23rd April 2018

By Stephen Bowe


We have no record of the exact date William Shakespeare was born, just that he was baptised on 26 April 1564.Traditionally, though, his birthday is observed on St Georges Day (23 April) – also the date of his death in 1616 (and now World Book Day). To celebrate this occasion, we are publishing a fascinating article by Stephen Bowe, whose book Mulberrycelebrates the material culture of mulberry trees. Here Stephen discusses the fate of the wood from the mulberry tree that once grew at the Bard’s home in Stratford-upon-Avon. 

 In 1597, at the height of his career as a playwright, William Shakespeare bought a late 15th century timber and brick house, New Place, in his home town of Stratford-upon-Avon. The sale was confirmed in 1602 and Shakespeare spent the last years of his life there. During the Bard’s time at New Place – and for the next 150 years – there was a black mulberry tree in the garden. We do not know for sure that he planted the tree, but it is likely. There was a fashion for planting black mulberries in the early 17thcentury, when King James I, shortly after coming to the throne, imported tens of thousands of saplings in an attempt to get landowners to start a silk industry in England. Silkworms will only feed on mulberry leaves.


Right: New Place (sketch by George Vertue 1737, in the public domain)

 Unfortunately for posterity, Shakespeare’s mulberry was felled around 1756, in what Samuel Johnson’s biographer, James Boswell described as an act of ‘gothick barbarity’ by the then owner of New Place, the Reverend Francis Gastrell. Apparently tired of continual visits by tourists asking to see the tree, Gastrell chopped it down. Having provoked the ire of Stratford residents, Gastrell left the town. 

The wood from the felled tree was used to create memento mori (also a pun on Morus, or mulberry) - which became early tourist souvenirs and subsequently developed into a profitable side-line for various makers, including Thomas Sharp, George Cooper and John Marshall.  These objects range from relatively small ‘treen’ items (small domestic wooden objects) such as snuff boxes  and weight scales to large tea caddies and even tables. The website of furniture and fine art dealers H. Blairman & Sonsfeatures a beautiful table (now in a private collection) made in 1824, which may well have incorporated mulberry wood from Shakespeare’s tree. Possibly owned by the actor David Garrick (1717-1779), the table top is inlaid with the initials WSMT (William Shakespeare’s Mulberry Tree) and the date 1609.  

Sorting the genuine from the fake

While some of these items are well documented and likely to be authentic, there are doubts about the provenance of others. In fact there are far more objects claimed to be made from wood from Shakespeare’s mulberry than could possibly have come from a single tree – so there must be a significant number of fakes and some forgeries? 

It is very difficult to establish the authenticity of the wood itself and whether it had real associations with the Bard. Scientific analysis could establish the type of wood used, but there will always be an element of fantasy surrounding the histories attached to the objects.  In many ways, though, this makes the mulberry treen associated with Shakespeare even more interesting and complex.

In some cases the makers have provided statements of authenticity for their objects. One such sworn declaration, by Thomas Sharp, details the history of the mulberry tree, its felling to make firewood and subsequent removal by John Lackman to his workshops. A snuff box thought to have been made by John Marshall has the incised text - SHAKESPEARE’S MULBERRY WOOD and a carved ornamental “S” initial.  And boxed weight scales are impressed with the maker’s name, location and production number... SHARP - STRATFORD ON AVON - 565. 

Boxed weight scales made out of Shakespeare’s mulberry wood by Thomas Sharp.

Photograph by Carlos Santos Barea.

Snuff box made from Shakespeare’s mulberry wood by John Marshall.

Photograph by Carlos Santos Barea.

Rare as hens' teeth?

Some of the items apparently created from the Shakespeare tree are in the collections of private individuals whilst others can be found in museums such as the Shakespeare Birthplace Trustin the UK and the Folger Shakespeare Libraryin the USA.  Shakespeare-related mulberry ephemera do occasionally appear for sale (see for example, www.Hamptonantiques.co.uk) - although they are becoming increasingly rare, difficult to source – and expensive.  An authenticated association with Shakespeare can mean a tenfold increase in the price an object can command.

The black mulberry is well known for living to a considerable age and many trees in the United Kingdom have famous people associated with either their planting or their care.  These include William Morris(1834-1896), Charles Darwin(1809-1882), William Hogarth(1697-1764), John Evelyn(1620-1706), John Milton(1608-1674), Thomas More(1478-1535) and of course, William Shakespeare (1564-1616), who is perhaps unique for the number of objects claimed to be connected with his mulberry tree  

In addition to the problem of establishing the provenance of the objects, many items described as being made of mulberry wood are in fact made using other woods, with fancy burr grain. The set of four Georgian snuffboxes described as Mulberry, for example, are not actually made from mulberry wood at all.  

Set of four Georgian snuffboxes described as Mulberry but not made from mulberry wood.  
Photograph by Carlos Santos Barea.

Even without their association with a deceased celebrity, objects or artefacts made of mulberry wood are relatively rare in the United Kingdom. This is reflected in the small number of mulberry wood objects (around a dozen) out of the many thousands in the famous Pinto treen collection, held in Birmingham City Museum and Art Gallery. Some London museums, such as the British Museum and the V&A also have mulberry wood items in their collections. 

Dr Stephen J Bowe is Senior Lecturer at Liverpool John Moore’s University. 

See also Stephen’s previous article for Morus Londiniumon Japanese mulberry wood artefacts).

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