Latest news about Shakespeare’s portraits

The Title page of the First Folio with the Droeshout engraving

Shakespeare’s face is universally recognised, and there must be thousands of different portraits in existence. Yet very few of them could be said to be authentic in any way. For centuries people have wanted to own their own image of Shakespeare and artists have tried to catch the essence of the man in paint, plaster or stone.

There’s no record that a portrait of Shakespeare was created during his lifetime unless you count the reference in the first part of The Return from Parnassus. In this student play dating from 1603 one of the characters, besotted by Shakespeare’s love poetry, exclaims “O sweet Mr Shakespeare! I’le have his Picture in my study at The courte”. Nor is there any reference to a death mask being made when Shakespeare died. The so-called Kesselstadt death mask was found in a shop in Germany in the eighteenth century just at the time when Shakespeare was becoming an international cultural hero.

The Shakespeare monument

The two reliably authentic portraits are the Droeshout engraving, the frontispiece to the 1623 First Folio, and the bust erected in Holy Trinity Church above his grave which is referred to in the Folio. Both must have been accepted as likenesses by his family and friends, but there appears to have been little collaboration between the makers. Neither is a distinguished piece of work and dissatisfaction with these two must be one of the reasons why there have been so many portraits.

The Leicester Square statue surrounded by Olympic “medals”


Just recently the subject of Shakespeare portraiture has been in the news again. Leicester Square in central London is being rejuvenated and the statue of Shakespeare at its centre is being restored, with its plinth redesigned to discourage people from climbing on it. It dates from 1874 when the entire square was revamped and opened to the public. It’s said to be an exact replica of the 1740-41 statue in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey, designed by William Kent and created by Peter Scheemakers, though the scroll bears a quote from Twelfth Night “There is no darkness but ignorance” rather than the version of lines from The Tempest that are on the original:

The Westminster Abbey statue

The Cloud capt Tow’rs,
The Gorgeous Palaces,
The Solemn Temples,
The Great Globe itself,
Yea all which it Inherit,
Shall Dissolve;
And like the baseless Fabrick of a Vision
Leave not a wreck behind.

Here’s a link to a page about the Westminster Abbey statue.

A few weeks ago a small, delicate portrait of Shakespeare was brought in to the BBC programme Antiques Roadshow.

Antiques Roadshow portrait

The expert judged it to date from around 1730, and suggested it was based on the Chandos portrait. This famous portrait was first mentioned in 1719 by George Vertue and it quickly became the most fashionable representation of Shakespeare. Although it dates from Shakespeare’s lifetime the name of the artist, the date of composition, and even the sitter, can not be identified for sure.

The Antiques Roadshow portrait shows a man wearing a costume similar to the Chandos, though it seems to be facially closer to the Droeshout engraving.

SBT 1978-12

Here’s a similar little portrait from the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust’s Collections, that features on the Windows on Warwickshire website.

The difficulties surrounding the Chandos portrait illustrate the minefield that is Shakespeare portraiture. By the end of the seventeenth century a number of other portraits had appeared which had no claim to be made from life, the Chesterfield and Soest for instance.

The Chandos portrait

There have been many attempts to establish the dates of the different portraits and their relationships to each other. The most recent contender in the authenticity stakes is the Cobbe portrait, first exhibited in 2009, which has been the subject of some heated debates. This portrait isn’t related to the Church Bust, Droeshout engraving or Chandos portrait, but it appears to be the original from which several copies were made, variously identified as being Shakespeare or Sir Thomas Overbury. One problem is that the portrait shows a man younger than the 46 that Shakespeare was when it was painted in 1610. As I said, it’s a minefield.

The Cobbe portrait

The controversy looks ready to continue as an artist based near Stratford-upon-Avon, Garrick Huscared, is in the process of creating a new bronze sculpture based on the Cobbe portrait. More information is being published at the moment and if you’d like to follow developments take a look at the website.

Shakespeare portraiture is a fascinating subject, yet I can’t help agreeing with Ben Jonson who said that to find the man we should “Look not on his picture, but his book”.

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