Papers, printers, and playwrights

Papers, printers, and playwrights
Researching Rex Nan Kivell’s Shakespeare print
7 October 2015

One of my favourite parts of working on exhibitions is undertaking research and having the opportunity to find out the stories behind the items in our collection. When tasked with researching a portrait of Shakespeare, for the current Portraits of the Famous & Infamous: Rex Nan Kivell Collection exhibition, I was excited to be able to spend time investigating one of the most famous depictions of the playwright.  Initially I thought the process would be fairly simple, the print was well known, and the paper used was watermarked. It was only on further investigation I discovered that initial appearances can be deceiving and that even collection items can still hold secrets.

Martin Droeshout (1601–c. 1650), William Shakespeare  1807, nla.pic-an10028459

This well-known portrait, credited to Martin Droeshout (1601–c.1650), was used as the frontispiece in the 1623 collected edition of Shakespeare’s plays, the First Folio. The depiction was also approved by members of Shakespeare’s company, the King’s Players who had known and worked with the playwright and could vouch for his appearance. Since this time the portrait has also served as the basis for many subsequent renderings of the bard.

Throughout the seventeenth century, four stages of the print were produced, each with subtle changes that have enabled people to date the prints. Between the first and second stages there is an increase of stubble. In the final version of the plate some additional hair strands, and lines across his pupil appear. It was during this part of the investigation that I began to realise that something was amiss with our print.

Using online high resolution images I was able to zoom in on the image and identify a number of differences between the seventeenth-century print and the one in our collection. Unlike the seventeenth-century versions the background cross hatching on ours only ran horizontally and vertically, with no diagonal lines. Similarly lines on Shakespeare’s doublet were much wider. In addition to this the lines filling the collar on our print ran horizontally instead of diagonally, as they did in the seventeenth-century print.

 Image from the Folger Shakespeare

Martin Droeshout (1601–c. 1650), William Shakespeare, Detail of the collar in the Droeshout print second state, Folger Shakespeare Library

Detail of the collar in National Library of Australia’s collection

Martin Droeshout (1601–c. 1650), William Shakespeare  1807, nla.pic-an10028459, Detail of the collar in National Library of Australia’s collection

Further research led me to discover that in 1807 a facsimile of the First Folio was made, and that it included a revised version of the Droeshout print. Although almost identical, on further assessment this facsimile showed that this new version lacked some of the artistic details of the original, namely the additional crosshatching details on the doublet, background, and collar. Acting on this hunch I emailed Dr Erin Blake from the Folger Shakespeare Library, who verified that the print in Rex Nan Kivell’s collection was from the 1807 facsimile print, citing the horizontal lines in the collar as the “give away”.

What made this confirmation so curious was that we had also received advice from our preservation team regarding the age of the paper the print had been produced on. The clarity and evenness of the pulp combined with the couching and water drop marks put the paper’s age in the seventeenth century. Finally we had a date for the print and the paper, but they didn’t quite match up. Why would an 1807 print be done on seventeenth-century paper?

After investigating other international collections I discovered that versions of this print on paper from the earlier period were not uncommon, with similar items being held in collections of the Victoria & Albert Museum, British Museum, and Folger Shakespeare Library. In these cases some appeared as easily identifiable facsimiles and others designed to deceive.

Example of a backlit 1807 facsimile on 17th Century paper from the Folger Shakespeare Library collection

Example of a backlit 1807 facsimile on seventeenth-century paper from the Folger Shakespeare Library collection

The final part of the story comes from the acquisition records of Rex Nan Kivell, which state that the Droeshout print is on “seventeenth-century paper”. Was it possible that Rex Nan Kivell purchased the print with the belief that the usage of the seventeenth-century laid paper had made it more authentic, instead of potentially falsifying the age of the print? Unlike researchers of today, Nan Kivell would not have had the luxury of comparing numerous high resolution images from collections around the world, to date the print and would likely have believed it to be from one of the original four stages of the print.

Unfortunately it is unlikely that we will ever know the complete story behind the purchase of the print, but through research we were able to date both the age of the paper and the print plate used giving us a little more background and filling in part of its story. The Shakespeare print is on display in Portraits of the Famous & Infamous:  Rex Nan Kivell Collection until 13 December 2015.

Thanks for this - it's fascinating! The recent program on Radio National's Books and Arts Daily put the exhibition and indeed the famous collection in context.