This is the tenth post in a series by artist Paul Glenshaw about drawing the bas-reliefs by sculptor John Gregory on the front of the Folger Shakespeare Library building. The series examines the bas-reliefs one by one; each sculpture depicts a scene from a different Shakespeare play. Today’s post is about the bas-relief of a scene from Henry IV, Part I.
The end of the line
I approached the last sculpture with equal parts of eagerness and reluctance. I was keen to be finished with the series—I like to say that projects are best discussed in the past tense. But I also didn’t want the fun to stop. I was on a roll, and had been deep in the zone for three months with these drawings. But there it was—the last sculpture, and for the last time, John Gregory upended my preconceived notions about its composition.
After the complex dynamics of drawing Hamlet, the scene from Henry IV, Part I looked amusing, but staid and simple: three figures, the two on the edges facing each other and glancing the one in the center, who’s seated. But as I got into it, I learned once again that these sculptures sometimes tell their stories with delicate nuance—even one where a character is wearing a pillow on his head.
“…this dagger my scepter, this cushion my crown.”
We’re in a tavern in Eastcheap. Prince Hal, heir to the throne, has until this point in his life eschewed the royal court in favor of carousing with petty criminals and roustabouts, especially Sir John Falstaff.
In the sculpture, Falstaff has just assumed the role of Hal’s father the king. Civil war is breaking out, and Hal must return to the court. Falstaff challenges Hal to prepare himself for the king’s anticipated interrogation by having them act it out right there. Falstaff has enthroned himself on a tavern chair, assuming a regal bearing with his improvised and ludicrous props.
Bardolph, an associate of Falstaff’s identified by his bulbous nose, stands behind him. Hal stands in front of Falstaff, looking down on the buffoonish character, but without a trace of merriment in his face. Falstaff, as the king, immediately denounces Hal’s wayward ways, admonishing him to banish the defiling company he keeps—except for one “good portly man”—Falstaff himself.
Thinking back to drawing the other eight sculptures, my first glance at Henry IV, Part I, made me think it would be the simplest of all. The other sculptures were far more complex and intricate—like Midsummer, Julius Caesar, or King Lear. The challenge of Henry IV crept up on me, especially as I started to draw Falstaff.
Gregory didn’t break any new ground in his depiction of the famous character—his girth, corpulent face, arms and legs crammed into gloves and boots. But the trick Gregory pulled off, and what made it so tricky, was wedging the bigness of the man in between the two standing characters, and fitting all of them into the square. Gregory packs them in tightly but somehow the composition doesn’t feel crowded. As I worked across the drawing and back, it seemed impossible that Falstaff would fit at all. It was all about refining—the proportions and positions of every shape had to be as precise as I could make them in order to make it work. It was a puzzle with fewer pieces than the other drawings, but each piece had to fit exactly right.
There was also a great subtlety I detected in the expressions of the characters. This is one of Shakespeare’s great comic scenes, and yet only Bardolph has the barest hint of a smile. Hal and Falstaff look at each other without any sense of play. To me, it’s as if there is a second level of communication between them, underneath the play-acting. As I drew their serious faces, I imagined what their expression might be saying to each other: The war is coming, and Hal must leave behind the fun and go be the prince he’s supposed to be. The special friendship they have shared will never be the same. The party’s over.
I made a lot of new friends over the course of making these nine drawings. I am most grateful to them all. The Folger’s security staff and maintenance personnel welcomed me every time I came to draw—often before the sun came up. The curators, librarians, docents, and scholars who came over to look at what I was doing were most encouraging. I’d especially like to thank Rachel Dankert for facilitating my being able to use the library to research the sculptures; and Mary Hall Surface for introducing me to Garland Scott and her team, who in turn had me write these posts! I made new friends with John Gregory, and of course, with Shakespeare’s immortal characters and plays.
This colored etching by George Cruikshank from the 18th or 19th century shares many elements with Gregory’s composition, most notably the figures of Hal and Falstaff. But it also helps demonstrate how spare Gregory’s depiction is—the etching shows us a far greater range of characters, expressions, and setting details.
This is a copy of a letter from the Folger Archives from John Gregory to the Piccirilli brothers, who carved the marble sculptures from Gregory’s plaster originals. The diagram shows that Gregory initially intended Henry IV to be second in line from left to right, but switched it with Romeo and Juliet, which was originally supposed to be last. Gregory’s additional note to Mr. Slade indicates his concern for having the sculptures sequenced just as he intended.