In the art world, curators and buyers have two principal concerns: Authenticity and provenance. Authenticity and provenance provide empirical evidence: No one is interested in guesswork, or he said she said, particularly when millions of dollars are at stake.
When dealing with objects d’art of antiquity dating becomes the first benchmark of authenticity. Depending on the medium, there are various tests which can be used to determine date. If the work is in the range of the alleged artist’s period of activity, experts can then begin, on stylistic grounds, with reference to other works by the same artist, to determine if the work is genuine.
The second concern is provenance. We want to be able to trace the chain of ownership back to the artist. These yardsticks, authenticity and provenance have been applied to the portraits and other representations purporting to be Shakespeare.
If a portrait is determined to be of correct date, the identity of the sitter, in this case Shakespeare, becomes the chief concern. But unless the artist himself tells us who the sitter is, or if there is some other way to determine the sitter’s identity, the matter becomes pure guessing. Such is case with all of the portraits claiming to be Shakespeare.
More than a hundred portraits claimed to represent the great dramatist have been offered for sale to the National Portrait Gallery in London since its foundation in 1856. The Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D. C. owns about forty portraits and none are portraits from life. About half were never intended to be considered life-portraits, but are representations of the artist’s conception of Shakespeare. These are sometimes known as “memorial portraits” and were particularly popular in the Victorian period. The rest are fakes, being either pictures once asserted to be Shakespeare from life but actually painted in recent times, or genuine portraits from Shakespeare’s era that were later altered to look Shakespearean.
It would be futile, therefore, as well as impossible, to attempt a complete record of all these portraits within an hour’s traffic on this stage. So I have focused on the most famous representations.
An example of a genuine portrait from Shakespeare’s era altered to look Shakespearean is the Janssen portrait.
|Janssen Original||Altered State|
The Janssen portrait is so named because it may well have come from the accomplished easel of Cornelius Janssen, a celebrated Dutch painter, who was born in London in 1590 and practiced his art in England for some 30 years before his removal to Amsterdam in 1643. Included among his English sitters were the youthful John Milton in 1618, Shakespeare’s colleague and friend, Ben Jonson, and many other men of literary, political, or social distinction. The Janssen portrait is reputed to have belonged to Prince Rupert, and eventually came into the possession of the Duke of Hamilton who willed it to his daughter, the Duchess of Somerset. Thus it is sometimes called the “Somerset portrait.” It hangs in the Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, D.C.
The Janssen portrait is the most historically important altered painting. We know it is a genuine portrait from c. 1610, and that it was already doctored by 1770 when a print was published showing it in its “Shakespeare” state with a high rounded hairline. This makes it is the earliest proven example of a genuine portrait altered to look like Shakespeare.
Tarnya Cooper, curator of the National Portrait Gallery’s 2006 exhibition, Searching for Shakespeare, included the Janssen, where it served as the only example of a genuine portrait from the era that was subsequently over-painted to look like Shakespeare. The Shakespearean over-paint was removed in the 1980s, revealing the original lower hairline.
The identity of the original sitter is not known, but a portrait identical to the unaltered Janssen appeared at the sale of the Ellenborough collection in 1947, although it is known only through a photograph from the time of the sale.
Exhibiting the picture prominently in London in 2006 unexpectedly brought to light another previously-unknown identical portrait. A visitor to the exhibition, Alec Cobbe, recognized the Janssen portrait as a match for a painting that had been in his family for centuries, and had wrongly been identified as Sir Walter Raleigh in the eighteenth century.
The nearly identical Cobbe portrait, it is now called, was publicly unveiled by Professor Stanley Wells and the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust at Stratford-on-Avon on March 9, 2009. Wells, professor emeritus of Shakespeare Studies at Birmingham University and one of the world’s most distinguished Shakespeare scholars, is convinced that this oil on a wood panel is a portrait of the Bard.
