Newer posts are loading.
You are at the newest post.
Click here to check if anything new just came in.

August 10 2012

From Shakespeare to Sunflowers: masters take over the week in art

From the birth of modern culture to Van Gogh's classic work. Plus a Picasso fiasco in Edinburgh airport and a child saves a Manet – all in today's weekly art dispatch

Exhibition of the week: Shakespeare: Staging the World

Popular theatre was Britain's most spectacular contribution to the cultural movement called the Renaissance. For Shakespeare and his rival Christopher Marlowe, the culture of Italy where the Renaissance was centred was the definition of modernity. Shakepeare for instance made the name of the dangerous Renaissance thinker Machiavelli famous in Britain. This exhibition is not just for theatre fans, but for anyone interested in the birth of modern culture.
British Museum, London WC1 until 25 November

Other exhibitions this week

Metamorphoses: Titian 2012
Modern artists help to celebrate the nation's purchase of two Venetian Renaissance masterpieces.
National Gallery, London WxC2, until 23 September

Picasso and Modern British Art
The British modernists are dwarfed by Picasso in this show which has some terrific works by him.
Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, until 4 November

Tino Sehgal
Interaction is the action in Tate Modern's Turbine Hall.
Tate Modern, London SE1, until 28 October

Turner, Monet, Twombly
Luscious survey of pure painting.
Tate Liverpool, Liverpool, until 28 October

Masterpiece of the week

Vincent van Gogh, Sunflowers, 1888
Summer blazes so hot in this painting it hurts. Van Gogh's north European eyes are aflame as he settles into a new home in Provence. When Van Gogh, after a difficult struggle to learn art as an adult, went to live in Arles he started to turn his home there into a community for artists and painted this heady work to decorate it. The yellows are invincible, joyous and unbearably intense.
• National Gallery, London WC2

Image of the week

What we learned this week

Why Robert Hughes was Australia's answer to Dante

The story of Edinburgh airport's Picasso-based prudishness

How artists are taking on the coal industry from a disused mine in Belgium

That an 11-year-old saved a £7.8m Manet this week

All about one artist's mission to Mars

And finally …

Share your art on the theme of sport now

Post your personal images that sum up what London means to you on the Guardian Art and Design Flickr page

Check out our Tumblr

Follow us on Twitter © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

August 02 2012

London arts venues report mixed fortunes during Olympic Games

London 2012 Games causing low turnout at British Museum and West End theatres but National Theatre and BFI report boom

Despite the eerily deserted streets of central London, arts and entertainments bosses are reporting very mixed fortunes during the Olympic Games. Some have seen visitor numbers plunge since the Games started, such as the British Museum where visitor numbers are down by 25% and some West End theatres down by a third, but others including the National Theatre report business as good as last year, with near full houses every night.

Although box-office figures have not yet been compiled, anecdotally many venues report that business is picking up this week as Londoners realise there are bargains to be had, and that travel – after warnings of transport chaos initially scared people into staying home – has so far been easier than before the Olympics.

Terri Paddock, editor of the Whatsonstage website, said many of their posts are reporting empty streets, and theatres surviving by heavy discounting and last-minute sales. "I live in Lambeth, work in Tottenham Court Road and am walking through the West End throughout the day and evening. I can tell you personally that I have never seen it so quiet during my 20+ years living in London," she said.

The British Film Institute is on track for a record month, with the Batman film The Dark Knight Rises sold out for the next six weeks on their giant Imax screen, and at its South Bank cinemas spectacular advance sales for its season of every Hitchcock film. "We are forecast to exceed target for attendance during the month," a spokeswoman said.

However at the British Museum, normally a heaving mass of overseas visitors in August, visitor numbers are down 25% on July/August last year, and there are plenty of tickets available on the day for the major exhibition, Shakespeare: Staging the World – which was expected to be one of the blockbusters of this summer. "We know this is the general picture from speaking to other venues," a spokeswoman said. "We've very deliberately scheduled the Shakespeare exhibition to run on to 25 November, and we're expecting a very different picture after the Olympics and when the schools go back. It's actually a really nice time now to visit cultural attractions, without the usual crowds and it's so easy to get around in London."

In stark contrast, at the National Theatre it has been standing room only on many nights for all their shows, with the starriest, Simon Russell Beale in Timon of Athens – traditionally regarded as one of Shakespeare's least appealing plays – selling out for almost all shows, and 90% sold for all the Olympics dates. George Bernard Shaw's The Doctor's Dilemma is doing least well, but has still already sold 60% of available tickets for the same dates.

A spokeswoman said the bulk of ticket sales are to their regulars in London and the south-east, but sales to overseas visitors wandering in on the day are healthy too, and all the free activities in and around the building on the South Bank are very well attended.

The Society of London Theatres, representing 52 theatres mainly in the West End, said numbers are picking up this week, compared to last week when many had banks of empty seats to rival any of the Olympics venues. They also report that people are recognising there are bargains to be had: business is brisk at the TKTS discount ticket booth in Leicester Square, operated by the society. Ticket sales for the Kids Week promotion, now expanded to the whole month of August, which offers free or heavily discounted tickets to under-16s accompanied by a full paying adult, are well ahead of last year – 100,000 tickets have already been sold, compared to 70,000 for the whole promotion last year.

The Tate Modern gallery has been on a roll this summer, with massive publicity for its new Tanks underground space, a string of new exhibition openings, and many of the Festival 2012 events happening around it on the South Bank. However a spokeswoman said that although the place is still buzzing, ticket sales are down for the charging exhibitions. Further down on the opposite bank Tate Britain – not helped by its main restaurant closing until next year for renovations – has also seen a sharp drop in ticket sales.

At the Natural History Museum in South Kensington, which would normally expect 20,000 people a day at this time of year, and long queues outside the gates before opening time, staff say they are "still busy, but noticeably quieter". A spokeswoman added "it makes it a really fantastic time to visit". The Museum of London also reports visitor numbers well down, and suspects that their mainly family audience was put off by the warnings of transport problems. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

June 19 2012

TV review: All in the Best Possible Taste with Grayson Perry; Joely Richardson on Shakespeare's Women

Grayson Perry is a true wizard – he takes the musings of the upper classes and transmutes them into art

Grayson Perry concluded his glorious, inspired and incisive investigation into modern British taste and concomitant neat gutting and filleting of that slippery fish, the class system, with a visit to its upper reaches in the final part of his series All in the Best Possible Taste with Grayson Perry (Channel 4).

