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Home :: Archive :: 2009 :: May ::
New Portrait of Shakespeare?
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 20.0270  Wednesday, 27 May 2009

[1] From:   Louis W. Thompson <
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     Date:   Wednesday, 20 May 2009 23:19:45 -0700
     Subj:   Re: SHK 20.0255 New Portrait of Shakespeare?

[2] From:   Jess Winfield <
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     Date:   Thursday, 21 May 2009 12:56:10 -0700
     Subj:   Re: SHK 20.0255 New Portrait of Shakespeare?

[3] From:   Stanley Wells <
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     Date:   Friday, 22 May 2009 15:17:01 +0100
     Subj:   RE: SHK 20.0255 New Portrait of Shakespeare?


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:       Louis W. Thompson <
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Date:       Wednesday, 20 May 2009 23:19:45 -0700
Subject: 20.0255 New Portrait of Shakespeare?
Comment:    Re: SHK 20.0255 New Portrait of Shakespeare?

On May 8, 2009 I posted the question:

"Does anybody on the list believe the new portrait is Shakespeare - 
wholeheartedly and without reservations?"

On May 18, 2009, Hardy wrote: "On the surface this question would appear 
to be an innocent one, but now I am beginning to regret that I posted it."

The problem: the introduction of "belief" into what Hardy hopes will be 
a responsible academic discussion. Hardy quoted the OED on the word 
"believe" and focused on that sense of the word that is "faith" -- an 
acceptance of something for which there is no proof.

"Looking at these definitions," Hardy wrote, "I have begun to wonder if 
I should have permitted a question of faith in the first place, but I 
did and will try to see if scholarly exchange is still possible."

When I posted the question, I too was hoping for a scholarly exchange. I 
  hoped to find someone outside the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust who had 
come to accept the Cobbe portrait as Shakespeare - someone who had 
scholarly reasons for his beliefs and who could explain them in precise 
language.

No one of the sort has appeared.

I received several off-list responses to my question from persons who -- 
for one reason or another -- didn't believe the sitter was Shakespeare.

On list, Lynn Brenner dismissed the Cobbe with a couple of sentences: 
"Given the paucity of evidence, one must be an ardent wishful thinker to 
believe it 'wholeheartedly and without reservations.' (And as you can 
probably guess, my own view is Bah, humbug.)"

Stanley Wells sternly replied: "Lyn Brenner's offensively dismissive 
comment might be justified if she gave any sign of having considered the 
evidence that has been adduced." Wells went on to refer readers to the 
"Shakespeare Found" section of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust website 
and also to the new book, Shakespeare Found! A Life Portrait at 
Last...." published jointly  by the Cobbe Foundation, The Shakespeare 
Birthplace Trust, and edited by Stanley Wells.

Belief? Faith? Scholarly discussion?

We all have well-grounded beliefs which have little to do with faith. I 
believe  the planets move around the sun in elliptical patterns because 
of the work of Johannes Kepler and later scientists, though quite 
honestly, I would be unable to check their calculations.

So when I asked for believers in the Cobbe portrait on this list, I was 
looking for well-grounded believers. I didn't ask the question in a chat 
room. I asked in this scholarly forum.

Hardy wondered whether a scholarly discussion would still be possible 
regarding the Cobbe.

Earlier today, May 20, Hardy was able to post an excellent and academic 
discussion of the painting. Hopefully his fears have abated

I submit though, that if the discussion occasionally runs to 
irreverence, it is due to the grand and certain presentation of the 
Cobbe by the Trust, combined with, as Lynn Brenner deftly put it, a 
"paucity of evidence" to support it.

  "Shakespeare Found! A Life Portrait at Last" they announced.

Did a microscopic examination reveal "W. Shaksp" embroidered on the 
sitter's clothes? Did the artist write "This is the poet W. Shakespeare" 
somewhere on the frame? Perhaps they found a diary entry: "Went to 
Southampton's house and saw a portrait of William Shakespeare" along 
with a description of the Cobbe portrait.

Nothing of the sort. The Wells and the Trust present a list of tenuous 
associations: the painting almost certainly hung in Wriothesley's house 
- (unless it wasn't Shakespeare and it didn't hang in Wriothesley's 
house). The Wriothesley and Cobbe families are distantly related. 
Someone within living memory of the poet thought the painting was 
Shakespeare.

This is Shakespeare by association. It doesn't put the poet on the canvas.

The problems are obvious. Wells and the Trust assert that the Cobbe 
portrait was the model for the Droeshout engraving, but the painting 
hung for nearly 400 years without anyone noting a similarity. In fact, 
someone believed the painting was Sir Walter Ralegh and wrote his name 
on the back.

If the Cobbe portrait was Shakespeare, why not simply reproduce it for 
the First Folio? Would the designers of the volume have told Droeshout 
to use the Cobbe portrait as a model, but give Shakespeare less hair? 
What could be wrong with remembering Shakespeare with a full head of hair?

