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Home :: Archive :: 2002 :: May ::
Deceptive Portrait
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 13.1250  Tuesday, 7 May 2002

From:           Richard Burt <
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Sent:           Sunday, May 05, 2002 9:34 PM
Subject:        Deceptive Portrait

This article from NYTimes.com

Is Deceptive Portrait Tied to Shakespeare?

May 6, 2002

By ALAN RIDING

EAST CLANDON, England - Upper-class English families frequently inherit
dusty portraits of forgotten ancestors, but Alec Cobbe's Anglo-Irish
forebears left him a richer legacy, a collection of major works of art.
It is now exhibited in two stately homes: Newbridge House, outside
Dublin, and Hatchlands Park, 30 miles south of London. Some family
portraits are also on display, but in the company of Poussin and Luca
Giordano they go largely unnoticed.

One such portrait, identified by a faded sticker as "Lady Norton,
daughter of the Bishop of Winton," shows the face of someone in her late
teens with smooth skin, an eye-catching earring, long hair, rosy cheeks
and a cherry of a mouth. The work of an anonymous painter, it served as
a space filler at Newbridge, even after an art expert concluded 10 years
ago that "Lady Norton" was in fact a young man. And it did not merit a
place in a recent exhibition of the Cobbe collection.

But now, after an intense two months of research, Mr. Cobbe says he
believes he has found the earliest extant portrait of Henry Wriothesley,
Third Earl of Southampton, Shakespeare's patron from the early 1590's.
Not only did Shakespeare dedicate his narrative poems "Venus and Adonis"
and "The Rape of Lucrece" to Southampton, but he is also widely presumed
to have made this young noble the "fair youth" of his sonnets, perhaps
even "the master-mistress of my passion" of Sonnet 20.

The debate over Shakespeare's sexuality is 150 years old and will hardly
be resolved by this girlish-looking portrait of Southampton. But the
identification of the subject of this painting, described by some
British newspapers as "Southampton in drag," has reawakened speculation
over the possible bisexuality of Shakespeare, who left his wife, Anne
Hathaway, in Stratford-Upon-Avon when he moved to London.

In one sense, though, there is less than meets the eye.  While the
sonnets may or may not be autobiographical, experts say this portrait
does not show Southampton dressed as a woman. The first noble of his
generation to wear his hair long, Henry Wriothesley was renowned as
something of a dandy, but Mr. Cobbe argues that red lips and pink cheeks
were common to every Elizabethan portrait. "Forget cross-dressing," he
added. "These are not women's clothes."

Still, it is easy to imagine that Southampton was all too aware of the
image he would convey with the delicate Italian lace around his neck and
sleeves, a provocative red-and-black earring and his hand lifted to his
heart as if to exhibit his delicate fingers. Yet later portraits of
Southampton, like those painted when he was in prison in the Tower of
London and when he was an acclaimed military leader, also show him with
long hair and exquisite attire.

In his essay "Shakespeare's Sonnets," the poet W. H. Auden dwells on
Southampton's narcissism, noting that the young man probably knew he had
some power over Shakespeare but was unaware of the intensity of feelings
he aroused.  Southampton gives the impression, Auden writes, of being "a
young man who was not really very nice, very conscious of his good
looks, able to switch on the charm at any moment, but essentially
frivolous, cold-hearted and self-centered."

What makes this anonymous portrait of Southampton interesting, then, is
the belief that it shows him as he looked when he first became
Shakespeare's patron and, perhaps, the muse of the poet's sonnets.

Mr. Cobbe, 57, himself a painter, restorer, designer and musician, said
he had long ignored the painting. However, before the recent exhibition
of the Cobbe collection at Kenwood House in London, he had been studying
his family tree and had spotted a 17th-century link to the Wriothesley
family. Then, when he was rehanging the paintings at Newbridge after the
show, the forgotten portrait lay on the floor. "I thought, hey, I've
seen this face before," he recalled. "Could it be the third Earl? Let's
clean it and investigate."

A resemblance to later portraits of Southampton can be seen immediately
in the man's long face, narrow upper lip, fuller lower lip and slightly
bulbous nose, and in his penchant for displaying his hands and fingers,
his hairline and indeed his long hair, which, as in this portrait, often
falls over his left shoulder. Just as important to Mr.  Cobbe, however,
was to establish a provenance that explained how the painting came into
his family's hands.