The Countess of Bathurst dressed him for drinks at Berkley castle. Did he look the part, Perry asked the guests. "You look very smart," they all told him, which is gentry-speak for "No, dear boy, not in the least." You might be able to crack the dress code in time, but the euphemisms would take several lifetimes to master.

Perry took in the shabby beauty of Elizabethan manors and Georgian mansions handed down through the increasingly impoverished generations and the modern gloss put on family seats sold to the new, celebrity aristocracy; and he grilled all their current owners about all he had seen. It was only as you watched him firing off questions – always pertinent, always perceptive, always aimed at cutting through the flummery and getting to the meat of the thing – that you realised what poor stuff the average presenter is made of. Rigorous, intelligent and intuitive, Perry never opened his mouth without either providing fresh insight himself or extracting it from his subject.

"I'm interested," he said at one point, "in how much people buy into the myth of where their place is in society." His gaze swept over the latest display of ancestral portraits and stags' heads within a gently crumbling pile and he gave one of his great dirty chuckles. "Is there a point when they actually start camping it up?" I invite you to contemplate the difference between this and anything ever uttered by Cherry Healey until your ears start to bleed. It won't take long. Watching Perry at work, I felt like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz going from a world of black and white to glorious Technicolor. I never knew it could be like this.

This true wizard then distilled all he had learned and deduced from his various hosts about what marked them out from the middle and working classes – the prizing of old above new, the love of historical associations rather than brand names, the importance of understatement and the dread of overstatement, a custodial attitude towards, rather than proud ownership of, their homes ("The house is here," said Janey Clifford. "All we do is patch it up, really"), a desire to maintain the status quo and not indulge in self-expression – and transformed it into art. Six tapestries – two for each stratum of society – summed us all up in Perry's modern rendering of Hogarth's A Rake's Progress. For the first time ever, I became determined to visit a work of art. The man is clearly, in every way, a genius.

And while we're being cultured, let us turn to Joely Richardson on Shakespeare's Women (BBC4), part of the Shakespeare Uncovered season. It didn't actually start talking about the play's female characters until halfway through. The first 30 minutes took us through Shakespeare's own history (born – Stratford; married – Anne "not The Devil Wears Prada one" Hathaway; issue – twins! Twins like what will be in loads of his forthcoming plays!; buggered off – 1582-95, we know not where; turns up in London as actor/playwright; does pretty well before death in 1616 and brilliantly thereafter) without adding any more, I suspect, to the knowledge of anyone with even the briefest acquaintance with the man and certainly not to anyone who had watched any of the season's previous programmes.

After that, it was long on archive footage (including Vanessa Redgrave in her breakthrough screen role as an impossibly beautiful and mesmerising Rosalind in the RSC's televised As You Like It of 1961), assertions of the complexity of certain heroines (mainly Viola and Rosalind, with no mention of trickier propositions like Kate in The Taming of the Shrew) and of the surpassing brilliance and precocity of their creator's talent, but a little short on evidence. Richardson interviewed only her mother Vanessa and, briefly, actors in rehearsal for Twelfth Night and left the experts to talk to camera.

You longed for Grayson Perry to pop by for 10 minutes and unpack all the scholarship with which they clearly brimmed, with a few well-chosen questions. I suspect I shall be longing for that quite a lot from now on. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

June 12 2012

The Olympics are exposing us as a nation self-obsessed

Plans for the opening ceremony are to be a mixture of celebration and gentle jibes about our nation. But aren't the Games about more than just us?

Patriotism becomes daft when you expect other countries to share your national pride. America nearly got away with it in the age of the moon landings, when children of my generation accepted it as fair enough for the stars and stripes to hang out there in space. But it has been a long time since even the land of Coke could teach the world to sing. Why should the entire world be expected to embrace the British self-love that appears to be at the heart of the Olympics opening ceremony? Are we offering ourselves as the new America, a land so marvellous it can export its self-image?

A billion people around the planet are expected to witness the £27m ceremony conceived by film director Danny Boyle to start the Games. In details announced today, it emerges that he will turn the stadium into a vast model of an ideal and somewhat mythic British countryside. Complete with landmarks like Glastonbury Tor and entitled Green and Pleasant, the spectacle will treat the world to a romantic vision of our national landscape. Real farmyard animals will be grazing; in total there will be 70 sheep, 12 horses, three cows, two goats, 10 chickens, 10 ducks, nine geese and three sheepdogs. There will also be clouds with fake rain in case the night is clear. "If it doesn't rain, we have created our own," said Boyle at the announcement, pointing to four huge clouds hanging from wires over a model of the stadium.

Look, I am not a huge athletics fan. Sometimes I watch the Olympics on TV, sometimes I don't. Is it the done thing to obsess about one's own national identity quite so overtly in the opening ceremony? By the sound of it, though, Boyle's spectacle will be far from complacent: with references to the aftermath of the industrial revolution and a cast that includes NHS nurses, it does sound as though he is offering an alternative, radical style of patriotism, not to mention laughing at national traits and the soggy climate. But radical navel-gazing is navel-gazing nonetheless.

There seems to be a unfortunate blur between this summer's jubilee and the Olympics. It is a culmination of a boom in self-regard that has made modern Britain ever more inward-looking. Waving flags for the jubilee was logical: the Queen is nothing if not British. But the Olympics? Surely, the Games are international.

The British Museum in London currently has a modest display of 12 objects recalling the ancient Greek Olympics. The highlight – which no one who visits London this summer should miss – is the Motya Charioteer, one of the masterpieces of ancient Greek art. Contemplating this sensuous statue of an athlete in a clinging robe, I could not help wishing the British Museum would put on a full-scale show about the history of the Olympics to celebrate us hosting the world's greatest sporting event. Instead, its big exhibition for the Olympic summer, in the same flag-waving mood as Boyle's sceptred-isle landscape, will be about Shakespeare. I am looking forward to it. But then I am British.

Is Britain playing host to the world this summer – or to itself? Why on Earth is the romantic Little England of Boyle's opener the appropriate way to begin a festival celebrating the human planet?

There's something very 1930s about all this. When we remember the Depression, we see the vicious hyper-nationalism of Hitler and Mussolini as nightmares never to be repeated – yet democratic countries too became inward-looking and self-obsessed in that age of austerity. British artists harped on about the landscape. Novelists feasted on British eccentricity. Now, in this new age of austerity, imaginations are once more preoccupied with homegrown qualities and known landscapes. Isn't the Olympics meant to be bigger and more generous than that? © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

April 25 2012

Jeremy Hunt: Can't stop, off to Swan Lake

What has the Leveson inquiry revealed about Jeremy Hunt's taste in art? Did he get to Take That? And how big an N-Dubz fan is he?

