Ode to the Bard

Divine Design
Last Updated : 13 September 2010, 10:49 IST
Last Updated : 13 September 2010, 10:49 IST

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On the banks of river Thames in London, very near the historic Hampton Court Palace, stands an exquisite 18th century  temple,  devoted to the famous bard William Shakespeare. This impressive garden building marks the place where David Garrick, the most celebrated actor/manager England has ever produced, chose to commemorate his idol William  Shakespeare.

David Garrick was such a great admirer  of Shakespeare that as per his request, his body  lies buried in the Westminster Abbey  at the foot of Shakespeare’s statue. It is but natural for him, such a great devotee of the bard, to build a temple for his great guru and he decided to do so on the banks of river Thames, just near his own mansion.

Happily, he was also financially successful  as an actor and owned the famous Drury  Lane theatre for 19 years from 1747. Taking his residence in Hampton in 1754 , he began  building a magnificent villa and in the same  year started work on the Shakespeare  temple, nearby.

The plans for the Shakespeare  temple was made in 1757 by Robert Adams, the famous architect, then in his early 20’s and is mentioned by the then British prime minister Haugh Walpole in his memoirs. It is  an octagonal structure built of brick, has a dome and portico supported by ionic  pillars.

The edifice, quiet by the banks of River Thames has a very peaceful  atmosphere. There was a tunnel  connecting the temple to the Garrick villa on the opposite side of the road. Perhaps, when the tunnel was built, the temple must have been inside the compound of the villa.

David Garrick used to spend hours in the temple and there is a famous painting by the illustrious 18th century artist Zoffany showing Garrick sitting in the steps of the temple, gazing over the river Thames, with his dog Dragon by his side.

Garrick asked Louis Francois Roubiliac (1696 — 1762), the most important late baroque sculptor working in 18th century  Britain, to make the statue of Shakespeare to be kept in the temple. In those halcyon days, when the daily total take for a full  Drury Lane theatre was 200 pounds, the statue cost 500 pounds.

Today the statue has been taken from the temple and is kept at the British Museum in London. A few years ago, when the British Library wanted to commemorate Shakespeare, they chose the statue made by Roubiliac as the model  and it cost them 100,000 pounds to make a replica! Even in the 18th century, the statue was the envy of many Shakespeare fans and during Garricks’s time, the Shakespeare theatre at Stratford on Avon wanted a copy of the statue gifted to it by Garrick.

But while Garrick took the statue to Stratford  for Shakespeare festival, he did not want it to be copied and gave a cheaper version of the statue as his gift to the famous theatre.
Garrick had collected so many memorabilia and artifacts connected with Shakespeare and the theatre, that long after his death, the auction sales had to be continued for ten days! In the successive years, not much attention was paid to the temple.

In 1923, anxious to reduce her responsibilities, the  then owner of the Garrick mansion (situated across the street) sold the temple lawn, thus divorcing the temple from the villa. The purchaser, Paul Glaize, proceeded to build a house adjoining the  temple itself.

Feelings ran so high against this desecration that in 1932, Hampton Urban District Council bought the site, demolished the house and converted the lawn for public recreation.

During the Second World War, the temple was an ARP Warden’s post. After the War, the public use extended to social gatherings and minor, or even major, cultural events. At this point it was hoped that the tunnel connecting it to the historic Garrick mansion nearby might provide an underground walkway to enable the public to have easy access to the public lawns. But, for a variety of reasons, this did not come about.

In 1977, after vandals had stolen the lead from the temple cupola, the local Municipal
Council commissioned Donald Insall Associates — eminent architecture restorer, to oversee the repair of the roof. By the mid 1990s the edifice was once again in serious need of repair and the garden sadly neglected. Much indignation prevailed and at last, in 1996/7, the Council applied, successfully, for a Heritage Lottery Grant to help with restoration.

It was decided that the monument  was no longer to be left as an empty shell. The building was opened to the public by the end of 1998, the site re-landscaped and replanted in the spring of 1999 to replicate something of its appearance in Garrick’s  day.
To everyone’s delight a replica of the original Roubiliac statue of Shakespeare  was provided by the British Museum and an interpretative display of Garrick’s life, his  acting career and his life in Hampton was added to the exhibits. Included in the display are copies of Garrick’s portrait by Gainsborough, Zoffany and Reynolds.

To preserve and maintain this shrine, the only one devoted to Shakespeare, a Preservation Fund has been set up with a  collection of British pounds 65,000.

Published 13 September 2010, 10:49 IST

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