The Birmingham Shakespeare Album

A Visual Record of Germany's Shakespeare Reception

By Werner Habicht. Translated by Tom Nolan, University of Bamberg, 05 September 2012.

Even The Times of May 5th 1878 thought it was worth reporting. The Shakespeare Library in Birmingham had been honoured with a valuable presentation: an elaborately decorated album containing portraits and autograph signatures of people whose merit as cultivators and interpreters of Shakespeare in Germany was thus recognized. It was assembled and donated by a private scholar from Berlin, Friedrich August Leo, founding committee- and presidium-member of the German Shakespeare Society and regular editor of the Shakespeare Jahrbuch from 1880 to 1898.

The Birmingham Shakespeare Library was founded in 1864 on the occasion of the poet’s three hundredth birthday as a more permanent and lively stimulant to remembrance than the iron monument which was, at about the same time, demanded, planned and eventually laid aside. Opened in 1868, it was housed in the Birmingham Central Library, where it remains to this day one of the most significant Shakespeare collections in the world. Quite early on, in all probability 1876, the above mentioned F. A. Leo spent several weeks researching there. On that occasion Samuel Timmins, the Library’s Director, showed him by-the-by the few pictures in its possession of meritorious German Shakespeareans, and expressed the wish to obtain more. It was a wish which Leo, no sooner had he returned to Germany, set himself the task of satisfying to the letter, full of gratitude as he was for the hospitality which had been shown him in Birmingham. He came up with the idea of "donating to the Shakespeare Library an album wherein all things German standing in a distinguished relationship to Shakespeare in any sphere of activity whatever should have their place", as he expressed the matter in a circular. With this in mind he got in touch with every possible scholar, translator, actor, composer, painter and sculptor known for his or her contribution to the raising of Shakespeare’s profile in Germany, and requested, for the fulfilment of his noble purpose, a current photograph along with an autograph.1

Many of them – though obviously not all – were more or less responsive to the idea, as is clear from Leo’s surviving correspondence, now in the the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington. In some cases a good deal of patient persuasion must have been necessary. Wolf Heinrich Count Baudissin, for example, pointed out that his contribution to the Schlegel-Tieck translation lay more than a life span in the past, and that he possessed a lithographic miniature portrait dating from that very time, but was then persuaded to subject himself to the rigours of photography – and just in time, as it transpired, for he died soon after (d. 1878).2 The album was composed early in 1878 and furnished with a specially commissioned cover. Initially it was exhibited at the Berlin Museum of Applied Art as a masterpiece of the bookbinder’s art. On the fifth of April Leo announced its arrival to Timmins, the Library’s Director: "I send [the photo portraits] to you with the Album which I have ordered for this purpose and which I hope the Committee of the Shakespeare Library at Birmingham will be kind enough to accept from me." And in fact it was sent on the fourth of May via the London book-sellers Truebner.  Whereupon the local press, too, showed enthusiastic appreciation at the acceptance of this noble bequest. 3

Unfortunately, only a few months later, on the 11th of January 1879, the Birmingham Central Library was consumed by a fire caused by the clumsy efforts of a workman to thaw a frozen water-pipe. The chief sentiment in the earliest press reports was that of unalloyed horror, and the destruction of the 8000 volumes, along with related material, collected in the Shakespeare Library was accounted a national catastrophe. In the course of a single hour the flames had destroyed "a monument which had promised to be imperishable" – and the album so recently donated by Leo was mentioned as a particularly tragic loss. Even The Times' report on the disaster of the 14th of January 1879 joined in the lament over the loss of this "costly collection of German portraits, which were unique". Soon after, however, on the 13th January, the Birmingham Post could bring more comforting news. No less a person than the Mayor of Birmingham in person, who had been dining at a banquet in the Town Hall when the news of the fire reached him, had hurried to the scene of the disaster with some of his guests in formal attire, with the intention of lending an energetic hand to the rescue attempts, and had thus managed to save from the furious flames a goodly number of volumes from the Shakespeare Library. Among them was the Leo Album, as was once again noted, and the fact that "this particular gift has escaped the flames" was considered to be a good omen – one which proved in the event to be justified. For the news of the Library fire released a wave of international generosity, and spurred on authors, publishing houses, private individuals and others to donate free exemplars in abundance – the indispensable condition for the Library’s future growth.