On Monday, culture secretary Jeremy Hunt tweeted "With mirth and laughter let old wrinkles come (Gratiano, Merchant of Venice)", a celebratory quote for Shakespeare's birthday. On Tuesday, "Is this a dagger which I see before me?" might have seemed more appropriate.

Perhaps surprisingly, only two of the emails released by the Leveson inquiry this week indicated that Hunt had an interest in the arts beyond the Murdochs' BSkyB takeover bid. One, from News Corp's public affairs executive Frédéric Michel to James Murdoch, reported grabbing the culture secretary "before he went in to see Swan Lake" to discuss the bid. In another, sent later that year, Michel plaintively asked Hunt's special adviser Adam Smith whether Ed Vaizey's refusal to meet News Corp while the deal was going through meant that "you and Jeremy will not be coming to Take That on 4 July".

Between them, Take That and Swan Lake suggest that Hunt has fairly mainstream tastes – and in fact, according to the Royal Opera House, the ballet was an unusual outing; a spokesperson confirms that Hunt is not a regular. Did he or did he not see Take That at Wembley on 4 July? The band's press officer says he has no idea: "He didn't get tickets from us."

In the five years since he was made shadow culture secretary, and then culture secretary when the Tories won the 2010 election, Hunt has given the impression of someone who enjoys the arts without having a deep knowledge of – or passion for – them. To be fair, though, he seems more culturally immersed than his opposite number Harriet Harman, or the shadow culture minister Dan Jarvis.

At a meeting of the rightwing culture thinktank New Culture Forum last year, Hunt said his major policy for the arts was to encourage philanthropy. But this approach ran into trouble earlier this month, after tax relief for philanthropists was restricted in the budget. Nicholas Hytner, director of the National Theatre, said the Treasury had "completely pulled the carpet from under" Hunt's attempts to encourage rich donors.

The culture secretary appears to have an interest in pop music beyond Take That: a journalist who interviewed him for the London Evening Standard last summer (shortly before the BSkyB bid failed) reported seeing a biography of N-Dubz on Hunt's desk. "Well, Tulisa is going to be gracing our screens, isn't she?" he said, of the N-Dubz member who went on to be an X Factor judge. In 2010, he revealed his classical music preferences to Guardian arts correspondent Charlotte Higgins: "I am still early Schoenberg rather than late." He also enjoys Tchaikovsky, attending Opera North's production of The Queen of Spades and ENO's Eugene Onegin, directed by Deborah Warner.

Russian literature seems to resonate with Hunt, too. He admires the poets Osip Mandelstam and Anna Akhmatova, who were dissidents during the Soviet regime, and quoted a poem by Mandelstam in his first speech as culture secretary. Then there's his passion for Japanese culture; Hunt speaks the language after teaching English there.

Like other Tories, Hunt has spoken warmly about their star signing, Tracey Emin. He attended the private view of her retrospective at the Hayward Gallery, and in his first keynote speech on the arts, cited her grafitto "I need art like I need God", sprayed on the sea wall at Margate. "Sometimes graffiti – however objectionable and anti-social it is in principle – can be very thought-provoking," he noted.

But it was culture minister Ed Vaizey rather than Hunt who schmoozed Emin. In 2009, the Guido Fawkes website reported that the pair enjoyed a three-hour lunch at Scott's of Mayfair, and she has also dined with David Cameron at No 10. All this paid off when Emin declared her support for the Tories last year: "At the moment there is a government that actually likes the arts, appreciates the arts and appreciates culture."

Hunt is an admirer of Grayson Perry, too. He went to Perry's recent exhibition at the British Museum, and has a print by the artist on his office wall – alongside a photograph of him meeting Arnold Schwarzenegger in Los Angeles. He picked another contemporary work from the Government Art Collection for his office in 2010: a Mark Wallinger painting from a 1990s series called Brown's (42 sets of silks worn by jockeys riding for racehorse owners called Brown). Alerted to this by the Guardian, the Labour-supporting Wallinger groaned: "That is a shocker. As an artist, it's very hard to vet your patrons – they generally drift rightwards as they get older anyway."

Hunt's trips to the theatre point to a taste divided between blockbusters and political theatre. He saw David Hare's indictment of New Labour, Gethsemane, as well as Lucy Prebble's Enron; the latter might have proved an uncomfortable night for a Tory, though Hunt told New Culture Forum he considered it a prime example of why theatre should keep its subsidy. He has also seen hits such as War Horse, at the National Theatre, and Jez Butterworth's Jerusalem, which he attended on its West End transfer in the run-up to the election.

Hunt's most recent direct intervention in the arts world was his decision to fire Liz Forgan as chair of Arts Council England, saying that a new appointment was necessary in order to encourage greater private giving to the arts, and to help the arts sector "make the most of technological changes". John Tusa, Veronica Wadley and Peter Bazalgette have been mooted as possible successors. Whether Hunt will still be around to appoint one of them seems doubtful – unless, in the words of Take That, everything changes.

Correction 26/4/12. The article suggested that Hunt's opposite number is Labour's Dan Jarvis. In fact Jarvis is shadow culture minister. The shadow culture secretary is Harriet Harman. This has been corrected. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

April 11 2012

V&A Museum's Great Bed of Ware makes itself at home

Giant four-poster, whose colourful past includes cameos in plays by Shakespeare and Jonson, sent back on loan to home town

Shakespeare used it as a byword for huge size and 26 butchers and their wives allegedly spent the night in it for a bet in 1689. Now the enormous Tudor bed that has been a centrepiece of the Victoria and Albert Museum for more than 80 years has a new temporary home.

The piece of furniture in question is the Great Bed of Ware, which has left South Kensington to take pride of place in the tiny museum of its Hertfordshire home town for a year.

Moving it was a huge logistical challenge from which emerged a surprise: hitherto unknown graffiti from 18th- and 19th-century admirers wanting to leave their mark on the bed.

Kate Hay, a curator in the V&A's furniture department, said the discovery of the graffiti – more than 20 scrawled names and initials – came about because of the laborious process of dismantling and packing up the three-metre-wide, 641kg (almost 101st) bed, which took around six days, followed by nine days getting it to a newly constructed extension at Ware Museum.

Just getting it out of the V&A was problematic, requiring 10 strapping carriers and an unconventional exit route, avoiding narrow doors and corridors.

Martin Roth, the V&A's director, said the bed was "one of the V&A's most loved exhibits and has never been off display since it was acquired in 1931".

He added: "To remove the bed from the British galleries, transport it and reinstall it in another location is unprecedented, requiring much skill and dedication. We hope that the people of Ware will enjoy visiting this historic bed and that it will bring their local history alive."

