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Who was the Chandos artist?

The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 25.213  Monday, 28 April 2014

 

From:        Hardy M. Cook < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >

Date:         Monday, April 28, 2014

Subject:    Who was the Chandos artist?

 

[Editor’s Note:  The current Times Literary Supplement is the Shakespeare’s 450th birthday issue. It includes the following commentary by Katherine Duncan-Jones. If you don’t have a TLS and would like the entire article, please contact me. –Hardy]

 

Who was the Chandos artist?

Was Shakespeare’s ‘intimate Friend’ responsible for the most enduring image of the playwright? 

 

Katherine Duncan-Jones 

 

Dozens of portraits have been claimed as likenesses of Shakespeare done from life, but only one holds its own. This is the so-called Chandos painting (reproduced on this week’s cover). It is widely accepted as genuine because of the continuous chain of provenance that connects its creator to the theatre manager Sir William Davenant and beyond. But many of this chain’s links are attended with uncertainties. The first is the unresolved identity of the “Jo: Taylor” who was allegedly the portrait’s creator and probably also earliest owner. Working backwards from the early eighteenth century, I have re-examined parts of this chain, arriving at a new case for the identity of the original painter and the nature of his acquaintance with Shakespeare. 

 

My first witness is the prolific engraver, painter and art historian George Vertue (1684–1756), who was, among much else, a Shakespeare enthusiast. The earliest of his many copiously inscribed notebooks, now in the British Library, was assembled between 1713 and 1721. Describing its contents as “these Historys of Collections”, Vertue assembles data about painters, paintings, patrons and much else, in the form of randomly accumulated notes to be written up and ordered at a later date. Shakespeare makes half a dozen appearances, of which I shall discuss three. 

 

Vertue’s admiration for Shakespeare is visually expressed in a carefully penned self-portrait in the notebook’s frontispiece. It shows Vertue’s studio crammed with objects, including a bust of Charles I perched on top of a high wooden case, a miniature of Charles II, a painter’s palette, brushes, colours and a couple of apparently unfinished miniatures. Amid this clutter, a splendidly jacketed and bewigged Vertue sits at his desk, turning his face to confront the spectator while pointing with his right index figure at his own portrait-engraving of Shakespeare; he seems almost to touch mini-Shakespeare’s right eye with his fingertip. Though tiny, it is clear that this picture-within-a-picture is based on what is nowadays called the “Chandos” portrait. Not only does Vertue honour Shakespeare in this gesture; he implicitly identifies the “Chandos” image of Shakespeare as the best, superior both to the memorial bust in Holy Trinity, Stratford, and to the “Droeshout” engraving that fronts the 1623 First Folio edition of Shakespeare’s plays. It is striking that “Chandos” was also chosen by Nicholas Rowe as the model for the handsomely elaborated portrait-engraving by Michael van der Gucht that fronts his 1709 edition of Shakespeare’s plays. As Michael Caines has recently shown in Shakespeare and the Eighteenth Century (2013), this was an elegant and costly publication with “high production values”. Though not always trustworthy on the topic of Shakespeare’s biography, Rowe, himself a London playwright, was well placed to form a judgement on the authenticity of “Chandos”. It was likewise admired by Edmond Malone (1741–1812), the founding father of rigorous Shakespeare scholarship. He viewed it in June 1783, while it was in the possession of the Duke of Chandos, and was greatly taken with it. He commissioned Ozias Humphrey to make a careful drawing of it, which eventually found its way to the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC. 

 

Vertue’s notes are untidy, and much corrected and re-corrected. They are not always easy to read, and clearly not always reliable, since in the course of revisiting notes Vertue often alters previous jottings. In doing so, however, he was aiming at accuracy. His tendency to revise and correct is especially noticeable in passages in which he discusses portraits of Shakespeare. In the first of these, Vertue alludes to “the Picture of Shaksper painted & in possession of the Lord Halifax” – a note which he later corrected by describing it as “a copy”. It is also described as a painting made by Sir Godfrey Kneller for the poet Dryden – so there is no question of this item’s being a Jacobean painting, still less an image of the subject painted from life. 

 

The next Shakespeare allusion is much more interesting. I quote it in full, expanding contracted words and letters: 

 

The Picture of Shakespeare the only one Original in Possession of Master Keyck of the Temple. he bought for forty guines of Master Baterton who bought it of Sir William Davenant \to whom it/ who had 

\interlined insertion/ to whom it was left by will of John Taylor./ 

it of Shakespear. it was painted by one Taylor a Player contemporary with Shakespeare and his intimate Friend. 