“The painting has languished outside Dublin at Newbridge House, home of the Cobbe family. Alec Cobbe, who inherited the family art collection in the 1980s and placed it in trust, saw the Janssen at the National Portrait Gallery exhibition, which had been accepted until the late 1930s as a portrait of Shakespeare from life. Looking at it, Cobbe felt certain the Folger painting was a copy of the one in his family’s collection. He asked Wells, an old friend, for his help in authenticating it.
“The two men arranged to have the Cobbe painting subjected to tree-ring-dating to determine the age of the wood panel, as well as x-ray examination. The test results indicated that the panel dated from around 1610 when Shakespeare was 46. It was also determined, by means not stated—a very important omission—that this portrait was the source for the Folger painting.”[i]
But Wells bases his claim on quicksand. He says, “The Cobbe portrait will show people a man who was of high social status. He’s very well dressed. He’s wearing a very beautiful and expensive Italian lace collar. A lot of people have the wrong image of Shakespeare, and I’m pleased that the picture confirms my own feelings—this is the portrait of a gentleman.” [ii]
While it’s true that Shakespeare retired a wealthy man to his home at Stratford-on-Avon, everything we know about him confirms that he was humble and conservative. He would not have dressed ostentatiously. Wells’s “feelings” are those of an elitist critic. The fact is that actors and poets wore plain clothes…
|John Lowin||John Donne||Ben Johnson|
…as compared to royalty, the nobility, and the wealthy.
|Earl of Essex||Philip II of Spain||Duke of Somerset|
It may be concluded that the Cobbe/Janssen portraits do not represent Shakespeare.
Shortly after the announcement of the Cobbe portrait, the History Channel premiered a program on death-masks. As it happens, there is a death-mask reputed to be Shakespeare’s, and this was one of the masks examined.
The so-called Kesselstadt death-mask was discovered by Dr. Ludwig Becker, librarian at the ducal palace at Darmstadt, in a second-hand shop at Mainz in 1849. The features resemble those of an alleged portrait of Shakespeare (dated 1637) which Dr. Becker purchased in 1847. This unknown picture had long been in the possession of the family of Count Francis von Kesselstadt of Mainz, who died in 1843. Dr. Becker brought the mask and the picture to England in 1849, where a theory was supported that the mask was taken from Shakespeare’s face after death. But there is absolutely no evidence which would identify the mask with Shakespeare.[iii]
The History Channel, with graphics manipulated to three-dimensions, superimposed the mask on the Cobbe portrait, with the result that the mask and portrait had no apparent connection to each other although that was not stated.
Within a short time after Shakespeare’s death in 1616, two representations of the poet were produced.
The first is a bust, a half-length effigy, in Holy Trinity Church at Stratford-on-Avon. “It was carved by Garret Johnson the younger and his brother Nicholas, the tomb-makers of Southwark. The sculptors may have had personal knowledge of the dramatist but they were mainly dependent on the suggestions of friends. The Stratford bust is a clumsy piece of work. The bald domed forehead, the broad and long face, the plump and rounded chin, the long upper lip, the full cheeks, and the massed hair about the ears. combine to give the burly countenance a mechanical and unintellectual expression.”[iv]
In 1748 John Hall, a Stratford painter, was commissioned to repair and beautify the monument. In 1793 the first great Shakespearean scholar, Edmond Malone, persuaded James Davenport, a long-lived vicar of Stratford, to have the monument painted “a good stone color,” and thereby prompted the epigram:
Stranger, to whom this monument is shewn,
Invoke the poet’s curse upon Malone;
Whose meddling zeal his barbarous taste betrays,
And daubs his tombstone, as he mars his plays.[v]
In 1861 Simon Collins, a well-known picture restorer of London, was employed to remove the “stone color” paint, and restore the original colors. The bust remains in that condition today. It is a foregone conclusion that Shakespeare, being dead, could not have been the model for the bust.
At the same time, Collins was hired by William Oakes Hunt, the Stratford Town Clerk, to clean some old paintings belonging to him. Hunt’s family was of old standing at Stratford.