Then there is the date, 1610, or "about 1610" derived by scientific 
testing of the wood. Is it really possible to date a painting to the 
precise year it was painted? Might other scientists looking at the 
painting come up with a different year?

And, how big is "about"? Could the painting have been done in 1600? Or 1630?

We need to hear from the scientists who analyzed the paining, as well as 
others in the same field who might agree or disagree. But that may be 
outside the range of this forum.

Another line of investigation involves the unidentified painter. He was 
obviously a person of great ability, noted in his time. Perhaps he can 
be identified by art historians studying his paints and his brush 
strokes. Might there be some written record of his commissions and his 
portrait subjects?

Wells and the Shakespeare Trust have proved that the Cobbe portrait 
might be Shakespeare.

Is it really the poet? That would take a leap of faith.

Louis W. Thompson

[Editor's Note: Above Louis W. Thompson wrote, "Earlier today, May 20, 
Hardy was able to post an excellent and academic discussion of the 
painting. Hopefully his fears have abated." HMC: Louis, yes, they have. 
The discussions since my post has been excellent. -HMC]

[2]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:       Jess Winfield <
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Date:       Thursday, 21 May 2009 12:56:10 -0700
Subject: 20.0255 New Portrait of Shakespeare?
Comment:    Re: SHK 20.0255 New Portrait of Shakespeare?

Bob Grunman says, "the man in the portrait could easily be 46. Some 
people stay young, especially if slightly idealized by a painter."

The grasping at straws "idealization" issue aside  --

Some people may stay young, but unless we are to cast aside Droeshout 
and the monument entirely, we can see that Shakespeare did not. As men 
do, he got bald, then balder and paunchy, then died.  Cobbe man 
transforming to Monument man in just six years seems inconceivable to 
me. The argument that Cobbe could itself be a copy of an earlier 
painting, well, there's a can of worms. It's possible, but highly 
speculative, and obviates any claim that it was painted "from life."

[3]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:       Stanley Wells <
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Date:       Friday, 22 May 2009 15:17:01 +0100
Subject: 20.0255 New Portrait of Shakespeare?
Comment:    RE: SHK 20.0255 New Portrait of Shakespeare?

As I have been closely involved in claims for the Cobbe portrait I have 
tried not to participate excessively in the internet discussion, but 
since Professor Katherine Duncan-Jones's TLS article has been invoked by 
several readers, it seems only fair to make available a published reply 
to it written by Mark Broch, Dr Paul Edmondson, and me, along with a 
letter which the TLS chose not to publish from the curator of pictures 
of the National Trust.

+++++++
Sir,

Katherine Duncan-Jones attempts to revive David Piper's ill-founded 
suggestion of 1964 and 1982 that the Cobbe portrait portrays not William 
Shakespeare but Sir Thomas Overbury. Piper claimed that an 'early 
inventory' of the Ellenborough collection, sold in 1947, 'lists a 
portrait of Overbury'; but his reference leads to a list of pictures 
belonging to the Delabere family. No portrait of Overbury is recorded in 
the Ellenborough collection, and Piper merely footnoted the fact that 
their portrait was sold with a traditional identification as Shakespeare.

Duncan-Jones, noting resemblance, suggests that the Cobbe copies the 
Bodleian portrait. No art historian has made this claim; the different 
compositions make it extremely unlikely. The doublets are completely 
different, and direct examination reveals a cloak over Overbury's left 
shoulder. Unlike engravers, painters normally copied faithfully. In any 
case, perceived resemblance unsupported by documentary evidence is a 
naive (though natural) basis for identification. Different people can 
look alike. De Critz's portrait of Sir Walter Cope, for example, bears 
an uncanny resemblance to Van Somer's of James I. Anyhow Overbury's nose 
is more beaky, his chin jutting, and his neck thicker. Overbury was 
notorious; it would be astonishing if none of the numerous versions had 
come down without his name.

We do not merely 'claim' the Cobbe as the original of four surviving 
copies; this has been conclusively demonstrated through independent 
scientific investigation. It is not true that we provide 'no dates or 
sources' for the 'long traditions' that the portrait represents 
Shakespeare; they are discussed at length in the exhibition guide, which 
Duncan-Jones saw. The major source of the tradition is the Janssen (or 
Folger) portrait, altered early to reduce the hair, as recorded in a 
copy of around 1630 which belonged to the 1st Marquess of Dorchester 
(1606 -- 1680).

The Folger portrait has been 'altered' not 'at various times', only 
once. When this alteration -- removed in 1988 - was discovered in the 
1940s, it was assumed to have been made to enhance a likeness to the 
Droeshout engraving. Our discovery that the alteration was early 
re-authenticates the Folger as a genuine portrait of Shakespeare, 
updated within living memory of him.