Since that time Leo’s repaired album has slumbered, well conserved, in secret.4 It has admittedly lost something of the surface lustre it once had, but it remains an imposing document of its epoch – beginning with the dimensions of the volume. It measures 36 by 47.5 cm, is 10 cm thick and weighs 16 kilogrammes. The enormous weight is due in large part to the metal binding. This is richly decorated with gilded ornamentation. At the top is the engraved title: "German Shakespeareans / in Science, Literature and Art", below it the dedication: "To the Shakespeare Memorial Library / as a token of gratitude for kind hospitality / From Frederick Augustus Leo". In the middle is an inserted galvanoplastic, originally silver-gilt, bust of Shakespeare modelled after that on Shakespeare’s tomb by the Berlin sculptor H. Bauch and produced in the electro-metallurgical workshop "L. Wolter". The Friedländer Bros. workshop was responsible for the goldsmith's work, the W. Collins workshop for the binding, both in Berlin.5 Securely held together by this prodigious binding are 40 robust cards with decorations and gilt lettering. These form the frames for 109 photographs distributed two and four per page alternately in accordance with their various sizes. The ‘windows’ on the verso sides are open and allow the names and titles of the photographic subjects to be read. A master index by Leo's hand is glued in at the front.

The album begins with copied pictures of well-established historical giants. On the first page Goethe and Schiller – alongside whom, as is well known, Shakespeare had long been allocated a place as 'third German classic' – are on show, followed by Lessing, Wieland, Herder, A.W. Schlegel, Tieck and J.H. Voß. But the majority of these very high quality (given the state of photography at the time) portraits immortalize Leo’s contemporaries of the mid-nineteenth century. There are poets and Shakespeare translators to be seen such as F. Freiligrath, K. Simrock, W.A.B. Hertzberg, O. Gildemeister, F. Bodenstedt, A. Böttger and Paul Heyse. There are numerous scholars and critics whose Shakespeare research earned them renown, such as H. Ulrici, G.G. Gervinus, N. Delius, F.A.T. Kreyssig, G. Rümelin, F.T. Vischer, A. Cohn, R. Genée, A. Schmidt (editor of the Shakespeare Lexicon), J.L. Klein (author of an all-inclusive History of the Theatre) and many others, among them prominent members of the German Shakespeare Society such as W. Oechelhäuser and A. Loën von. But most abundantly represented are those actors and directors who had shone in Shakespeare productions. Once again the album throws a retrospective light on the history of Shakespeare’s presence on the German stage as exemplified by F.L. Schröder, Ekhof, Iffland and Seydelmann. However, it is the living actors of the day with names of more or less permanent fame who seem to have been keenest to send in first-class photographs where some of them can be seen posing in costume. T. Döring, L. Dessoir, not to mention Emil, Eduard and Otto Devrient, are only a few of many. This is the only category in which portraits of women are to be found, e.g. of Marie Seebach, Louise Hettstedt and Auguste Crelinger. Theatrical directors such as Dingelstedt and Laube are also represented. Last but not least we find painters and sculptors who contributed to Shakespeare exhibitions, such as Menzel, Piloty or Kaulbach, likewise the composers of Shakespeare-themed music, from Schubert and Mendelssohn by way of Taubert to Max Bruch.

It may well be a selection dictated by random factors of all kinds, a selection which fails to represent exhaustively, even from a mid-nineteenth century perspective, the biographical history of Germany's Shakespeare reception, while including other material which has proved ephemeral. None the less this is an unusually rich pictorial document from the period when photography was still young which, in as much as it gives insight into the complexion of the culturally active classes, is of great historical and sociological interest. It is only a pity that it was never systematically developed and completed in the years that followed.

Citation reference:
Habicht, Werner, "Bildnisse aus der Geschichte der deutschen Shakespeare-Rezeption: Ein Album in Birmingham", Shakespeare Jahrbuch 141 (2005), 150-157.
Translated by Tom Nolan, University of Bamberg, 05 September 2012

  1. There is a copy of the circular in the Birmingham Shakespeare Library and, attached to it, two handwritten letters from Leo to Timmins dated 5th April and 3rd May 1878 announcing that the album is on its way. It is from these that some of the following information has been taken.Zurückspringen
  2. Briefe von Graf Baudissin an Leo vom 17. und 20. Juni 1877. Folger Shakespeare Library, sig. Y.c.1506 (1-2).Zurückspringen
  3. See Birmingham Daily Post, 10th May 1878.Zurückspringen
  4. In the printed catalogue – A Shakespeare Bibliography: A Catalogue of the Birmingham Shakespeare Library, ed. W. Frederick. 7 Vols. (London: Mansell, 1971) – no trace of the album is to be found. It is thanks to the expertise of the present Shakespeare Librarian, Niky Rathbone, that I could, after long searching, get a look at it (Accession No. 132093).Zurückspringen
  5. Information inside the back board of the binding.Zurückspringen