Shakespeare’s Portrait?

Shakespeare's Portrait?There have traditionally been only two images accepted as true portraits of the man who is generally acknowledged as the greatest writer in the English language, William Shakespeare.

One is his monument bust in the Holy Trinity Church in Statford-upon-Avon (left, 4th down), and the other is the famous engraving by Martin Droeshout (left, bottom) that was used as the cover piece of the First Folio of Shakespeare’s work (and has been repurposed in a gigazillion ways since). Both of them were done after his death in 1616.

On Monday, the chairman of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, Stanley Wells, unveiled a painting that has been in the house of the Cobbe family outside of Dublin for centuries, that is now suggested to be the only image of the bard painted from life (image at left, top).

This status was previously held, but always in question, for the painting called the Chandos Portrait, attributed to artist John Taylor (left, third down), but that claim has been discredited to a large extent.

The painting from the Cobbe family shows an energetic and bright eyed man, younger than the portrayals we commonly see, most of which have been based on Droeshout’s engraving.

In this portrait, Shakespeare would have been 46 at the time, six years before his death.

The painting bears a resemblance to a painting once thought to be of Shakespeare and attributed to Flemish painter Charles Janssen, that is in the National Gallery in London (left, second down).

Though this painting has been established to have been of another person, and to have been altered sometime before 1770 to make it resemble Shakespeare, it is what prompted the Alec Cobbe to begin inquires among Shakespeare scholars and art experts to see if his family’s painting was, indeed, of the great playwright.

Though the jury is not in, sophisticated dating techniques and the opinions of the experts in both camps suggest that this may, in fact, be the only portrait we have of Shakespeare painted during his lifetime.

Unfortunately, in all of the media attention the painting has received, I can find no mention of an attribution, or even a suggestion of a probable artist’s name. I suppose that may remain a mystery, like much about the bard himself.

Though out of context (and though by “paintings”, Hamlet is referring to Opheila’s makeup), the issue of identifying portraits brings to mind:

“I have heard of your paintings too, well enough; God has given you one face and you make yourselves another,…”

[Thanks to Larry Roibal]


6 Replies to “Shakespeare’s Portrait?”

  1. Isn’t this the same Alec Cobbe who had another painting “languishing unnoticed” back in 2002 which he claims was a portrait of one of Shakespeare’s patrons (and possibly his lover) dressed up as a woman — Henry Wriothesley, the Third Earl of Southampton? I wonder what other random art by unknown artists of Shakespeare Mr. Cobbe has in his collection…interesting. 🙂

    How Britain’s 18th century sculptors invented a National Hero

    An exhibition at Orleans House Gallery, 18 April to 7 June 2009. Admission is free and the Gallery is open Tuesday to Saturday 1.00 – 5.30 and Sunday 2.00 to 5.30. On Sunday afternoons a free shuttle bus will run between the Gallery and Garrick’s Temple to Shakespeare, some two miles upstream, when both are open.

    This exhibition, largely funded by a £49,700 grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF), is of national importance and local significance.

    National importance because it unites the major busts and figures of Shakespeare by the greatest sculptors of the 18th century’ who gave him a heroic stature, and supports these with paintings, engravings and memorabilia from major private and public collections in Great Britain.

    Local significance because Orleans House Twickenham lies close by to three other Thames side residences which feature in this story: Alexander Pope in whose library the 1735 Shakespeare bust by Peter Scheemakers which is shown in the exhibition once stood, Horace Walpole whose villa at Strawberry Hill is currently being restored, and of course David Garrick, who built a couple of miles upstream his Temple to Shakespeare, the first building dedicated to the Bard, and who 250 years ago installed in the Temple the full length statue of Shakespeare by François Roubiliac which conjunction this exhibition celebrates.

    Before Rysbrack, Scheemakers, Roubiliac and Cheere reinvented Shakespeare between 1730 and 1770 all the nation had as a face and figure were the egghead poet of the first folio, the pork butcher funeral monument in Holy Trinity Stratford-upon-Avon and, from 1719, the newly authenticated ‘Chandos portrait’.

    In 2006 the National Portrait Gallery staged Searching for Shakespeare which ended in 1719. THE FACE AND FIGURE OF SHAKESPEARE: How Britain’s 18th century sculptors invented a National Hero takes the story on into mid Georgian Britain when scholarship, sculpture and all the arts flowered and nowhere more vigorously than here beside the River Thames.

    The exhibition is curated by Iain Mackintosh and Marcus Risdell. Marcus is Curator and Librarian of the Garrick Club Collections. Iain’s varied career spans co founding the Prospect Theatre Company, which he administered until 1973, curating exhibitions of theatre paintings at the Hayward Gallery and Royal Academy and designing theatre spaces including the Cottesloe, Glyndebourne and the Orange Tree, all of which betray their 18th century origins.

    Cabinet Member for Youth, Leisure and Culture, Cllr Liz Jaeger, said:

    “This is a fantastic opportunity for local residents and fans of the Bard to come and see how 18th century sculptors and artists have portrayed Shakespeare – the greatest writer in the English language. As well as the exhibition, the Arts Service has run an education project with local schools and community groups with professional artists to create contemporary responses to the exhibition themes.”

    The Orleans House Gallery welcomes the news that the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust is simultaneously holding an exhibition at Stratford-upon-Avon entitled Shakespeare FOUND a life portrait. This latter discovery has been christened the ‘Cobbe portrait’ by the Cobbe family who own it. There are three other versions of this image, one of which, the ‘Janssen portrait’, is in the Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington DC. This was shown in 2006 at the NPG in their exhibition Searching for Shakespeare. Both the Folger and the NPG have rejected this as being an image of Shakespeare and the sitter is generally thought to be the poet and courtier Sir Thomas Overbury (1581-1613) who was poisoned in the Tower of London. The face and ruff in all four versions are certainly remarkably similar to the well authenticated portrait of Overbury, which was presented to the Bodleian Library in Oxford in 1740 by a great nephew, also Thomas Overbury, and attributed to Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger (1561-1635).

    The Orleans House exhibition is concerned only with how sculptors, artists and engravers of the 18th century felt Shakespeare should have looked like as the National Poet and the National Hero and thereby shaped how we view him today. Hence it is not for the curators to debate the authenticity of the ‘Cobbe portrait’ as a life portrait except possibly to wonder how it is that four versions of this image vanished for the duration of the 18th century, when artists and patrons were busy researching the known evidence, surfacing briefly in 1770 when Handel’s librettist, Charles Jennens, had his version engraved for his edition of King Lear and alone amongst scholars decided that it represented Shakespeare.

    The exhibition is supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF), London Borough of Richmond-upon-Thames, the Henry Moore Foundation, the Garrick Club and Steeldeck.

    The Heritage Lottery Fund
    Using money raised through the National Lottery, the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) sustains and transforms a wide range of heritage for present and future generations to take part in, learn from and enjoy. From museums, parks and historic places to archaeology, natural environment and cultural traditions, we invest in every part of our diverse heritage. HLF has supported more than 28,800 projects, allocating over £4.3billion across the UK, with over £850 million has granted in London alone. Website:
    For further information please contact:
    Mark De Novellis, curator of the Orleans Gallery, 020 8831 6000
    Iain Mackintosh, co-curator of the exhibition, 020 7720 4974
    Marcus Risdell, co-curator of the exhibition, 020 7395 4112 (for images)

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