The inscription includes an exclamation mark, according to Duncan-Jones 
'highly unusual'. But there is one in, for instance, an inscription on 
Thomas Jenner's 1622 engraving of the family of James I. Duncan-Jones 
claims that 'the man portrayed . . . appears far too grand and 
courtier-like to be Shakespeare.' But 'Master William Shakespeare's' 
family had a coat of arms, displayed on his monument and his daughter 
Susanna's seal. From the age of 33 he owned a grand house in Stratford, 
where he bought 107 of acres of land for ?320 in 1602, two years later 
paying ?440 for an interest in the tithes and in 1613 ?140 for the 
Blackfriars Gatehouse . His will is that of a wealthy man, his memorial 
elaborate. His colleague and collaborator, John Fletcher, was no less 
splendidly portrayed in 1620 .

Duncan-Jones thinks the man in the picture looks younger than 46. But 
inscribed ages frequently differ from what appearance might suggest: 
another fresh-faced 46-year-old is William Sheldon, painted by 
Hieronymus Custodis in 1590. Portrait painters flattered. Attempting to 
deny the portrait's wide dissemination she says 'A single 1770 mezzotint 
of "Shakespeare" derives from the "Folger" portrait  . . . but that 
seems to be all.' It is not. The Folger Shakespeare Library owns a copy 
of c. 1770, the Staunton portrait, and an early 19th-century copy after 
the mezzotint; a copy on canvas was engraved in 1824; another of about 
1763-64 belonged to the Duke of Anhalt; M. H. Spielmann discussed 
others, most now untraced, in articles for The Connoisseur in 1910 and 
1912. The composition spawned many engravings during the later 18th and 
19th centuries. Even the Chandos portrait of Shakespeare in the National 
Portrait Gallery seems to have generated fewer early copies.

Duncan-Jones waves away our suggestion that the Cobbe portrait was the 
basis for Droeshout's 1623 engraving, where the sitter is only slightly 
less richly dressed. Certainly Droeshout (aged twenty-two) appears to 
have simplified the image, updated the collar, and given Shakespeare 
less hair, possibly reflecting his later appearance. He was keen enough 
to catch the cast in Shakespeare's left eye, not present in the Overbury 
portrait. But engravers commonly simplified and updated; the Droeshout 
was copied for Benson's 1640 Poems with equally drastic changes. 
Compositionally the 1623 engraving and the Cobbe portrait match perfectly.

Duncan-Jones ignores most of the recently unearthed evidence on this 
fascinating portrait. Her recycling of flawed twentieth-century 
arguments does nothing to diminish our case, based on much earlier 
evidence, that the portrait represents Shakespeare.

Mark Broch, Paul Edmondson, Stanley Wells


**********
To:         
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From:       Alastair Laing
Date:       17 April 2009 19:17
Subject:    Portraits of Shakespeare

Sir,

Erin Blake's letter (Letters, April 17) once again raises the 
possibility - first proposed only in 1964 by David Piper apropos of the 
Ellenborough copy traditionally identified as a portrait of Shakespeare 
-- that the 'Janssen' portrait in her care in the Folger Shakespeare 
Library -- and so, a fortiori, the newly-revealed original of that in 
the Cobbe collection -- is a portrait of Sir Thomas Overbury. She does 
so on the most treacherous grounds -- in the absence of any other 
evidence -- for the identification of any portrait: those of apparent 
likeness. She goes even further, to suggest that Droeshout might have 
resorted -- but why ever should he have done such a thing ? -- to a 
portrait of Overbury for elements of his posthumous portrait of 
Shakespeare. There are, however, in fact clear difference between the 
features of the sitter in the well-attested portrait of Overbury in the 
Bodleian Library and those of the sitter in the Cobbe portrait. This was 
recently confirmed by laying a tracing of the former over the latter.

What has bedevilled all consideration of the portraiture of Shakespeare 
is that almost everyone has worked backward from the Droeshout engraving 
of 1623, and from the bust on Shakespeare's monument in Holy Trinity, 
Stratford-upon-Avon. Yet each of these is a posthumous image, and so 
must either have been an invented likeness, based on memories of him, or 
have taken his features from some lost original or originals of which we 
have no knowledge. That it is almost certainly the former that is the 
case, is demonstrated by the fact that not only is there neither trace 
nor record of such an original or originals, but that there is also not 
a single surviving copy of it or them. That there was a demand for 
portraits of Shakespeare ever since the beginning of the seventeenth 
century is clear. In the case of the later monument and print, however, 
what was doubtless wanted was what there may well have been no model 
for: a likeness of him as people remembered him, in older age.

A true ad vivum portrait of Shakespeare in earlier life is likely to be 
one of which there are a number of early copies. Not only does the Cobbe 
portrait meet that requirement, it alone has a provenance that plausibly 
connects it, if not with the poet himself, at least with his patron, the 
Earl of Southampton. It is such arguments, not the fragile ones of 
imagined likeness, that should carry most weight when the identification 
of the portrait of any celebrated figure is in question.

Alastair Laing
Curator of Pictures & Sculpture
The National Trust


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