One of the paintings cleaned by Collins, now known as the Hunt or Stratford portrait, closely resembles the monument bust. When Hunt donated the picture to the Birthplace Trustees in 1864, he said that the picture had been in the family since 1758, and that his grandfather had purchased it at the sale of Clopton House. The Clopton family was the wealthiest at Stratford. Hugh Clopton had been mayor of London. He built the bridge that still spans the Avon River and which I once had the pleasure of walking across. The bust is clearly the foundation of the painting.
The First Folio of 1623 is the first collected edition of Shakespeare’s plays. It features a brass-engraving portrait of Shakespeare, nearly a half-length, by a young man named Martin Droeshout. It should be remembered that it was not possible to reproduce paintings to illustrate books until the invention of the camera. The first photoengraving appeared in France in 1826.
Martin Droeshout was “of Flemish descent belonging to a family of painters and engravers long settled in London where he was born in 1601. He was thus fifteen years old at the time of Shakespeare’s death in 1616, and it is improbable that he had any personal knowledge of the dramatist. The engraving was doubtless produced just before the publication of the Folio, seven years after Shakespeare’s death, when Droeshout was twenty-two. It thus belongs to the outset of his professional career, in which he never achieved extended practice or reputation.”[vi]
The first review of this portrait appeared in the Folio itself. It was written by Ben Jonson, Shakespeare’s fellow playwright and friend:
To the Reader
This figure, that thou here seest put,
It was for gentle Shakespeare cut,
Wherein the Graver had a strife
With Nature to out-do the life:
O, could he but have drawne his wit
As well in brasse, as he hath hit
His face; the Print would then surpasse
All, that was ever writ in brasse.
But, since he cannot, Reader, looke
Not on his Picture, but his booke.
We will consider the engraving in detail since it, along with the monument, is the only representation of Shakespeare with any authority.
Light comes from several directions simultaneously: It falls on the bulbous forehead, as one Shakespeare scholar put it, that “horrible hydrocephalus development.” The dimensions of the head and face are disproportionately large compared to the body. There is a peculiar line running from the ear to the chin. The head does not appear to be connected to the body, but sits on the ruff. The face is long and the forehead high; the one visible ear is shapeless. Like the Stratford bust, the top of the head is bald, and the hair falls abundantly over the ears. There is a scanty mustache and a thin fringe of hair under the lower lip.
The engraving of the doublet is quite intricate. It is closely buttoned and elaborately bordered, especially at the shoulders. The pattern is common in contemporary portraits of the upper class. The picture was examined by two trade journals, The Tailor and Cutter, March 1911, and The Gentleman’s Tailor, in April of the same year. Both agreed that the doublet is composed of the back and the front of the same left arm. The right arm appears normal on the one side; the back of the left arm is on the other side. This was proved by cutting out the two halves of the doublet and showing them shoulder to shoulder.
A starched, wide ruff, projecting horizontally conceals the neck. This style has not been found on any other portrait made during the Tudor period and is unique. This ruff would have been an impossible piece of apparel—it looks solid and apparently has no fastenings. How would you put it on?
An important question has never been asked about this portrait: Is there any reason why there are so many oddities? The answer will have to wait a bit.
“In 1892 Edgar Flower of Stratford-on-Avon, discovered in the possession of an acquaintance, H. C. Clements, a portrait alleged to represent Shakespeare. It was claimed that the picture, which was faded and somewhat worm-eaten, dated from the early years of the seventeenth century. “The fabric was a panel formed by two elm planks. In the upper left-hand corner was the inscription ‘Willm Shakespeare, 1609.’ Clements purchased the portrait from an obscure dealer about 1840, and knew nothing of the artist or its provenance.
“In its comparative dimensions, especially in the disproportion between the size of the head and body, this picture is identical with the Droeshout engraving, but the engraving‘s incongruities of light and shade are absent, and the ear and other details of the features which are abnormal in the engraving are normal in the painting. Though stiffly drawn, the face is far more skillfully presented than in the engraving, and the facial expression betrays some artistic sentiment lacking in the print…On the death of Mr. Clements, the owner, in 1895, the painting was purchased by Mrs. Charles Flower.”[vii]
A 2005 scientific study proved that the Flower is a 19th century color copy of the Droeshout engraving using pigments not available before 1814. X-rays show it is painted over a mid-16th century portrait of the Madonna and Child with John the Baptist. Needless to say, it is 100% fake.[viii]
Sir Desmond Flower later gave it to the Royal Shakespeare company where it now hangs in their Stratford theatre.