The bed was made in the 1590s, probably by German craftsmen in Southwark and presumably for an inn owner in Ware – an hour's ride from London and packed with places to stay – who wanted to make a name for himself.

Its existence was first recorded in 1596 by a travelling German prince staying at the White Hart. The bed obviously achieved fame because five years later Shakespeare has Sir Toby Belch in Twelfth Night describe a sheet of paper as "big enough for the Bed of Ware". It was referenced in Ben Jonson's 1609 play The Silent Woman and in George Farquhar's 1706 play The Recruiting Officer, in which a bed is "bigger by half than the Great Bed of Ware".

For most of its life the bed has been an attraction rather than a sleeping place – a repeat of the 26 butchers' exploits is not something that would be countenanced these days, the V&A stresses.

The bed was passed around several Ware inns before it moved a pleasure garden in nearby Hoddesdon towards the end of the 19th century, becoming a bank holiday attraction during the boom in rail travel.

The V&A did consider buying the bed in 1860, but its hand was finally forced in 1931 when it looked as though it was heading to an American buyer at auction. The V&A stepped in to buy it for £4,000, which proved good value – the bed has always been high on the list of the museum's most popular objects.

Hay said: "It's such a memorable sight to see a bed this size. It is something that people who don't know an awful lot about the museum have heard of."

The Ware display will be officially opened on Saturday by Lucy Worsley, chief curator at Historic Royal Palaces. An award of £229,000 from the Heritage Lottery Fund helped the Ware Museum Trust put the bed on display.

"We're just so proud that we've all managed to do it," said Janet Watson, a trustee of the museum for 25 years. "To co-operate with the V&A on such a big project is absolutely amazing. We're still pinching ourselves – we can't believe it's here." © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

December 27 2011

Renaissance art: a matter of perspective

Court painters of the 15th and 16th centuries often deployed visual tricks to demonstrate their mastery of the form

"And perspective it is best painter's art", wrote Shakespeare in his 24th sonnet (OUP text), "For through the painter must you see his skill / To find where your true image pictured lies ..."

The word "perspective" is being used here in an unfamiliar way. We associate perspective with logic and sense, as well as with the art of the Renaissance. To get things in perspective is to get a balanced and accurate view. But Shakespeare uses perspective to mean something more mysterious. The perspective painter, he suggests, uses skill to create a mystery picture that must be looked "through" to find your "true image".

This is a fascinating reference to art in Shakespeare. It is not hard to find Tudor paintings that match his image of "perspective" as optical trickery, the hiding of the truth in a difficult image. In the National Portrait Gallery you can see a painting of Edward VI that is deliberately distorted. In 1546 the artist William Scrots portrayed Edward as a stretched face suspended over a landscape: you have to stand to the side, close to the wall, to get a more realistic view of the young Tudor.

This is a "special effect" whose most famous example is next door, in the National Gallery, in Hans Holbein the Younger's painting The Ambassadors. Holbein shows two gentlemen and their attributes of science and learning in mesmerising detail, but across the surface of the painting erupts a black and white smear or stain. Once again, only when you stand at the side will it resolve itself into the stark image of a skull.

Was it Holbein who brought this technique to Britain? This German painter who worked at the court of Henry VIII was far in advance of homegrown artists as a master of Renaissance techniques. Distorted perspective is a tricksy variation on the skills and science that evolved in 15th- and 16th-century Europe to depict the real world: it is therefore a show-off stunt by masters of technique. It's because Holbein can paint faces so realistically that he can also distort an object while including within that distortion the "true" appearance of the thing.

Renaissance courts loved trick art. In the gallery of Prague Castle hangs a portrait cut into strips, which shows you alternating faces of three Habsburgs according to where you stand. Another famous portrait of Rudolf II, the eccentric Prague dynast, by Arcimboldo shows him as a collection of fruit and vegetables. Were such tricks more popular the further you got from the centre of art and learning in Italy?

There's something raw and naive about the Tudor culture that was amazed by trick paintings. But out of this northern outpost of the Renaissance comes Shakespeare, effortlessly including an image of painterly curiosity in his intricate labyrinth of words. © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

October 28 2011

Great art like Velázquez is best not left to the experts

In contrast to Shakespeare, who belongs to all, the valuation of a lost portrait by the Spaniard is a matter for a knowledge elite

Is a "new" Diego Velázquez portrait unveiled this week the real thing? I assume so. Experts have declared that a painting previously attributed to a different artist is worth £3m now it has been given to the great Spanish painter. Who wants to argue with the experts?

Yet it's one of those art stories that adds little to our understanding of art, precisely because they are presented as debates among "experts" whose connoisseurship and knowledge is presumably so lofty that the general public can only shrug at what they say. Van Gogh's death was another recent issue that came and went in the news without adding anything to anyone's ability to respond to his paintings. These stories are so ephemeral and at the same time so unilluminating that it is tempting to think that art journalism is all just meaningless blather.

Yet it is not really the "media" or the "internet", twin scapegoats of the age, that make these stories so opaque. The Velázquez find is of legitimate interest – an undiscovered portrait by the man who painted Las Meninas is surely important. But the reason so much news reporting of art is uninspiring is the gap that exists, between a knowledge elite whose opinions shape prices at Sotheby's and the ordinary art lover who does not feel qualified to engage with the qualities that might make a painting a Velázquez (or not).

It was heartening to read the thread of debate that followed my piece on Shakespeare yesterday, because so many people were adding their own knowledge to the argument. Shakespeare is like that – he inspires interest and passion. The argument seemed substantive, and it struck me that Shakespeare is truly our common cultural property in a way that few great painters or sculptors are.

Even in Spain, I don't think people are close enough to the life and work of Velázquez to engage in such a debate. Knowledge of art is a specialism that revels in exclusiveness. There are art snobs but no Shakespeare snobs. And this seems to have something to do with money and power: you and I will go and see the "new" Leonardo da Vinci painting, Salvator Mundi, at the National Gallery soon but our opinions of it will be irrelevant to the debate among experts that determines its ultimate status and price tag.

Art needs a knowledge revolution. A day must come when the great art of the world can be enjoyed, appreciated and discussed by a public armed with a useful, insightful and humane art education. The old masters are too important to be left to these experts and snobs and auction houses. We need to be able to converse with great artists as we can with Shakespeare. © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

June 13 2011

Artist biographies: more than just cheap gossip

Snooping into the personal lives of great artists and authors isn't just a guilty pleasure – it brings their works to life

Do the biographies of artists – where they came from, who they loved, what they looked like – matter? Or is our obsession with putting a face, a name and a personal story to a great work of art just a distraction from truly engaging with it? Can artistic biography ever be more than cheap gossip?