The sticker on the back of the canvas was placed there by Charles Cobbe,
archbishop of Dublin in the mid-18th century, who believed it showed his
great-grandmother, Lady Anne Norton. Mr. Cobbe, however, has identified
a direct link to the Wriothesleys through the earl's
great-granddaughter, Lady Elizabeth Noel, who married a Richard Norton.
When the couple died childless, their property went to Norton's cousin,
Honor, who in turn married the archbishop's grandfather.

Having determined to his satisfaction how the portrait entered his
family's collection three centuries ago, Mr.  Cobbe obtained
confirmation of his finding from an old friend, Alastair Laing, adviser
on art and sculpture to the National Trust, the conservation agency that
leases Hatchlands Park to Mr. Cobbe. It was Mr. Laing who first
identified "Lady Norton" as a man.

The next step was to obtain the endorsement of the National Portrait
Gallery in London, but a problem arose. Catherine MacLeod, a curator at
the gallery, said the flat lace collar in the portrait was an
early-17th-century fashion, which suggested that the portrait was
painted no earlier than 1600. In that case, it could not show
Southampton, who by that date was 27.

"So I am inclined to think that this is probably not a portrait of
Southampton after all, but of some other very fashionable and very young
man of the early 17th century," Ms. MacLeod wrote to Mr. Cobbe. "Are
there any other candidates among the friends and relatives of the Cobbe
family?"

But Mr. Cobbe remained convinced. And as he and Mr. Laing pursued their
research, they came across a Vecello pattern book compiled in 1591 that
showed Italian lace patterns almost identical to those worn by
Southampton in the portrait. It now seemed plausible to date the
painting around 1592, when Southampton was 19. And they presented their
new findings to Ms. MacLeod.

"It does indeed sound as though your evidence about the lace collar
removes my objection about the date and Southampton's age," she
conceded. Ever the scholar, though, she added, "My inclination is
naturally to err on the side of caution in matters of this kind, but the
Southampton identification certainly sounds possible, and adds an extra
dimension of interest to an already interesting portrait."

With that, Mr. Cobbe contacted Anthony Holden, author of "William
Shakespeare: His Life and Work," who wrote about the portrait of
"Shakespeare's patron and possible lover" in The Observer of London on
April 21. When Mr. Holden visited Hatchlands to inspect the painting, he
was also accompanied by an old friend, Sir Frank Kermode, the
Shakespearean scholar.

"If you believe that the young man addressed in the sonnets was Henry
Wriothesley," Mr. Holden quoted Sir Frank as saying, "there is the
additional thrill that this could be the face that Shakespeare fell in
love with, perhaps wishing its owner was a girl. The magnitude of the
thrill depends on how much you think the identity of the young person
matters to the poems. Many think it matters a lot."

Mr. Cobbe has now acquired a facsimile of the first edition of the
Sonnets, published in 1609, and he likes to turn to Sonnet 20 and wonder
whether Shakespeare had his portrait in mind when he wrote of "a woman's
face with nature's own hand painted." But, he admitted, until recently
he had no more than a layman's acquaintance with Shakespeare. "The only
reason to put the story in the press is to help the visitor flow to
Hatchlands," he said.

Indeed, Hatchlands Park, an 18th-century mansion set on 420 acres of
parkland a few miles from Guildford, has more to offer, including
interiors designed by Robert Adam and scores of artworks from the Cobbe
collection. The highlight, though, is Mr. Cobbe's collection of 44
keyboard instruments, including harpsichords and virginals dating to the
17th century, which an American patron, Donald Kahn, has helped maintain
in playing condition.

As part of a musical tour of the mansion, Mr. Cobbe springs from one
keyboard to another, playing excerpts of works by composers who once
used the very same instruments, among them Johann Christian Bach,
Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn, Chopin, Elgar and Mahler. (Visiting hours and
other information about Hatchlands can be found on the National Trust's
Web site, www.nationaltrust.org.uk/main/.

Now the public seems certain to include Shakespeare lovers interested in
studying the fine features of the youthful Third Earl of Southampton.
So, Mr. Cobbe said, there is no question of selling the portrait. "It
has been in the family for 300 years," he observed cheerfully. "It can
stay a bit longer."

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