither of which are shown full face Even more crucially there is no indication that anyone in the Pre-Raphaelite circle was aware of this theory at the time.
Nevertheless, the supposed death mask is undoubtedly significant since it relates to the Pre-Raphaelites concern with achieving realism in portraiture. The death mask had been authenticated by Richard Owen of the British Museum who claimed that the bust had been based on it. Therefore Wallis could have supposed it to be a true image of the playwright. An alternative interpretation of Jonson’s action in pointing to the forehead of the death mask might be that it reflects the Pre-Raphaelite interest in phrenology. Although now dismissed as a pseudo science, it was extremely influential in the first half of the nineteenth century not least among writers such as Dickens and George Eliot and was popularised in the work of George Combe . In 1855 Combe published Phrenology as applied to Painting and Sculpture, which offered a guide to artists. Stephanie Grili argues that phrenology, with its belief that the shape of the skull was determined by different capacities within the mind, appealed to the Pre-Raphaelites since it seemed to provide a scientific basis for their search for realism in portraiture. Moreover, typically phrenology involved the use of death masks demonstrating the varieties of human personality, ranging from executed criminals to the highly gifted. It also attracted those with radical political beliefs, and for this reason is likely to have appealed to Wallis.
Millais's Lorenzo and Isabella. Click on image to enlarge it.
Thus one might interpret Jonson’s pointing to the forehead of the death mask as his attempt to indicate the particular source of Shakespeare’s gifts. This may not be unlikely given that the whole picture should be read as a celebration of Shakespeare’s supreme genius. Certainly the bust as shown in the picture displays a full high forehead, the mark of intelligence in phrenological terms, analogous to the high forehead Millais gives Lorenzo in Lorenzo and Isabella (1849) to denote his nobility of character.
Stirling makes an ingenious suggestion regarding the statuette of the nude athlete seen from the rear on the mantelpiece by the window. He reads this as reflecting the classical myth, recounted by Ovid, of Hercules in combat with the river God Achelau, In this analysis Achelau symbolises the Avon and, in the struggle with Hercules, takes the form first of a snake and then of a bull. Hercules tears one of the horns off the bull leaving a mark which would tally with the supposed mark on the forehead of the death mask. Although it is entirely possible that the figure is of Hercules, and that it represents Shakespeare, there are no grounds for accepting Stirling’s interpretation. While the figure appears to be in a combative posture there is no sign of either a snake or a bull. Nor, as I have noted, is there any sign of a wound on the death mask. Also there seems to be no reason why Hercules, assuming he symbolises Shakespeare, should be seen to be in conflict with the Avon. A more straightforward explanation is that both Hercules and the broad expanse of the Avon depicted should be read as complementary aspects of Shakespeare’s towering genius, which is the message the picture seeks to covey. Thus in his preface to the First Folio, Jonson had famously described Shakespeare as the ‘swan of Avon’ and thereby alluded to the Greek myth that the souls of dead poets returned to inhabit swans.
Turning to the detail of the two children playing a game on the floor by the door, Stirling sees this as reflecting the battles of wit recorded as taking place between Ben Jonson and Shakespeare. He tries to relate it to a Jacobean painting by Karel Van Mander of two chess players which was once believed to be of Jonson and Shakespeare. Unfortunately for the theory the Mander picture seems only to have been identified as late 1916.To attempt an alternative explanation. The children do seem to be involved in some kind of game of war and one of them is wearing red and the other white. Could this perhaps relate to the Wars of the Roses and to Shakespeare’s History Plays? .
Finally, further light on the context of the picture has been thrown by the discovery of a letter to Wallis from his close friend Peter Augustin Daniel with whom he shared lodgings in this period dated June 22-24 1856 (Joukovsky, Leesons ). He replies to a letter from Wallis, who was then at Kenilworth near Stratford. This letter suggests that he may have been then working on sketches for the picture, since a summer scene is shown through the workshop window. The picture is dated 1857, which would imply that Wallis finished it later in his London studio. In the 1870s and 1880s Daniel became well known as a Shakespeare scholar. and his friendship helps to explain the obsessive preoccupation with Shakespeare that Wallis displayed in his paintings of this period.
Grilli, Stephanie. “Pre-Raphaelitism and Phrenology.” Pre-Raphaelite Papers. Ed. Leslie Parris. London: Tate Gallery, 1984.
Hickox, Mike. ‘A Sculptor’s Workshop,Stratford-upon-Avon-1617’ by Henry Wallis. Victorian Web.
Joukovsky, Nicholas, ‘The Merediths and their circle in 1856; a letter from Peter Augustin Daniel to Henry Wallis .Notes and Queries58 (2011): 557-61.
Leesens, Ronald. ‘Henry Wallis (1830-1916), a neglected Pre-Raphaelite’, british Art Journal. (2014): 47-65.
Stirling, Simon.Who killed William Shakespeare ? The Murderer, the Motive, the Means. Stroud. The History Press, 2013.
Last modified 28 February 2014