“Of the same type as the Droeshout engraving, although less closely resembling it than the Flower portrait, is the “Ely House” portrait. This picture, which was purchased in 1845 by Thomas Turton, Bishop of Ely, and was acquired on his death in 1864 by the art-dealer Henry Graves, who presented it to the Birthplace on April 23 [Shakespeare’s birthday] following.”[ix]
The portrait is approximately twenty inches square. The hair is auburn, the eyes brownish gray, and the doublet greenish brown. The artist is unknown. The features are more delicately rendered than in the Flower portrait. The high, bald forehead indicates a connection to the Droeshout engraving. On the left-hand corner is the date 1608 and the presumed age of the sitter, 30. The problem with the Shakespeare identification is that in 1608 Shakespeare was 44, not 30. Moreover, the claim of the Ely House portrait to workmanship of such an early date is not substantiated.
“The Felton portrait is a small head on an 11 x 8 inch wood panel with a high and bald sugar-loaf forehead. It was purchased in 1873 by the Baroness Burdett-Coutts and acquired by S. Felton, of Drayton, Shropshire, for whom it is named, in 1792.”[x] Where it is today is not known. Like the Ely, it depicts its subject with a high and bald forehead, in this case elongated like a sugar-loaf.
On the back of the painting is the inscription “Gul. Shakespeare 1597 R. B.” The sitter if Shakespeare would be 33. Granted that this sitter may be prematurely bald, he appears older than 33. It has been purported that the letters R. B. stand for Richard Burbage. Burbage was Shakespeare’s leading man who created the roles of Hamlet, Macbeth, thello, and King Lear, among many others. He was also a painter; we have his self-portrait shown here.
But Burbage’s style is very different from that of the Felton portrait. That would rule out Burbage as the artist.
Although this image, known as the Grafton portrait, appears on several book covers, there is no evidence to connect it to Shakespeare. The great scholar Dover Wilson admitted as much when he used this portrait as the frontispiece to his book The Essential Shakespeare. But the picture satisfied his own image of Shakespeare as a young man. The unknown sitter was 24 when Shakespeare was 24, but laws of the time specifically prohibited the wearing of scarlet except by the nobility. That would rule out Shakespeare as the sitter. The portrait is now owned by the John Rylands Library Museum at the University of Manchester which does not uphold the identification of this painting as of Shakespeare.
The Ashbourne portrait was widely reproduced during the 19th century as a portrayal of Shakespeare and currently hangs in the Folger Shakespeare Library. It is in fact a portrait of Sir Hugh Hamersley, a 17th century businessman who served terms as Sheriff of the City of London and Lord Mayor.[xi]
In 1940 Charles Wisner Barrell examined the portrait using x-ray and infra-red photography, as well as rubbings of the paint on the sitter’s thumb ring. He concluded that the painting is a retouched portrait of Edward de Vere, painted by Cornelius Ketel. In 1979, an examination of the portrait by William L. Pressly identified the sitter as Hamersley, stating that the portrait had been retouched to alter Hamersley’s age and to paint over his coat of arms.[xii]
The Soest portrait was in the collection of Thomas Wright of Covent Garden in 1725. The artist was Gerard Soest, born 21 years after Shakespeare’s death, and the portrait is only on fanciful grounds identified with the poet. The picture was painted somewhere between 1660 and 1680 and was engraved in the 18th century. The painting, just about life-size, was acquired by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.[xiii]
The so-called Old Player portrait is reputed to have been painted about 1594 when Shakespeare would have been 30. The date has not been substantiated with scientific testing. The painting is reversed here, the better to compare it with the Soest portrait.
