One of the many treasures in the Folger collection is a remarkable bookbinding, of a type known as a “Cosway binding,” that includes five miniature versions of works of art that are said to have shown how Shakespeare once looked. The tiny, colorful paintings start at upper left with a print by William Marshall from the 1640 Poems of Shakespeare, followed at upper right by the Janssen portrait, formerly attributed to Cornelius Janssen; the Martin Droeshout engraving from the 1623 First Folio takes pride of place at the center, with the 18th-century artist Ozias Humphry’s version of the Chandos portrait, once owned by the Dukes of Chandos, at lower left and a whited-out version of Shakespeare’s bust at Stratford at lower right.
Unlike many rare bindings, this one also has some of the qualities of a modern book cover. The images are vivid and seem to speak to us more easily. That’s for a good reason. Despite its value and one-of-a-kind rarity (these are, after all, the original miniature paintings, unique to this copy), the binding was created in the 20th century, in 1928. It’s not even 100 years old.
An Inquiry Into the Authenticity
Like many lavish, ornamental bindings, this binding was produced for a copy of a book that was printed many years earlier. The book inside, published in 1824, is more than a century older. Sometimes, a handsome new binding has little to do with the contents of a book, but that’s not the case here. This binding serves as a visual summary of the book itself. Written by James Boaden, the title explains its nature clearly: An Inquiry into the Authenticity of Various Pictures and Prints, which, from the Decease of the Poet to Our Own Times, Have Been Offered to the Public as Portraits of Shakespeare. Boaden’s book was a major early attempt to evaluate works of art that are said, rightly or wrongly, to reveal how Shakespeare appeared, and there are several copies of the book in the Folger collection.
Like the binding, the text of Boaden’s book, although it’s even older, feels somewhat modern, because it’s written on a perennially appealing topic. A few years ago, the Folger’s Shakespeare Unlimited podcast included an interview on possible portraits of Shakespeare with the author of a recent book, Katherine Duncan-Jones. Some of the same portraits discussed in that podcast episode appear in Boaden’s book and in this binding, too.
The Source of the Miniatures
Why, however, were these particular five images included in the Cosway binding? And why do they vary, in key ways, from the original works that they represent—in the case of the bust, showing it in an unusual physical condition, rather than as the work that we know today? The answer is a simple one.
Cosway bindings, which included miniature paintings, were produced by Rivière & Sons for Sotheran, a London bookseller, during the first part of the 20th century. Although the term “Cosway binding” evoked Richard Cosway, a British miniaturist of the past, the miniatures for the bindings were produced by a woman artist who worked under the nom de peinture “Miss C. B. Currie,” whose miniatures became well-known among book collectors. In creating the miniatures for this binding, Currie based them on the five engravings in Boaden’s book.
For example, the image of the Chandos portrait is not directly based on the Chandos portrait itself. Instead, it follows the engraving in Boaden’s book, based on Ozias Humphry’s drawing of the Chandos portrait, which Boaden believed to be more accurate. “The original picture has become so dark from age, as to have deepened the expression of gravity into sternness,” Boaden writes. “I therefore . . . strictly adhere to Mr. Humphry’s drawing in 1783.” Humphry’s drawing, depicted below in Boaden’s book, is indeed much lighter. When Currie translated the black-and-white image into color, this led to cheery, yellow-colored clothing for the Bard.
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By the nature of her work, of course, Currie’s painting lent color and warmth to all of the images. For example, the book’s black and white engraving of Shakespeare by Marshall from the 1640 Poems, which scholars believe is loosely based on the Droeshout engraving, changed in the same way in her miniature for the binding.
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The White (or Stone-Colored) Bust
Yet another story is traced by the image that jumps off the binding for the modern reader: the all-white bust. This is Shakespeare’s memorial bust from Stratford, which is often coupled with the Droeshout print from the First Folio. Although much doubt has been cast on their artistic merits, each of these images, by virtue of its function—in the First Folio or as a memorial bust—must have been approved by those who knew Shakespeare.
When Shakespeare’s bust was first placed in the Stratford church, and when it was restored later on, it was painted in bright colors. By the time of Boaden’s book, however, it had been utterly transformed. Some decades earlier, the entire bust was painted white. In 1793, Boaden explains, the early Shakespeare editor Edmond Malone convinced the Stratford vicar to make the change; “to gratify a perhaps purer taste, the late Mr. Malone recommended that the figure be painted white.” Boaden later adds, after commenting unfavorably on the bust’s appearance, that the white color “is, in the first place, better suited to the sacred edifice which contains it; a scarlet coat, bright eyes, and ruddy cheeks, add too strongly to an expression ill chosen, for one who was to sit as the guardian of his own ashes.”
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Today, however, the bust at the Stratford church looks nothing like the image in the book. It is once again in color, which was added in the late 1800s. The bust had its white paint removed and the colors were restored, taking their cue from what remained underneath. By the time that Currie painted the miniatures for the binding in 1928, adding a sky-like blue background, the bust in Stratford had already had its colors in place again for decades. Still, the miniature she created for the Cosway binding retained the whitened bust, suiting the miniature to the book, rather than to the way the bust now appeared.
The astonishing story of the bust, which seems almost incomprehensible today, depends on the tradeoff between aesthetics and the preservation of an artifact as its makers intended it to look, which also preserves important historical clues. There is no question that the choice has tipped in favor of an authentic use of color and against “improving” works of art, especially in such a radical fashion.
Today, when this particular copy of the book is reviewed in the Gail Kern Paster Reading Room, however, a reader can compare both versions of the bust. Inside the book, and on its binding, is the whitened, more “classical” bust, perhaps more elegant, but unlike anything that Shakespeare’s friends and family ever saw in the Stratford church. Overhead, centered high on a wall, is a replica of the bust in full color. (You can see the bust in the photo above; to see a closeup of the replica, read our earlier post on Shakespeare portraits.) When Henry and Emily Folger planned the Folger Shakespeare Library, they chose to put this colorful replica on the wall at one end of the Reading Room, stationed above their portraits, where it has gazed out over generations of librarians, researchers, and other visitors in the room below.