Philip Roth probably speaks for many writers when he scorns the biographers who search for keys to the work in the creator's life – a standpoint scathingly conveyed in his 2007 novel Exit Ghost. The artists Jasper Johns and Cy Twombly presumably agree with him as both have sought to keep their personal lives remote. For any serious creative artist it must be galling to think that works produced in the calm of the study or studio will be picked apart for personal meanings.

And yet there is no stopping the telling of stories about great art. Oxford historians working on 16th-century coroners' records have just recently added to the sparse and treasured stock of anecdotes about the life of William Shakespeare. The death by drowning of a child whose surname is a variant spelling of Shakespeare – names were spelt in all sorts of ways back then – may be the inspiration for Ophelia's death in Hamlet: a family story, perhaps, resurfacing in his work.

Only a few such tantalising personal details of Shakespeare's life exist, yet this does not stop literary critics trying to reconstruct a life from which to make sense of the works. Nor should it. The fact is that art is a communication between human beings, and to imagine the author as someone who once lived a flesh-and-blood existence may be fundamental to any serious reading of it. The alternative view, that art exists in Byzantine perfection beyond anecdote, smacks of sterile pretension. This is why people started telling tales about Shakespeare centuries ago, and still do.

While Shakespeare is a spectre somewhere within his dramas, other great creators make the connection of art and life explicit. The Italian medieval poets Dante and Petrarch led the way in putting their lives into their art. Both write of their deep love for a named woman – Dante's Beatrice and Petrarch's Laura – in a way that was to shape new ideas of the artist as an individual with particular affinities, desires and pain that must be told. Michelangelo transfers this personal voice to visual art, and his voice is more idiosyncratic than those of his medieval literary predecessors. It was not until the Romantic age that Michelangelo's precocious individuality was taken up as a norm and ideal right across the arts.

Was Romanticism a decline in art? Does it infect us to this day with a vulgar need to know the singer as well as the song? To think so is a basic misunderstanding of the place of art in life. Only if we want art to be a kind of courtly decor can we yearn for a return to the pre-Romantic era when artists hid in the background and the consumers of their works took centre stage. The Romantic belief in the expressive nature of all art is the only attitude that truly values creative genius. To search out anecdotes about Shakespeare is not to trivialise him, but to revere him properly. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

January 23 2011

Twelfth Night; Tiger Country; The Painter – review

Cottesloe; Hampstead; Arcola, all London

To celebrate his 80th birthday, Peter Hall has returned to the building he once ran and directed a sweetly autumnal Twelfth Night. His breeches-and-farthingale production, set under a canopy flecked with russet-coloured leaves, doesn't break much new ground – there's hardly a moment when it shows you something you'd never suspected was there – but, at its best, it does better than that: it seems completely natural.

Take Simon Paisley Day's icily exact Malvolio, who walks as if he were skating, and whose head lies so still on his ruff that it could be a severed bonce on a platter. Or his polar opposite, Simon Callow's Toby Belch: pink-faced, wobbly cheeks, a belting old fruit. He is every flabby inch the ramshackle roisterer, who announces the keynote of his unbuttoned, spilling-over performance in his spluttering rejection of the notion that he "confine" himself. Yet just as that looks too easy, he finds another register.

Usually it's the wistful absurdity of Andrew Aguecheek's "I was adored once" that brings a plaintive note into the clash of tankards. Here, though, it is Callow's crumpling face, as he declares that Maria adores him, that ushers in a sudden change of temperature.

There are some duff stretches. The yellow stockings sequence is neither funny nor disturbing. David Ryall's Feste is not so much melancholy as down-in-the-dumps: he wanders on like Mole after a bad day's spring cleaning in The Wind in the Willows. And as Orsino, Marton Csokas is preposterous: a wrist-bending, knee-pleating, over-expostulating, neck-bridling gazer into the middle distance, he seems to be taking off a Victorian pantomime villain.

Still, the centre of the play is gracefully delivered by the daughter of the director, Rebecca Hall. Her velvet-voiced androgyny supplies its tender heart. Lightly soulful as she trembles between tearfulness and merriment, she looks, in knickerbockers and buckled shoes, like an older version of the boy in When Did You Last See Your Father? A question to which she could provide the right answer.

As could her brother, Edward, the newish artistic director of Hampstead. It's taken Hall the Younger a little time to show the fighting form needed to put his beleaguered theatre on the new-writing map. Still, with Nina Raine's medical play, directed by the dramatist, he has something that can be judged by the high standards set by the Royal Court. On press night people were swearing they could smell disinfectant wafting from the stage.

Tiger Country was actually started before Tribes, which remains Raine's best work so far. It has the metro wit and banter of her first play, Rabbit, but a bigger canvas and more elaborate movement. Set in a big London hospital, it closely observes diagnostic skill, failed attempts at resuscitation, a bungled operation, great gentleness in dealing with a dying patient, and an impatience with the idea that "caring" means a caressing manner. This is not an obviously political play. It is not about NHS cuts, though it does have things to say about shortage of time and staff, and about constant fatigue: "I'm losing patience with the patients.'"

Alongside zeal and high spirits, it shows bullying, frustration and prejudice among the clinical staff: an Indian doctor, fresh from sneering at a West Indian nurse, complains that she has spent her career trying to sound hyper-British and to behave as if she were a man. It also drops little nuggets of information. A young doctor hoards swabs to take off her makeup; a surgeon explains that the same neurones in our brains are activated by eating sugary things and by settling a score: "In other words, revenge is sweet."

You are in tiger country in an operating theatre when you take a knife close to an artery. Raine's achievement is to stage a world governed by the laws of that country. Everyone rushes; everyone is on the edge. Huge images of a pumping heart swim around the walls of the stage as if in an underwater landscape; characters in sea-green gowns weave frantically around each other. And when they take off their gowns (and settle down to watch Doctors on the telly), their love affairs are arrhythmic, as if they too are moving to a hospital beat.

Follow the director and impresario Mehmet Ergen and you're likely to end up in the theatrical thick of things. In 1993 he helped to found Southwark Playhouse, on a South Bank that was innocent of edgy theatre; he slept in the building. Nowadays you can't move there for dramatic life. Eleven years ago he snatched an old textile factory in Dalston, east London, from the hands of developers who wanted to turn it into a snooker hall and founded the Arcola, to the dismay of some critics who considered the area alarming.

