SBT Research Conversation, Wednesday 19 April

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‘Shakespeare’s Wood’

By Dr. Tara Hamling and Dr. Cathryn Enis, University of Birmingham.


A new series of ‘Research Conversations’ organised by Dr. Paul Edmondson, Head of Research at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, started on Wednesday 19 April with a talk given by Dr. Tara Hamling and Dr. Cathryn Enis of the University of Birmingham. The talks are open to anyone interested in Shakespeare and the work of the SBT and the aim is to showcase current research using the Trust’s rich archives and collections. Tara, one of the UK’s leading scholars on early modern material culture (and co-author with Dr. Delia Garratt of Shakespeare and the Stuff of Life: Treasures from the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust) is now starting to investigate the meanings and significance of other lesser-known objects from the Trust’s collection. Cathryn, whose research explores sixteenth-century Warwickshire and the development of the county’s cultural identity, is working with Tara to examine the many objects in the SBT collection that are made of wood. Starting with a box taken from the shelves of the SBT storage room to illustrate how our research journey begins when we take off the lid and look inside, the talk focused on how investigation into these items can enrich our understanding of the material culture of Shakespeare and Stratford-upon-Avon.

In February this year, Tara and Cathryn gave a paper at a conference, Understanding Material Loss across time and place organised by Dr Kate Smith at the University of Birmingham. We took as our starting point responses to the loss of Shakespeare’s family home at New Place and the fixtures and fittings of the Birthplace. Items in the SBT collection show that artefacts made from wood have been used to commemorate, suggest and memorialise this lost domestic environment.  From early visitors to the Birthplace chipping bits of wood off chairs, to the mulberry items – including a particularly ornate pastry cutter – allegedly made from the New Place mulberry cut down by Francis Gastrell in 1756 – owning a piece of ‘Shakespeare’s Wood’ has been a way of connecting with Shakespeare for many enthusiasts. Cultural practices connected with trees and wood have been harnessed to create all kinds of imagined home lives for Shakespeare, from gardening at New Place to carousing in Bidford, and the holdings in the SBT collection are leading us on a fascinating journey through objects known and unknown, that we were able to share through this first in a new series of talks.

SBT 2005-15. A carved mulberry wood pastry cutter, made by Thomas Sharp, supposedly from wood from the mulberry tree thought to have been planted by Shakespeare in the garden at New Place, Stratford-upon-Avon. Date made: about 1769 to 1799 Inscription: : stamped : handle : : Shakespeare's Wood Sharp Stratford-upon-Avon Dimensions: Length 140mm Material: mulberry wood Maker: Thomas Sharp Made in: Stratford Upon Avon

late 18th-century pastry cutter, made from mulberry wood, from the SBT collections

Of particular interest was a piece of lintel from the Birthplace held together with a series of letters explaining how a tiny wooden cross was found hidden inside a small cavity. These documents suggested that the cross might have been placed there early in the sixteenth century as a protective talisman to ward off evil spirits. Many of the objects come with letters, labels, engraved messages or other textual inscriptions that are used to both explain their provenance and describe their history. Structural wood has become integrated into new objects – timber from an old barn at New Place is now a box, a chair has a diamond of wood from the floorboards of the Birthplace inserted in the seat – giving everyday objects and furniture a connection to the buildings that Shakespeare knew. By the end of the nineteenth century, the connection between Shakespeare and some types of wood was so strong that many objects that we have found are just pieces of wood – uncut, unadorned and often unknown. Our research places these objects within a wider context of domestic material culture and the trees and treescapes of Stratford-upon-Avon.

Our aim is to give these artefacts their cultural and literary heritage and show how the history of Shakespeare and wood can be followed through objects held by the SBT, a collection whose breadth and depth is a continual delight. It was a real pleasure to be able to talk about these intriguing objects with our audience. Time for informal discussion is a key feature of the Conversations and it was great to have the time to think collectively about these connections between artefacts, loss, memory and place with everyone present. We all enjoyed the delicious cupcakes, provided by Ella Hawkins, one of SBT’s Research Advocates (via our regional Doctoral Training Partnership, Midlands 3 Cities). She’d decorated the cakes with depictions of items in the collection including a mulberry goblet and an old lock; these edible tributes to Shakespeare’s material culture made the first research conversation a memorable event and we are sure the series will provide many thought-provoking sessions over the coming months.


The next Research Conversation is on Wednesday 10 May from 5.00-6.00pm at the Shakespeare Centre. Professor Ewan Fernie (the Shakespeare Institute) will be talking about ‘The Birthplace and Revolution’ in conversation with Professor Kiernan Ryan (Royal Holloway). The event is free, requires no advance booking, and all are welcome.


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