Shakespeare’s Stratford reminds us of a forgotten, morbid England | Jonathan Jones

The cult around Shakespeare has led to the restoration of murals in Stratford-upon-Avon, whitewashed over by his father. Theyre far from masterpieces, but they do show us an England in thrall to devils and death

Stratford-upon-Avon is a town preserved not in amber but by language. The words of its most famous son have made this Warwickshire town a sacred spot ever since the great actor David Garrick staged a Shakespeare jubilee at Stratford in 1769. That date is significant. Its in the very early days of the industrial revolution, when Britain had barely been modernised and many medieval as well as Tudor buildings were still in use. A world we have lost could still be found.

The Shakespeare cult took off in the 18th century, just in time to ensure that a possible connection with the playwright would help Stratford protect many of its venerable buildings and make it one of Britains best-preserved pre-industrial towns. This is a unique place where, instead of yet another aristocratic stately home, you can visit a 16th-century glovemakers house, complete with the loft where the apprentices lived and a section let out as a tough-looking pub. Oh yes, and the room where Shakespeare was probably born.

A new discovery at Stratford adds to its historic richness, and adds to Britains cultural debt to the name of Shakespeare. Restorers have nearly finished work on rare medieval wall paintings in the Guild Chapel in Stratford vivid scenes that had been invisible for centuries. We apparently owe their survival not to William Shakespeare but his father John, who as town bailiff in 1563 got the job of obliterating these religious paintings that Protestants condemned as idolatrous pomp. Instead of erasing them, John Shakespeare had them carefully covered with limewash and now they can be revealed again after 450 years.



figcaption class=”caption” caption–img caption caption–img” itemprop=”description”> Detail from the restored Allegory of Death. Photograph: PhilYeomans/BNPS

Apparently, Shakespeares dad wasnt quite the illiterate boor portrayed by Harry Enfield in Ben Eltons sitcom Upstart Crow. But Stratfords latest miracle of conservation makes you wonder what about all the lost art in Britain that doesnt have the Shakespeare name to help get a lottery grant to restore it, and a tourist industry to enhance the glamour of the local past?

It is possible to exaggerate the greatness of British art before the Reformation. Lets not turn faded murals into Brexit boasts. The paintings in Stratfords Guild Chapel are not some of the finest in Europe, as one report patriotically claims. Please. There is no evidence that medieval Britain ever produced any paintings to equal Giottos masterpieces in the Scrovegni chapel in Padua, Lorenzettis Allegory of Good and Bad Government in the Communal Palace of Siena, or Simone Martinis Annunciation.

Its reasonable to assume that the very best artists available were hired to decorate Londons Palace of Westminster, yet paintings that survive from this royal medieval English building are cheerily crude rather than aesthetically refined. That goes double for the freshly restored paintings in Stratford. With a cartoon skull and a monkey-like devil, these paintings are not so much great art as a wondrous window on the imaginative lives of people who lived half a millennium ago.


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Bard days work… a scene in Stratford-upon-Avon during commemorations of the 400 years since Shakespeares death. Photograph: Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images

This is what makes Stratford special. Literary scholars love to point out how little we know about Shakespeare the man, how hard it is to link his works to the sparse biographical documents that survive. Yet paradoxically, in trying to preserve something of him in the town where he was born and died, Shakespeare fans from Garrick onwards have saved something else a small part of the fabric of everyday life in medieval and Tudor Britain.

The paintings restored in the Guild Chapel reveal the powerful dream-world that was visible to ordinary townspeople 500 years ago. Devils and death loomed up on painted walls. Whether they were painted simply, as in Stratford, or done with the genius of a <a href=”” data-link-name=”in” body link” class=”u-underline”>Bosch, these were collective fantasies of spectacular power.

The project that has saved Stratfords murals deserves to be imitated wherever there are traces of medieval art still surviving in Britain. It does not matter if these images are fine art. They are something more important: a reminder of what it is to be human in a world shadowed by death and the devil.

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