That building is now being turned into deluxe flats, Dalston has become a transport hub, and Ergen has taken his vision – which includes programmes for schools, and plays designed to encourage co-operation between local Turkish and Kurdish residents – into a beautiful industrial mansion: an 1868 factory built by Reeves, the paint manufacturers, a vaulting space with exposed brick (and currently rather over-exposed lavs), iron pillars, a smell of sawdust and possibility.

Here he has directed Rebecca Lenkiewicz's play about JMW Turner, who used the cakes of paint made by the firm. As a series of historical vignettes, The Painter is a fine thing. Rumpled, furrowed Toby Jones works at his golden sunsets and swirling storms in a studio meticulously but not too doggedly reconstructed in Ben Stones's design with bottle-green stove, clutter of paints and chamber-pot-concealing screen; the brickwork and rough floorboards of the new Arcola wire the 19th century into the 21st.

Alongside the artist, though never quite impinging on him, are his mother, who goes mad and is taken to Bedlam; Sarah Danby, by whom he had two children, who cleaves to him; an ex-prostitute (impressive Denise Gough) who befriends him; and his father, who cooks for him. Turner talks of the sublime; others talk of the pleasures of wig-making, the fascination of snake-swallowers ("you just pinch their tail and they'll hop in there") and the ploy of putting leeches inside young prostitutes to make clients think they are having a virgin.

Adrienne Quartly's soundscape sends husky notes from a bass clarinet curling between episodes; superb lighting by Emma Chapman makes each scene a small adventure in illumination and obscurity. What's odd is that the different light of Turner's own paintings doesn't infiltrate the play. The gap between domestic life and activity on the canvas is hinted at but not explored. The play drifts. Not so much The Fighting Temeraire as a trim little dinghy. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

June 18 2010

Lisa Jardine on Close Examination at the National Gallery

Nothing is more exciting to a biographer than the 'discovery' of a 'missing' portrait of their subject. But all too often, in their eagerness for new material, even scholars can be duped. Fortunately, scientific methods are making it easier to spot the fakes, as the National Gallery's new exhibition proves

I remember as an undergraduate being impressed by the iconoclastic critic John Berger's argument that a fake old master ought to fetch as much on the open market as the real thing, since even the experts could not tell the difference between them. According to this way of looking at things, the art market ought not to care about authenticity as long as its profits remain high, and collectors are happy to hang forgeries on their living-room walls.

The point is not just that the forgery passes for authentic, however. Adding spurious evidence to the store of available data on an artist also skews our understanding of their life and work, misleading us into taking as "fact" something merely conjured cunningly up by the vivid imagination of the forger. What makes this all the more historically damaging is that counterfeiters tend to feed off the public's hunger to know about particularly high-profile figures with gaps in their biographies.

The more celebrated the individual, the more eagerly the public seizes on documentary evidence that purports to belong to them. Of no British public figure is this more true than William Shakespeare. In December 1794 a young man named William-Henry Ireland presented his antiquarian collector father with a manuscript he claimed to have discovered in a trunk in a country house belonging to a "gentleman of large fortune". The manuscript document was a mortgage deed for the Globe Theatre at Bankside, signed and sealed by Shakespeare himself. Since Shakespeare's death in 1616 almost nothing beyond his infamous will (leaving his wife his second best bed) had surfaced in the way of reliable documentary evidence concerning Britain's best-loved playwright. Ireland senior, who had spent his life searching for Shakespearian memorabilia, was entirely convinced that the deed his son had found was the real thing.

Now Ireland junior produced a number of other official documents and literary fragments in quick succession which further fleshed out Shakespeare's hitherto shadowy life. There were letters exchanged between Shakespeare and the Earl of Southampton, and a note from Elizabeth I to Shakespeare signed in her unmistakeable hand, thanking him for the "pretty verses" he had sent her. Eventually Ireland even produced a transcript of the entire text of a lost play, laced with poetic echoes of Hamlet and King Lear.

The news of young Ireland's discoveries caused a sensation. Samuel Johnson's biographer James Boswell examined the documents and pronounced them glorious and certainly authentic. So did numerous other literary luminaries. Entire chapters were added to Shakespeare's life story based on the counterfeit documents. Ireland finally overreached himself and was unmasked as a fraudster when the so-called lost play (which he had written himself) went into production and was booed off the London stage at its first performance.

Today it is obvious to anyone with even a little knowledge of early manuscripts that every one of the documents Ireland produced was a clumsy forgery. They neither look nor read like genuine items from the period. Ireland had used old endpapers from second-hand books, written on them in plausibly faded ink, and attached seals filched from the law office in which he worked. Careful examination ought easily to have exposed these obvious counterfeiting devices. But for a time the literary world was convinced, because critics and the general public so badly wanted the purported finds to be genuine.

Archives and documentary evidence on their own can get one only so far in deciding securely on the attribution of a painting or the identity of a sitter. In recent years, fortunately, the increasing use of a range of new scientific methods to examine paintings and documents has given a whole extra dimension both to uncovering fakes and mistakes and to turning up exciting discoveries in gallery vaults and museum archives.

The exhibition Close Examination: Fakes, Mistakes and Discoveries, which opens shortly at the National Gallery in London, brings together a number of works of art whose very identity has been altered using these new scientific methods. The late 15th-century painting by an unknown northern European artist, Portrait of Alexander Mornauer, for example, was for centuries described as a work by Hans Holbein, court painter to Henry VIII. When the National Gallery acquired the painting in 1990 and subjected it to scientific analysis, it was discovered that a layer of cobalt blue paint – typical of surviving Holbein portraits – had been applied over the original brown of the background. Further examination showed that the style of the sitter's headgear had been carefully modified from a cylindrical fez-like hat to a neat cap, again more like the hat that might be worn by the sitter in a genuine Holbein. It appears in this case that the original work had been altered for an 18th-century buyer at a time when the work of Holbein was in great demand.

If enough is at stake, however, even overwhelming scientific evidence will not persuade those determined to hold on to cherished beliefs about the authenticity or otherwise of cherished images. Once again, Shakespeare provides us with a striking example of such tenacity. In 2006, after three and a half years of intensive research, using all the latest scientific methods, on six portraits that were all supposed to be genuine likenesses of Shakespeare, Dr Tarnya Cooper of the National Portrait Gallery announced the experts' findings. All but one of the portraits had been conclusively shown to be inauthentic. Only the so-called Chandos portrait showed Shakespeare's true features. Even then, Cooper stressed that the attribution remained tentative: "It would be lovely to be categorical. It is certainly fairly likely we are looking at the face of Shakespeare, but we'd need a document or a signature to prove it beyond all doubt."

