Monday, March 16, 2009


Is This a Shakespeare Which I See Before Me?
By JOHN F. BURNS, New York Times
Published: March 9, 2009
LONDON — Nearly 400 years after his death, William Shakespeare 
appeared in a new and more handsome guise on Monday, thanks to a recently discovered portrait that a group of Shakespeare scholars and 
art historians said was the only known likeness to have been painted 
in his lifetime.

The Shakespeare engraving by Martin Droeshout is considered a close 
Stanley Wells, the chairman of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, 
based in Shakespeare’s birthplace of Stratford-upon- Avon, described 
the portrait at a news conference as a “pinup.” It shows the Bard as 
a far more alluring figure than the solemn-faced, balding image that 
has been conveyed by engravings, busts and portraits that have been 
accepted by scholars as the best available likeness of English 
literature’s most famous figure.

Until now, scholars have deemed the most authentic representations of 
Shakespeare to be a black-and-white woodcut engraving by the Flemish 
artist Martin Droeshout that appeared in the first folio edition of 
Shakespeare’s works in 1623, and a marble bust displayed since the 
1620s in a Stratford church.

In their place, the scholars in London showed reporters a portrait 
taken from the private collection of an aristocratic Anglo-Irish 
family, the Cobbes, who have owned it for nearly 300 years, since 
inheriting it through a family relationship with Shakespeare’s only 
known literary patron, Henry Wriothesley, the 3rd Earl of Southampton.

The earl was a rakish aristocrat who eluded a death sentence passed 
on him after joining a rebellion against Elizabeth I.

But not all Shakespeare scholars are convinced the Cobbe portrait is 
an authentic likeness, or even that it is of Shakespeare at all, 
given the aristocratic dress of the man in the portrait and the 
idealizing tradition of Elizabethan portraiture, which often produced 
images that bore little resemblance to nature.

The Cobbe portrait, as the scholars now call it, shows a head-turner 
of a man. In middle age, this Shakespeare has a fresh-faced 
complexion, a closely trimmed auburn beard, a long straight nose and 
a full, almost bouffant hairstyle. He is dressed in elaborate white 
lace ruff and a gold-trimmed blue doublet of a kind worn only by the 
wealthy and successful men of his age.

Mr. Wells and other experts said they were convinced after three 
years of studying the portrait, and after elaborate scientific tests 
at Cambridge University, that it was, in effect, the holy grail 
Shakespearean scholars had sought for centuries: a portrait done in 
Shakespeare’s lifetime, and the original from which other Shakespeare 
paintings of the period were copied. They said their studies showed 
it probably was painted in 1610, when Shakespeare was 46, and only a 
few years from his death in 1616.

In a brochure for an exhibition opening in Stratford in April, titled 
“Shakespeare Found,” the birthplace trust offered a lyrical 

“His face is open and alive, with a rosy, rather sweet expression, 
perhaps suggestive of modesty,” it said. “There is nothing superior 
or haughty in the subject, which one might well expect to find in a 
face set off by such rich clothing. It is the face of a good 
listener, as well as of someone who exercised a natural restraint.”

In a handout for reporters, the trust said the portrait might open a 
new era in Shakespeare scholarship, giving fresh momentum, among 
other things, to generations of speculation as to whether the 
playwright, a married man with three children, was bisexual. Until 
now, that suggestion has hinged mostly on dedications to the Earl of 
Southampton that Shakespeare wrote with some of his best-loved poems 
and some of the sensual passages in his poems and plays, particularly 
his sonnets, most of which, the London scholars said, are centered on 
expressions of love and desire for men, not women.

“This Shakespeare is handsome and glamorous, so how does this change 
the way we think about him?” the handout said. “And do the painting 
and provenance tell us more about his sexuality, and possibly about 
the person to whom the sonnets are addressed?”

David Scott Kastan, a Yale Shakespeare expert, said by telephone that 
there were reasons to question the Cobbe portrait’s provenance — 
whether it was in fact once owned by the Earl of Southampton or 
commissioned by him, as the trust representatives believe — and to 
doubt whether the richly dressed man in the portrait was Shakespeare.

“If I had to bet I would say it’s not Shakespeare,” Mr. Kastan said. 
But even if it was, he said, the traditions of Elizabethan 
portraiture meant that it would be unwise to conclude that 
Shakespeare actually looked like the figure depicted in the portrait. 
“It might be a portrait of Shakespeare, but not a likeness, because 
the conventions of portraiture at the time were often to idealize the 
subject,” he said.

Scholars searching for a Shakespeare likeness have concentrated on 
four other paintings with strong similarities to the Cobbe portrait, 
one of them the so-called Folger portrait displayed in the Folger 
Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. But the experts in London 
said they were sure from their study of the Cobbe portrait that it 
was the original from which the other portraits were based.

The experts said the portrait came to light when Alec Cobbe, an art 
restorer and heir to the family fortune, visited the National 
Portrait Gallery in London in 2006 to see an exhibition, “Searching 
for Shakespeare,” at which the Folger portrait was displayed. They 
said Mr. Cobbe concluded that the Folger portrait, whose authenticity 
had been doubted for decades, was a copy of the one that had been in 
his family’s art collection since the mid-18th century, with the 
family unaware that the man depicted might be Shakespeare.

Mr. Wells, the Shakespeare scholar, said that compared to the Cobbe 
portrait, the other portraits presented “an inanimate mask” of 
Shakespeare and that they were “dull copies of the original.” He 
added, “No one who has seen the four paintings can doubt that the 
Cobbe portrait is the original. You don’t need an expert to see that.”

Scientific studies at Cambridge showed that the oak panel on which 
the Cobbe portrait was mounted came from trees felled in the last 20 
years of the 16th century, pointing to a date for the painting in the 
early 1600s, experts at the news conference said. They said the paint 
used was also characteristic of that period, as was the intricate and 
costly style of the lace ruff worn by the man in the portrait.

Rupert Featherstone, assistant curator for the university’s 
Fitzwilliam Museum, said another clue pointing to the Cobbe 
portrait’s claim to be the original from which Shakespeare paintings 
of the period were copied came from X-ray studies that showed the 
“pentiments,” or changes made by the painter as he progressed. He 
said these included the inclusion of a small, fleshy bulge at the 
upper corner of Shakespeare’s left eye, a detail typical of the minor 
adjustments made in original portraiture.

Mr. Wells and other experts said the Cobbe painting, if accepted as 
the only original lifetime likeness of the playwright, could be worth 
millions. But they said that pecuniary considerations played no part 
in their scholarship. “It hasn’t been for sale for 400 years, and 
it’s not for sale now,” said Mark Broch, the curator of the Cobbe 

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