The two portraits are clearly linked in some way, though the age of the subject and the eyes are different. The lock of hair at the top of the forehead is suspicious, suggesting that one is based of the other. In any case, both paintings bear a resemblance to the Chandos portrait.[xiv]
The Chandos portrait is the most famous of the portraits that have been claimed to depict Shakespeare. It is named after one of its owners, James Brydges, 1st Duke of Chandos.
It has not been possible to resolve the question of who painted the picture. The first known reference to the painting is in a note by the first engraver of the portrait, George Vertue, in 1719. Vertue states that it was painted by John Taylor, a respected member of the Painter-Stainers company. It is not known upon what grounds Vertue based this statement. Was he familiar with Taylor’s works? Vertue also stated that the portrait was owned by Sir William Davenant (1606-1668) who, according to the gossip chronicler John Aubrey, claimed to be Shakespeare’s illegitimate son. There are no facts to back up this claim.[xv]
However, it is certainly possible that Davenant did own the painting. Davenant, himself a poet and playwright, was born and educated at Oxford. He was a theatre manager and adapted a number of Shakespeare’s plays.
Vertue further states that it was left to Davenant in Taylor’s will and that it was bought by the actor Thomas Betterton from Davenant, then later sold to a lawyer, Robert Keck.
After Keck’s death it passed within the family, and was eventually inherited by John Nichol, who had married into the Keck family. His daughter Margaret married John Brydges, 1st Duke of Chandos and the painting passed through descent within this family until sold to the Earl of Ellesmere 1848. The Earl presented the portrait to the National Portrait Gallery on its foundation in 1856. The oil painting is listed as number one in its collection, being its first acquisition.[xvi]
In 2006 the National Portrait Gallery conducted tests on the portrait and concluded that
it was painted around 1610 when Shakespeare was 46. He retired to Stratford about 1611. The portrait was part of the “Searching for Shakespeare” exhibition. Tarnya Cooper, who made a three-an-a-half year study of the portraits in the exhibition, noted that the painting has been badly damaged by over-cleaning and retouching. Parts are abraded and some parts have been slightly altered. The hair has been extended and the beard is longer and more pointed than when originally painted.
I myself studied the painting at the NPG from every angle and distance possible, around the year 2000, before Cooper studied it. Lee states that the portrait is an oval. There is no dispute that it was once an oval as a portion of the oval frame, or rather its shadow, is visible in the photo. It’s clear that the canvas has been reframed square. However, the portrait on display betrays no trace of the oval frame or the defects described by Cooper. I’m forced to conclude that the portrait on display is a copy, the original being locked in a vault. Cooper was evidently allowed to view the original.
The Chesterfield portrait is named after one of its owners, the Earl of Chesterfield. It was originally attributed to Federico Zuccaro (c. 1541-1609), but is now said to be from the easel of Pieter Borsseler, a Dutchman, active 1664-1687. With such late dates, Shakespeare cannot be the sitter. The head is obviously modeled on the Chandos portrait including the collar, beard, high forehead and earring. The painting is the property of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.[xvii]
“Nicholas Hilliard (c. 1547–1619) was best known for his portrait miniatures of members of the courts of Elizabeth and James 1. He mostly painted small oval miniatures, but also some larger cabinet miniatures up to about ten inches tall, and at least two famous half-length panel portraits of Elizabeth. He enjoyed continuing success as an artist, and continuing financial troubles, for forty-five years. Technically he was very conservative by European standards, but his paintings are superbly executed and have a freshness and charm that has ensured his continuing reputation.”[xviii]
Southampton Emilia Bassano Lanier
One of his miniatures is the Earl of Southampton, Shakespeare’s patron, another is reputed to be Emilia Bassano Lanier, considered by many to be the Dark Lady of the Sonnets, Shakespeare’s mistress. In passing I might add that Emilia’s miniature does not project beauty. But in the Sonnets Shakespeare does say that many did not consider her beautiful.
In October of 2007, there was an announcement that test results of a portrait owned by Lloyd Sullivan, a Canadian, was a portrait of Shakespeare.