Of the other five portraits, scrupulous analysis revealed that two were fakes. Analysis of paint samples from the Flower portrait, owned by the Royal Shakespeare Company, revealed the presence of a yellow pigment which did not come on to the market until the early 19th century. In the case of the Janssen portrait, conservation work carried out on the painting found that the sitter's hairline had been modified to make him look more "Shakespearian" and a fake inscription had been added.

This has not, however, put an end to hopeful claims to have finally unearthed Shakespeare's "true" likeness, based on fairly dubious circumstantial evidence. Only last year, another contender was produced, this time a painting in the family collection of art restorer Alec Cobbe. This portrait allegedly closely resembled the engraving on the frontispiece of the first folio of Shakespeare's plays, long accepted as having been taken from a contemporary painting. The distinguished Shakespeare scholar Stanley Wells was convinced: "My excitement has grown with the amount of evidence about the provenance of the painting. I am willing to go 90% that this is the only lifetime portrait of Shakespeare." As someone who had spent an entire career in the hope of a discovery of this dramatic kind, he had let his excitement get the better of him. Cooper was more levelheaded. The National Portrait Gallery technical expert brusquely dismissed the painting as "more likely to represent the courtier Sir Thomas Overbury".

Fraudsters prey upon our hopeful expectations. The honest mistakes scholars make, too, are most likely to happen where the misidentification gives them and the public at large a long-lost and much sought-after item from the oeuvre of an important individual, to whom an expert has devoted long years of patient study. I have myself had firsthand experience of "discovering" a painting that was known once to have existed, but had been "missing" for generations. And I have also had my hopes eventually dashed, when someone conclusively demonstrated that my convincing find was in fact a mistake. In 2002 I was completing a biography of the scientist, polymath and close friend of Sir Christopher Wren, Robert Hooke. Notoriously, no portrait of Hooke survives – supposedly because Sir Isaac Newton, who was president of the Royal Society when Hooke died in 1703, disliked him so heartily that he had the two existing portraits, which contemporary witnesses tell us hung in their premises, destroyed.

My hunch had always been that the portraits would have been put away somewhere and "lost" rather than destroyed. So when I came upon a little-known late-17th-century portrait in the Natural History Museum, which matched descriptions I had of what Hooke looked like in middle age, it instantly caught my attention. The portrait bore the inscription "John Ray", but was clearly not of this botanist contemporary of Hooke's, since numerous other images of Ray survive and this portrait in no way resembled any of them. The records attributed the portrait to Mary Beale, whom documentary evidence shows to have executed a lost portrait of Hooke's colleague and friend Robert Boyle.

My pulse began to race. I studied the painting closely, first in reproduction and then physically, with the enthusiastic help of an art-historian friend and the expert advice of the archivist at the Natural History Museum. The museum records showed that the painting was received as a bequest from Sir William Watson, a celebrated 18th-century experimentalist at the Royal Society, whose discoveries in the field of electricity were made at the same time as those of Benjamin Franklin. He left the painting to the trustees of the British Museum in 1787: "I give and bequeath my Picture of the late learned and ingenious Dr John Ray painted by Mrs Beale a Scholar of Sir Peter Lely to the trustees of the British Museum to be placed if the Trustees think proper in the Room of the said Museum wherein Ray's Bust is already placed."

The Mercers' Company provided a grant for the portrait to be cleaned, which revealed that the "John Ray" inscription was indeed a later addition; several entries in Hooke's diary convinced me that he was in the right place at the right time and likely to have been the sitter. I even believed I could now detect the slightest trace of a bent back – contemporary descriptions refer to Hooke's curvature of the spine. The newly cleaned painting was displayed as part of an anniversary exhibition on Hooke at Oxford's Museum of the History of Science, and a visitor poll showed that two-thirds of those who responded judged the portrait to be of Hooke.

For close to a year I bombarded everyone I could think of with photos of the painting for confirmation or otherwise of my "find". As far as I know, they were all persuaded. One Hooke expert even pointed out to me the family resemblance between my portrait and a photograph of a known descendent. Other scholars noted additional tell-tale traces which they believed supported my identification. I used the painting as the cover image for my biography of Hooke, though I cautioned in my introduction that there was always the possibility that somebody might be able to show that I had been mistaken.

Two years later somebody did just that. An American historian of science identified the man in the painting as Jan Baptist van Helmont, a 17th-century Flemish alchemist, on the basis of the resemblance to an engraving of Van Helmont on the title page of his posthumous works. Since there is no surviving portrait of Van Helmont, this was a pretty exciting identification, too. Further investigation suggested that my "Hooke" portrait might have been one of a series of paintings of distinguished scientists, by an unknown artist, commissioned for the invalid intellectual Lady Conway by Van Helmont's son, Francis Mercury van Helmont. The younger Van Helmont had been her scientific mentor and personal physician in the 1670s, and lived with her on her Warwickshire estate. I publicly conceded that I had let my own enthusiasm get the better of me and been misled.

However, it is embarrassing for me to have to report that a quick trawl on Google Images reveals that the portrait I discovered – now convincingly reidentified as Van Helmont – continues to be widely used on any number of websites as a portrait of Robert Hooke, to the considerable annoyance of scholars who know that my identification was mistaken. I fear that some of them consider that, however genuine my mistake was, I am now at fault for failing to stop my wrongly identified portrait from continuing to circulate.

The discovery of an unknown piece of data or material about a prominent figure, be they author, artist or sitter, makes it possible to enlarge our understanding of them. With the help of modern technical research methods, new items are likely to be added to the rich remains of the past. At the same time, these resources will also eliminate as spurious some items long thought to be genuine. Among these, some will be genuinely mistaken attributions or identifications, others will be downright forgeries.

In the end, those of us who look to the past for knowledge helpful to our understanding of the way things are today will go on taking the risk of the outside chance of finding something exciting and new. I am still on the lookout for that lost portrait of Hooke, just as Stanley Wells will keep looking for something more lively than the Chandos portrait to identify as the likeness of Shakespeare. As for the forgers, they will always be able to find those willing, at least for a while, to be duped.

Close Examination: Fakes, Mistakes and Discoveries is at the National Gallery, London WC2, from 30 June-12 September. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

April 19 2010

Tragic death inspires golden quest

Treasure hunt result of decision to ease pain by painting

Three years ago, Patrick and Patricia Padget's world collapsed when their son was suddenly killed. This week, the couple will launch a project which might seem an odd response to the tragedy – challenging the nation to a Shakespearean treasure hunt.

