In 2015, Stratford Town and District Councils asked Geoffrey Tristram, a professional artist from Stourbridge, to create a painting of William Shakespeare’s face for advertising and promotional purposes. They chose Geoffrey first and foremost because they liked his style of painting, but also because of his pedigree as an illustrator. He has been an artist and cartoonist for 40 years, working for hundreds of large companies including the BBC, Penguin Books, Winsor & Newton, Reeves, Ravensburger Puzzles, Trivial Pursuit, and Past Times, to name but a handful. He has designed and illustrated record sleeves for the likes of UB40, postage stamps (The Charles and Diana Royal Wedding, Lake Placid Winter Olympics, World Cup Football and Miss World) and painted or caricatured many celebrities including Jeremy Clarkson, Alan Shearer, and virtually every top snooker player during his 25 year stint as Embassy World Snooker’s favoured cartoonist. So, put simply, he could be trusted to make a good job of it!
Having successfully completed this small, initial commission, Geoffrey confessed that, as a lifelong Shakespeare fan, his dream job was to paint a brand new, large, impressive oil portrait of the Bard at his writing desk. The idea was well received, and just before Christmas 2015, the painting was begun. The artist knew full well that such a picture would bring with it a massive responsibility, and he was in no doubt that it would attract criticism, both good and bad. It didn’t help that, for such a world-famous person as Shakespeare, he didn’t appear to be overly fond of posing for artists, so there wasn’t much in the way of previous reference material to fall back upon.
Undaunted, Geoffrey set about the task in his usual forensic, obsessive way. He dug out copies of just about every existing painting, etching, wood cut, bust and statue that purported to be of the great man. He even found a death mask. They may as well have been ten different people. The etching on the first folio was apparently approved by Ben Jonson, but the drawing was naive and rather odd. There were a couple of paintings, presumably created when Shakespeare was a younger man that could have been Sir Walter Raleigh or any other Elizabethan, for that matter. Some pictures had a full head of hair, while others had none. On some, he looked thin, but on the Holy Trinity Church bust, he looks more like a jolly butcher.
It was dawning on our artist that he had maybe bitten off more than he could chew. Nevertheless, he ploughed on, comparing the images, allowing for the fact that we all get older, fatter and balder, and pictures of us taken at college seldom look like us at all by the time we draw our pension. Then Geoffrey traced out the familiar bald pate and moustache and goatee beard combination, and began to overlay it on top of the various depictions of this enigmatic man, and lo and behold, he experienced a Eureka moment. All the contenders, once so dissimilar, now suddenly began to seriously resemble each other. This gave our frustrated artist heart.
He contacted his friend, Steve Jolliffe, a graphic designer and photographer, and waylaid another friend, Simon Millichip, promising a trip to sunny Stratford and a cream tea in return for reference photographs and a body double, respectively. He then hired a costume of the correct vintage and social class at great expense, and convinced the Shakespeare Birthplace in Henley Street that they must allow him to use the house as a backdrop (they chose the room where W.S. was almost certainly born, which seemed fitting somehow). Due to a traffic jam on the M40, our intrepid band ended up with just half an hour to take all the reference photographs before the first coach-load of tourists arrived.
400th Anniversary Portrait Giclée Print £195
Edition Size 400
Shakespeare’s face was mainly based on the first folio etching, but then Geoffrey humanised it. He wanted to create a real, living, believable human being. Meticulous preparatory drawings were done, sleep was lost and the Tristram residence driven to the edge of sanity. The artist locked himself in his studio for two months, obsessing, painting, fretting his weary hours at the easel and occasionally just sneaking back at some ungodly hour just to take another look. What looked great on a Monday was altered on the Tuesday, and duly altered again on the Wednesday until it returned to how it was in the first place. Then, round about the beginning of February 2016, he emerged paint-stained but happy. He had an answer for every potential critic about every potential bone of contention. His research had been thorough, and if anyone really thought they could do better, they were welcome to try it!
One of the main reasons for painting the picture was the creation of a special edition giclee print. To this end, Geoffrey contacted Mark Parry at the Artist’s Print Room, just outside Bridgnorth, Shropshire. Geoffrey met Mark and was impressed with his attitude and dedication to producing a first class job. For many, the only reproduction of the original painting they would ever see was the print, so it had to be right. It was also important to Geoffrey that Mark was an Artist’s Trade Guild member, and as such, someone who was able to meet their high standards. The two got on famously thanks to a shared sense of humour, and the result was two editions of the image, a special edition of just 400 signed and numbered prints which was aimed at institutions, theatres, schools, colleges and the like, priced at £195 plus postage and packing, and a smaller, domestic-sized open edition at £85.
The original painting was unanimously well received by the Stratford councils, and will be displayed in the ancient town hall during the April festivities, which will see people travelling from all corners of the globe to pay homage to their literary hero. By all accounts, the yearly celebrations are always spectacular, but this year the town intends to raise its game even further, with street processions, a banquet, and a host of famous guest actors and celebrities in attendance. It has even been rumoured that royalty may well attend.
If you are interested in owning one of the prints that Geoffrey and Mark have created, take a look at their new website, www.thetristramshakespeare.co.uk where you can find more information about print sizes and substrate details, etc. You can also email Geoffrey on [email protected] if you need more information. And because there are only 400 prints available to the whole world, please remember, if t’were done when ‘tis done, then ‘twere well it was done quickly!
That man had a way with words, don’t you think?