At the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust we care for over one million items across our museum, library and archives in our internationally recognised collections. In more recent years our team behind the scenes in retail development and brand licensing have increasingly looked to our collections for inspiration, and images, colours, textiles, patterns and physical objects have all informed the products we develop and sell in our shops. It was our own bookshop, however, the things our customers and visitors were interested in, and our own particular passion for the hundreds of 16th and 17th-century books in our care that inspired our new book, A Shakespeare Motley. Knowing that many of these period volumes were printed in Shakespeare’s lifetime, and that some could well have been books that he knew, cast an intriguing new light on the world that Shakespeare lived in and the worlds that he wrote about in his plays. We began to form our own ideas for creating a book that captured this, a book that revealed something of Shakespeare’s time, gave a taste of his plays and poems, made connections between what he knew and perhaps experienced and what he wrote about and, most importantly, that was gorgeously designed and illustrated with images from books of the period. Having already worked with them on The Quest for Shakespeare’s Garden, we were delighted when Thames & Hudson, well known for their beautiful, design-led books, agreed to collaborate with us again.
The 19th-century Shakespearean scrapbooks in our collection, in which the compilers had literally cut and pasted illustrations from earlier sources, led us to think about producing a miscellany or commonplace book. We liked the idea of an A-Z too, not a conventional reference book but one with quirky, unconventional subject headings, prompted in part by the illustrated material. The A-Z format also presented us with the opportunity to include - and the challenge to find - a decorative capital letter for each letter of the alphabet. We’re pleased to say we succeeded in this, not least thanks to Andrew, our eagle-eyed digitisation officer - although readers will notice we have substituted an uppercase V for the letter U, as was common practice among printers in Shakespeare’s day.
Letters from The Scholemaster (1571) and The Breviary of Healthe (1577)
Although we had compiled a list of potential topics to research, we were open to new ideas sparked by the images we discovered along the way. Apothecary, armour, execution, mermaid, printing and urinal are just a few of the many entries prompted by illustrations. Some books - John Gerard’s Herball (1633), for example, and Edward Topsell’s The History of Four-Footed Beasts (1658) - we knew were a treasure trove of beautiful images, but we felt it was important to explore beyond these, to uncover new gems and to give breadth to the world we were trying to evoke, and we enlisted the help of our librarian, Mareike. Aside from researching and writing the book, new photography was also a major undertaking. Furthermore, the quality of these digital images meant that we were often able to focus in on the tiniest detail and give new life even to familiar illustrations.
We were keen, too, that the illustrations were not simply reproduced as supporting figures or plates but were integral to the design of the book and incorporated into the layout of the text. For this, we are indebted to our designer at Thames & Hudson, Avni Patel, who digitally coloured, cleaned and cut out all of the images, from the skulls and spades in the margins of A Book of Christian Prayer (1581) to a tiny figure of Icarus falling from the sky in an illustrated edition of Ovid’s Metamorphosis (1632). We shall be writing about some of our favourite illustrations from the book in the second instalment of this blog.
While we researched the images and wrote more words than we had originally intended, we also invited Avni and our editor, Lucy Smith, to Stratford for an immersive visit to our rare book stack. This was a wonderful opportunity to see close up some of the wonderful books and prints that we had been working with. Collectively these would inspire the colour palette for A Shakespeare Motley and a number of typographic choices for the book: the references to quotations from the plays presented as a gloss in the margin; the combination of different typefaces and the use of red lettering; and, from Andrew Boorde’s The Breviary of Healthe (1557), the manicule or pointed hand symbol that appears throughout the book.
From the feel of the pages to the beautiful bindings, nothing quite compares to experiencing these rare books first hand, and we resolved that A Shakespeare Motley’s production values should reflect this experience and celebrate the book as an object too. It is fair to say that Thames & Hudson exceeded our expectations in this. The published book is quarter bound, with gold foil blocking, printed on a heavy weight cream paper and finished with stunning endpapers reproduced from The Grete Herbal (1529). We like to think it does our early printed books proud. Do have a look and let us know what you think.
A Shakespeare Motley is available in the Shakespeare Bookshop or online.