On Friday, the Padgets will launch a competition ‑ part-artistic, part-literary ‑ in the vein of Kit Williams' Masquerade, the 1979 book which contained elaborate clues as to the whereabouts of a golden hare.

The Padgets' online contest, called Shakespeare's Treasure, offers the ultimate winner a prize of a beautiful jewelled golden mask, but they say it is intended as fun, in stark contrast to the reason the west London couple began to work on it in the first place.

"It has been a form of therapy for us," said Patrick. "It's now three years since our son Nicholas was killed. I guess it felt like a landmine. It was the most appalling thing you can imagine."

Their son was killed, aged 27, by a single blow to the head after a night out. After two days at his bedside, they agreed to turn off his life support machine. A pub bouncer was accused of his manslaughter but was later acquitted.

The effect on their lives was catastrophic; their successful creative design business ‑ of which Nicholas had been an integral part ‑ headed into rapid collapse.

"We lost millions really. I did keep on going in to work and I kept running and running but I just couldn't do it.

"And then for some reason," said Patrick, "and I can't quite put my finger on why, but we started painting."

The Padgets were already artistic, having first met at the Chelsea School of Art, but they took the pastime to new levels, inventing an artist alter ego called A Piper. "We could cope better with life if there was another person there," said Patrick.

A year ago, their painting called Shakespeare's Desert Island Discs was shown at a London gallery. Some people from Shakespeare's Globe saw it, liked it, and the Padgets were eventually offered an exhibition.

The couple decided to do a different painting for each Shakespeare play and then, after a day at the National Gallery, hit upon the idea of using paintings in the national collection as inspiration. From there came the treasure hunt idea, a project that has taken three months to complete.

"It has all gone unbelievably well," said Patrick. "The whole project has felt blessed in some way. Anything that could have gone right did."

Entrants will first have to solve a set of Shakespeare questions before studying the A Piper paintings, all of which contain a quote. While the contest will not be easy, it will not all be ridiculously fiendish. "Some of it is straightforward, some of it is difficult, some of it will take a bit of delving," said Patricia.

"We want to take people on a journey," said her husband. "One on which they might learn something, they'll have a lot of fun and they might end up winning something very beautiful."

It will cost people £10 to enter and the couple say they want to cover their costs. At least 25% of the proceeds will go to a charitable fund, called Nick's Fund, half going to Shakespeare's Globe Trust and the other to the Children's Society.

"When Nick died we discovered that he'd been a supporter since he was 11 years old, and we didn't know," said Patrick. If they get more money than expected, they will then re-assess how much to give, he said.

The competition website,, opens on Friday ‑ Shakespeare's birthday ‑ and the contest runs for a year. Along the way, additional prizes will be up for grabs including boxed sets of the A Piper prints while the original paintings will be on display at the Globe theatre on the south bank of the Thames. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

April 05 2010

Digging in the Bard's back yard

Pottery scraps and other finds unearthed on site of New Place mansion may help to rewrite playwright's story

Archaeologists in Stratford-upon-Avon have made a sensational discovery: Shakespeare's broken beer jug. Possibly.

Scraps of pottery, broken clay pipe and a 19th century penny have emerged from a muddy hole in what was a garden until a week ago. But this is the most extensive hunt for Shakespeare in his own backyard in 150 years, and every scrap is precious.

In 1597 the playwright returned from London a rich and famous man and bought New Place, the second best house in his home town. He had a fair copy made of his title deeds, now in the archives of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, owner of the site and a string of other properties linked with the most famous playwright in the world. The house vanished centuries ago but Birmingham Archaeology and volunteers are joining forces to recover any evidence left in the ground.

They dream of a manuscript, but a scrap of window glass would do nicely.

The excavation has already rehabilitated one of the most famous villains in heritage history, the Reverend Francis Gastrell.

"He has been much maligned by history," Paul Edmondson, head of education at the trust, said.

In 1759 Gastrell was feuding with the council over property boundaries and, irritated even then by the stream of tourists, demolished what he believed was Shakespeare's house – three years after his wife chopped down the mulberry tree said to have been planted by the playwright.

"This is like opening Tutankhamun's tomb in your own back garden," said Richard Kemp, heritage manager at the trust, who has applied for a grant so that tourists can join in washing and sieving every shovelful of soil removed.

On the first day of digging the team found that a redbrick flower bed, dug up regularly to fertilise the roses, covered a rectangle of stone which Halliwell-Phillips believed was Shakespeare's bow window.

You wont get far in Stratford-upon-Avon suggesting that Shakespeare was really Francis Bacon, Ben Jonson or the Earl of Southampton.

The Bard of Avon was born in a first floor bedroom in Henley Street, over his father's glove workshop on the ground floor and the reeking tannery out the back. He was educated in the town, then disappears from history for years before turning up again in Stratford records as the young husband of the older and pregnant Anne Hathaway, and in London as a jobbing actor. By the time of his death in 1616 – according to legend on his birthday, St George's Day, April 23, celebrated in the town with processions and banquets every year since 1824 – he was emphatically, as the record of his burial in a leather-bound volume in the archives states, William Shakespeare Gent.

When Virginia Woolf visited New Place in the 1930s, she was told it was where he wrote the Tempest. Edmondson believes it was where he wrote all the late plays.

"This excavation may help rewrite our view of Shakespeare," Edmondson said "There isn't a scrap of evidence for the persistent suggestion that he was an uncaring, neglectful and distant father.

"We know he owned property in London, but we don't know that he was ever anything except a lodger there. Why, after he bought this splendid house and installed his family there, when he had somewhere to keep the books he needed and somewhere peaceful to work, why would he not have come back here to write? My belief is that he became a literary commuter, in London whenever he had to be, living and working in Stratford the rest of the time."

The excavation will continue, open to the public seven days a week, for the rest of the year. The archaeologists hope to locate a potential treasure trove, the midden and rubbish dump. That could hold anything, from scraps of manuscript to the contents of the slop buckets.

"Shakespeare's poo!" Kemp whispers gleefully.

Edmonson is more romantic. Sir Hugh Clopton, who owned the house in the late 17th century, wrote there were still inscriptions on the window panes, some written by Shakespeare himself, some by his children, and that he "took great pleasure when he could trace in them some pretty display of that genius which God and Nature had blessed him with".

"So what happened to that glass when the house was demolished?" Edmondson says, "just imagine if we found that." © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Older posts are this way If this message doesn't go away, click anywhere on the page to continue loading posts.
Could not load more posts
Maybe Soup is currently being updated? I'll try again automatically in a few seconds...
Just a second, loading more posts...
You've reached the end.

Don't be the product, buy the product!