 

(From 1710 until 1719 “Chandos” was in the possession of Robert Keck, a lawyer and art collector who had lodgings in the Inner Temple.) At a later date, Vertue made two additions, both of which he subsequently deleted. In the left-hand margin, alongside the allusion to “Baterton” – that is, the great Restoration actor Thomas Betterton (1635–1710) – he has neatly written the name “Richard Burbridge” – but then firmly crossed it out. Something similar has happened in the case of the words “a Player”. He has written above, in rather small letters, “& painter” – only to cross that out, too. On second/third thoughts, therefore, presumably in response to an informant whose testimony he had come to regard as untrustworthy, Vertue firmly deleted both additions. 

 

Vertue’s repeated crossing out of the words “& painter” has been largely ignored by modern scholars. They have invoked the phrase as evidence that whoever painted the portrait in question must have been a painter, as well as – or even rather than – a player. In her very informative essay “The Chandos Portrait” in the book that accompanied the National Portrait Gallery’s excellent Searching for Shakespeare exhibition in 2006, Tarnya Cooper did not challenge the widespread assumption that the “Chandos” artist must have been a painter by profession – possibly the “John Taylor” who was discovered by the late Mary Edmond to have been a master painter-stainer from 1626 to 1648. This is odd, given that in Vertue’s two most informative notes on “Chandos” (both of which are reproduced in the Searching for Shakespeare catalogue), he has allowed the phrase “a Player” to stand, while deleting “& painter”. While it may seem natural to suspect that the creator of a painting was a painter, that appears not to be the case here. 

 

Vertue’s next substantial allusion strengthens the argument that the creator of “Chandos” was a player, not a painter: 

 

Master Betterton told Master Keck several times that the picture of Shakespeare he had, was painted by one John Taylor a Player. who acted for Shakespear & this John Taylor in his will left it to Sir William Davenant. Master Betterton boughte it, & at his death Master Keck bought it. in whose Possesion it now is. 

 

This differs from the previous note, in which it is implied that Shakespeare himself was the painting’s first owner. It would seem, however, that it later became the property of “Taylor”. The surname “Taylor” was, and still is, very common – almost as common as “Jones” or “Smith”. The Christian name “John” was if possible even more common. As mentioned above, although a painter-stainer called John Taylor has been identified, his dates are too late for him to have painted Shakespeare from life, and his will includes no bequest to William Davenant. I suggest that during the passage of these anecdotes through various intermediaries before they reached George Vertue someone misread, and/or misconstrued, the name of the individual who painted Shakespeare’s portrait from life. 

 

In sixteenth- and seventeenth-century documents, Christian names, especially common ones, are frequently abbreviated to two initial letters, leaving scope for subsequent confusion. Edmund Spenser, for example, liked to sign himself “Ed. Sp.”, which could hypothetically be read in later years as standing for Edward, rather than Edmund, Spenser. The two-letter abbreviation “Jo:” would normally be understood as an abbreviation of the very popular Christian name John, rather than of the relatively uncommon Joseph. According to E. G. Withycombe’s excellent Oxford Dictionary of English Christian Names, 15 per cent of boys born in England between 1550 and 1599 were christened John. The name’s popularity was to burgeon further. Between 1600 and 1649 the proportion of Johns rose to 19 per cent of christened males, and between 1650 and 1699 it rose yet further, to 28 per cent. By the end of the seventeenth century, therefore, nearly a third of males born in England after 1650 were called John. It would not be at all surprising, therefore, if a late seventeenth- or early eighteenth-century witness assumed that a name recorded as “Jo: Taylor” alluded to a man whose first name was John. 

 

[ . . . ]

 

If we explore the possibility that the man called Taylor who was both “a Player” and Shakespeare’s “intimate friend” bore the relatively unusual name of Joseph rather than the very common name of John, some other details fall into place. The player Joseph Taylor (1586–1652) is not obscure. His entry in the Dictionary of National Biography was prepared by Andrew Gurr, assisted by the late Mary Edmond. Apparently christened on February 6, 1586 in the London parish of St Andrew-by-the-Wardrobe, Joseph Taylor first appears in documentary records as a player in 1610, as one of seven men who led the company called the Duke of York’s Men. He may have belonged to it from its creation in 1608. Their royal patron was the eight-year-old Prince Charles, James I’s frail younger son, future King and Martyr. In 1610, at the age of twenty-three, Joseph Taylor was one of the younger members of the Duke’s company. But he quickly made his mark as an outstanding performer, and in 1611 became the leading member of the next newly formed royal playing company, that of the Lady Elizabeth’s Men. 

 

The First Folio’s list of actors who appeared “in all these plays” indicates that Joseph Taylor “acted for Shakespeare” in the broad sense that he acted in plays written by Shakespeare. I believe that he may have done so within Shakespeare’s lifetime. Though Vertue’s claim that he also became the older man’s “intimate friend” is widely dismissed, a further witness supports it. In his Roscius Anglicanus (1708), John Downes records that William Davenant described “Master Taylor of the Black Fryars” as having played the part of Hamlet: 

 

[ . . . ]

 
 

©2011 Hardy Cook. All rights reserved.