Monday, 9th March, 2009
Is this the real Shakespeare at last?
A PORTRAIT owned for nearly 300 years by a family will tomorrow be claimed as the only known picture of William Shakespeare painted during his lifetime.
No other image, executed at first hand, is thought to exist of Britain’s greatest writer.
The claim will be supported by the world’s foremost expert on Shakespeare, Stanley Wells, emeritus professor of Shakespeare studies at Birmingham University and general editor of the Oxford Shakespeare series for 30 years.
The portrait, which was painted in 1610, six years before the playwright’s death, has been in the possession of the Cobbe family since the early 18th century. It was initially kept at a property in Hampshire but more recently in Hatchlands, the family house in Surrey, which is run by the National Trust.
For three centuries the family was unsure of the identity of the figure in the portrait. According to Alec Cobbe, an art restorer, at one time it had been thought to be of Sir Walter Raleigh.
In 2006 Cobbe visited the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition Searching for Shakespeare. On display were several pictures, which over the years some had suggested were of Shakespeare.
His attention was caught by one known as the Janssen portrait because it is thought to be by Cornelis Janssen, a Flemish painter who worked in England in the early 17th century. The picture was on loan from the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, which has the world’s greatest collection of Shakespeare memorabilia.
Cobbe was amazed that the Janssen portrait was almost identical to the painting at Hatchlands. He took his picture to the National Portrait Gallery for comparison. “We had it for two days, and they certainly looked very, very similar,” said Tarnya Cooper, curator of the 16thand 17th-century collections at the gallery. “But we did not do any tests on it.”
Cobbe has since used a variety of tests and scientific imaging to check if it is an original or has been altered from its original composition.
In its favour, the portrait looks very similar to the only two other images of the playwright accepted as having been by people who knew Shakespeare when he was alive. These are the bust of him in Holy Trinity church, Stratford-upon-Avon, where he is buried and which was erected not long after his death; and the engraving of his image, made in 1623, at the front of his First Folio.
This weekend both Wells and Cobbe declined to divulge any more information. However, tomorrow they will unveil what they regard as very strong evidence that the portrait is of Shakespeare and that it was painted when he was 46 years old, six years before his death in 1616.
They will also claim that the portrait initially belonged to the third Earl of Southampton, who was Shakespeare’s patron and, according to some, the “fair youth” of his sonnets. Wells and Cobbe are writing a book on Southampton and Shakespeare. Their claims, however, will cause controversy, especially since some experts doubt the Janssen portrait is Shakespeare.
The first known owner of the Janssen portrait was a certain Charles Jennens who lived in Leicestershire. He bought it in 1770. The painting appeared on an edition of King Lear, which was also published by Jennens that year. It is obvious that he had only acquired the picture in 1770 because the portrait was not mentioned in two accounts of his collection compiled in the late 1760s.
The Folger Library bought that painting at auction in 1932, believing it might portray the playwright. Since then some argued that it might be of Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, who some have suggested was the “real” author of Shakespeare’s plays even though he died before several of them were written.
Since the late 1960s the Folger painting has been described by the library as being of Sir Thomas Overbury, a courtier and poet, who died in 1613 after being poisoned by Frances Howard, countess of Essex, after she was infuriated that Overbury tried to stop her from remarrying. When the painting was displayed at the National Portrait Gallery in 2006, it was labelled as probably of Overbury.
To complicate matters further, the Folger painting has been altered. In 1988 the overpainting was removed to reveal a lower hairline. “The higher hairline must have been done at some stage to make the sitter a bit more bald to reflect his age,” said Erin Blake, curator of art at the Folger.
Neither Blake nor Cooper are as convinced as Wells and Cobbe that the Hatchlands picture is of Shakespeare and done during his lifetime.
Over the centuries many portraits allegedly of Shakespeare have been presented as that of the writer. Some are fakes, produced simply to make money.
The National Portrait Gallery owns what is known as the Chandos Shakespeare, which also bears some facial resemblance to the 1623 engraving on the folio. “But we still probably don’t think it is Shakespeare though it was done between 1600 and 1610,” said Cooper.
Others portraits at the Searching for Shakespeare exhibition included the Sanders, which makes Shakespeare look too young; the Flowers, which is now owned by the Royal Shakespeare Company; the Grafton, which is in the John Rylands gallery in Manchester; and the Soest, which was clearly painted at least 50 years after the writer’s death. None have been proven to be of Shakespeare.
“It would be wonderful if this is shown to be a picture of Shakespeare painted when he was actually living,” said Blake. “People so want there to be such a portrait.”
Mystery relic found during London excavation is linked to Shakespeare
The bearded Tudor face, framed by long hair and a ruff, certainly looks familiar. As the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust prepares today to unveil what it says is a portrait of the Bard painted during his lifetime, archaeologists may have beaten them to it.
A team working on the site where Shakespeare learned his trade has discovered a piece of 16th-century pottery that features a face resembling that of the great man.
It was found during excavation work in Shoreditch, east London, at the site of what used to be The Theatre, lost for more than 400 years and where Shakespeare performed as an actor, as well as staging his earliest plays.
Archaeologists unearthed the Tudor structure last summer while working at the site – which, by coincidence, is to be turned into a new theatre.
There is no proof that the face on the fragment of Beauvais pottery is that of the Bard’s, but insiders are excited by the discovery.
“We knew we would be somewhere near Shakespeare’s theatre when we got this site for our new building, and that was thrilling enough,” said Penny Tuerk, a director of the Tower Theatre Company. She added jokingly that the face could have been from an ale mug sold in The Theatre’s souvenir shop – and that it could make another appearance one day when the new Tower theatre opens in 2012.
The Theatre was originally built by James Burbage, father of Richard Burbage, Shakespeare’s friend, fellow actor and business partner in 1576. It was located just outside the walls of London in an area consisting of taverns and slum houses. The Burbages fell out with their landlord, and in 1598 with Shakespeare’s help, they dismantled the building and took it across the Thames to Bankside where it rose again as a far more famous theatre: The Globe.
BBC video of The Theatre archaeology
new film questioning Shakespeare’s authorship of the plays