Stewart had the canvas propped up on an easel in his garden studio, with a daylight lamp directed at it, so he had a constant light source as he worked. I had forgotten what a large canvas it is, about five feet high and six and a half feet wide.
I had always chuckled at the painting’s stilted composition, the reverential absurdity of the subject, and the apparent absence of any trace of irony, but now I regarded the painting with fresh eyes. Stewart’s painstaking, delicate work has revealed some marvellous workmanship, and various illuminating details I had not noticed before.
The real pleasure is in the portraiture of the actors’ faces. Take the famous beauty Fanny Abington, dressed as Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing.
The extravagance of her coiffure, piled with plaits laced with silver ribbon can now be clearly seen, as well as the delicacy of her gold tissue fichu, and the emerald pendant set with pearls.
The actor playing Hamlet, in his customary suit of solemn black, is William “Gentleman” Smith. The restoration has revealed a portrait, which Stewart describes as “as fine as anything done at the time”. I hadn’t noticed that his hair falls over his shoulders in orderly distraction.
It’s ‘Plausible’ Jack. John Palmer got a bad reputation for not learning his lines by the first night, and an even worse one for beating up his wife, with whom he had eight children. He was stabbed during a performance, not for his behaviour, but by accident when the spring in his opponent’s dagger failed to work. And in the end he died on stage one night, when he suffered a seizure.
Garrick’s own portrait, surely the oddest of the many painted in his entire career, seems to fulfil the prophecy of his Latin motto Resurgam (“I shall rise again”), placed with his coat of arms on his coffin, draped with crimson velvet at his funeral in Westminster Abbey. He is being air-lifted by rather clumsily painted “aerioles” (angels) from his gloomy sarcophagus.
Garrick was only about 5 foot 4 inches, but here he looks very long limbed, an effect heightened by the painter’s technique. “Where is the painting to be hung?” asks Stewart. “Over the door in the Circle bar” I tell him. “Oh that’s good, he says, I think it’s been painted to be viewed from below. The effect of the elevation is heightened that way”.
My admiration for the painting, and for Stewart’s skill in restoring its freshness has increased enormously. That David Garrick should be afforded this classical canonisation attests to his extraordinary popularity. But it also suggests the almost divine position in which Shakespeare was held in the public imagination by the end of the eighteenth century.
The painting is currently on display in the Circle bar of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre.
To find out more about the RSC’s extensive theatre collection and archive visit our award winning exhibition The Play’s the Thing https://www.rsc.org.uk/the-plays-the-thing/about-the-exhibition or visit https://www.rsc.org.uk/about-us/collections-and-archives.
What connects our members’ collections? Here we put a spotlight on some of the curious themes that tie us together.