The underpropper

We imagine Shakespeare on the periphery of the Mountjoy workshop, observing those details of the tiremaker’s trade which surface in his texts. To see him in our mind’s eye we borrow from various images of him, chief among them the engraved portrait in the First Folio, at once the most authentic and problematic of the portraits - the domed forehead, the perfunctorily stippled beard, the stiff, tray-like collar. The sombrely stylish ‘Chandos’ portrait is more attractive, and more theatrical, but it is the Folio engraving which has the imprimatur of Shakespeare’s contemporaries - it is placed at the threshold of his Collected Works by editors who had known him for decades, and who presumably considered it a reasonable likeness.54 And just possibly this iconic little portrait of Shakespeare has, in itself, a connection with the Silver Street workshop.

The circumstances of the portrait are mysterious. All we know for certain is to be found in the three millimetres of margin that surrounds the engraving, where a neat cursive inscription reads, ‘Martin Droeshout sculpsit London’. But exactly which Martin Droeshout ‘sculpted’ or engraved it is not clear. The Droeshouts were a dynasty of immigrant Dutch painters and engravers - the contemporary English spelling ‘Drussett’ broadly conveys the correct Dutch pronunciation. There are two Martins on record, uncle and nephew, and both have their proponents as the engraver of the Folio portrait.55

Whichever one it was, it is more or less certain that his engraving was based, as most of them were, on an earlier portrait. It was a copy. According to Roy Strong the original portrait was a miniature, as ‘evidenced in the linear terms [of the engraving] which could derive from a miniature in the Hilliard manner’. He compares William Marshall’s engraving of John Donne, published in the 1630s, but based on a painted miniature of 1591. Others see no specific evidence that the original was a miniature; it could have been a line-drawing, or a ‘small-scale panel or canvas painting’.56 The fact that the engraving is a copy explains some of its technical deficiencies, particularly the disproportion of the head and body. The head and the collar go together well enough but the shoulders do not belong at all - they are too small, and are skewed at an odd angle, resulting in the meaningless physiology of the upper-right arm. A ready explanation is that the original portrait showed only the head and the collar - a common enough format in miniature portraits. These the engraver copied; the rest, for which he had no model before him, he ‘infelicitously invented’.57

How old is the man in the picture? The first impression is of seniority - the drastic baldness, and also the greying of the hair, particularly around the left temple. (This is a deliberate engraver’s effect - the lines representing the hair are discontinuous; the flecks of grey are uninked paper.) But the face looks younger than the hair would suggest; it is alert and rather fine featured. The high forehead reveals no wrinkling; those bags under his eyes seem indicative of tiredness - too much composition by candlelight, perhaps - rather than saggy with age. He certainly looks younger than the stout burgher depicted in the Stratford funeral effigy, which would show him in his last years (and may do so quite accurately, as there is some evidence that the sculptor - another immigrant artist, Gheerart Janssen junior - knew him personally). He also looks younger than the world-weary man in the ‘Chandos’ portrait, conventionally dated to c. 1610, when Shakespeare was in his mid-forties.58

These are subjective impressions but the conclusion to which they tend seems a sensible one. It is that the Droeshout engraving shows Shakespeare in early middle age, perhaps around forty or so (middle age came earlier then), still vigorous, but with signs of wear and tear. This would give us a date of c. 1604 for the original portrait - not a bad time for Shakespeare, newly elevated as one of the King’s Men, to have his picture painted.

This is not contradicted by the dating evidence provided by the wide, stiffly starched linen collar (not, as is sometimes said, a ruff) worn by Shakespeare. It is engraved with great specificity (see Frontispiece). The arrow-shaped markings are not merely decorative, but realistically depict the ‘narrow darts made on the inside of the linen band to shape it to the neck’. This conveys also the fineness of the collar’s fabric, the sheer linen through which the pleating underneath is visible. If this collar or ‘band’ was part of the original portrait, its style could suggest a date as early as c. 1604. Thus Tarnya Cooper of the National Portrait Gallery: ‘This type of collar with triangular sewn darts fanning out from the face appears in portraits that date from around 1604 to 1613.’59

The age of the sitter and the style of his neckwear broadly concur - when Shakespeare was forty that collar was newly fashionable. The evidence, such as it is, suggests that the lost portrait of him copied by Martin Droeshout was painted in or shortly after the year 1604 - precisely the period of his sojourn on Silver Street.

And perhaps the collar has something more to tell us. As well as the triangular darts fanning out from the neck there is visible a curving line running roughly parallel to the outer edge of the collar. This is not something sewn on to it. It is part of a wire supporter or ‘underpropper’, visible through the fabric of the collar. Formal ruffs and bands were heavily starched, and needed additional support underneath to hold them up at the back of the neck, in order to frame the face in the desired way. The Puritan pamphleteer Philip Stubbes, whose Anatomie of Abuses (1583) rails against contemporary vanities, and in doing so gives a detailed account of the fashions of the day, defines the underpropper as a ‘certain device made of wyres . . . whipped over either with gold thread, silver or silk’. It is ‘applied’ around the neck, ‘to beare up the whole frame and body of the ruff from falling and hanging down’.60

We find them in Queen Elizabeth’s wardrobe accounts. In 1588 her silkman Roger Mountague supplied ‘one supporter of wyer whipped over with silke’. In 1601 Dorothy Speckard supplied ‘a fyne ruffe pinned upon a French wire’, and ‘two rebata wyres’ (a rebato was a collar that stood up almost vertically behind the wearer’s head).61 And Lady Rimelaine, in Erondell’s French Garden of 1605, chooses between ‘a ruffe band or a Rebato’, but looking at the ruff she finds ‘the supporter is so soyled’ that she cannot wear it. ‘Take it away, give me my Rebato of cutworke edged’ - but this too is dirty: ‘the wyer after the same sort as the other’.

These ‘devices’ of wire ‘whipped over’ with gold thread or silk may well have been produced in the Mountjoy workshop. They require the same materials as a tire, they use the same wire-working techniques, and they appeal to broadly the same fashion-conscious clientele.62 It is possible, therefore, that when Shakespeare sat for his portrait, perhaps in around 1604, he did so wearing a supporter or underpropper made in the busy workshop below the rooms where he lodged.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at admin@erenow.net. Thank you!