Known as the Sanders portrait, the painting is thought to depict the poet at age 39. It is believed that he sat for an ancestor of Sullivan’s, an unknown actor and painter named John Sanders, in 1603. The portrait, painted on an oak panel, was held in the family for 400 years. Sullivan inherite4d it from his grandmother in 1972.
The painting dates from around 1600 based on a dozen forensic tests conducted over an eight-yest period, and has not been altered since. The most recent test looked at the ink from a hand-written inscription on a label on the back of the portrait that says the subject is William Shakespeare, and lists his birth and death dates. Radiocarbon dating tests on the paper label dates between 1627 and 1667. The label, therefore, would have to have been added 24 to 64 years after the portrait was painted, which automatically makes the portrait suspect.[xix] The Sanders painting was one of the five in the National Portrait Gallery’s “Searching for Shakespeare” exhibition.
I return to the Droeshout engraving because, bad as it is, it has the authority of Heminges and Condell, Shakespeare’s colleagues, a claim which no other representation can make.
Recapitulating, Droeshout was 15 when Shakespeare died. He could not have drawn him from memory seven years later. The $64,000 question no one has ever asked is, What exactly was Droeshout looking at when he made the engraving? Considering the face only, more than one critic has noted the resemblances between the engraving and the Chandos portrait.
But because of the differences in the clothing, no one has had the confidence to say that the Chandos was in fact the model for the engraving. But if it was, how can the clothing of the engraving, which we have already noted to be full of irregularities, be accounted for? The answer is really quite simple.
The title of the First Folio “Mr. [italics mine] William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies” supplies a hint of the answer. I emphasize “Mr.” because Shakespeare, like all Elizabethans, was very class conscious. He worked hard for that Mr., which denoted the status of gentleman as opposed to that of farmer, laborer, or yeoman. All legal documents stated one’s name followed by an occupation, or the name and the fact that one was a “gentleman,” “knight,” etc.
Shakespeare’s father, John, by virtue of being bailiff (or mayor) of Stratford-on-Avon, was entitled to a coat-of-arms which signified a gentleman. John began but finally gave up pursuit of the coat armor, likely because of embarrassing circumstances. It was surely Shakespeare who later revived the idea and paid the £30 fee for the coat-of-arms for his father.
Ben Jonson said that Shakespeare was “not of an age but for all time.” Whoever commissioned the engraving must have borne this in mind. He must also have concluded that Shakespeare in the Chandos portrait was not dressed like a gentleman and therefore not for all time. It was for this reason, whoever he was (Heminges and/or Condell?) called for some changes for the engraving. Thus we have the gentleman’s starched collar and the doublet with a pattern familiar in paintings of the nobility. And, of course, the earring must go. All of this, including the countenance, was badly rendered by the amateur Droeshout.
Of all the paintings of Shakespeare, the Chandos portrait has the best claim as an authentic representation of the poet. Moreover, I believe this is what Droeshout was looking at when he made the engraving.
[i] Richard Lacayo, “Is This What Shakespeare Looked Like?,” Time (online), March 9, 2009
[iii] Sidney Lee, A Life of Shakespeare (14th edition, 1931), 540.
[iv] Lee, 524
[v] Lee, 526
[vi] Lee, 528
[vii] Lee, 530-1
[viii] Catherine Simpson,“The Flower Portrait of Shakespeare,” Finding Shakespeare, website
[ix] Lee, 532
[x] Lee, 537
[xi] “The Ashbourne Portrait,” Folger Shakespeare Library website
[xii] “The Ashbourne Portrait,” Angelfire website
[xiii] Lee, 538
[xiv] “Portraits of Shakespeare,” The Shakespeare Family History Site
[xv] Lee, 535
[xvii] Finding Shakespeare (website), “Representing Shakespeare: The Chesterfield Portrait”
[xviii] Portraits of Shakespeare, Wikipedia
[xix] “Portraits of Shakespeare,” The Shakespeare Family History Site