The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 20.0465 Monday, 31 August 2009
Date: Monday, August 31, 2009
Subject: Janssen Portrait at the Folger Library
The Sunday, August 30, 2009, _Washington Post Magazine_ had an article
about the Cobbe Portrait, emphasizing the section of the argument that
the Janssen portrait at the Folger Library might, in fact, be the
original of the five portraits associated with the Cobbe -- "Waiting for
William: After four centuries, we may finally be seeing history's
greatest writer for the first time," by Sally Jenkins.
Although the arguments are too long to go into detail with this posting,
they are presented in as straight-forward a manner as I have ever seen
them in news accounts of the Cobbe Portrait. I encourage anyone who is
interested to read the piece at the Washington Post website and then if
further interested to read _Shakespeare found!: A Life Portrait at Last_
by Stanley Wells et al. [I intend to review this book within the next
six months as I work through my other commitments.]. I will here,
however, attempt to synthesize the arguments in the essay and present as
concise a summary as I am able to do in the short space of this posting.
The Cobbe Portrait "is a dead ringer for a portrait [the Janssen] held
by the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, a picture that from
1770 to the 1940s was considered legitimately Shakespeare, until it was
declared a forgery. Now it's possible that the Folger may not own a sham
at all, but a scholarly grail, a true likeness of the bard painted
during his lifetime."
Cobbe and his friend and schoolmate, Alastair Laing, had discovered that
the portrait Cobbe had bid goodnight to as a child growing up in
Newbridge House "was actually of a longhaired man, and not just any man.
He was identified as Henry Wriothesley, the Earl of Southampton and the
"lovely boy" scholars suspect Shakespeare of obsessing on in some of his
"Just two images of Shakespeare are considered authentic by scholars,
and both were done after the playwright died. A clumsy funerary bust
over his tomb in the chancel of Church of the Holy Trinity in Stratford
depicts a portly man in robes with a quill in his hand. It must have
looked like him at his death because his family approved it. The other
is the cartoonlike engraving on the cover of the First Folio, the
authorized collection of his plays published in 1623, seven years after
he died. The engraving, by a Flemish artisan named Martin Droeshout,
shows a neckless man with an absurdly domed forehead, pouches under his
eyes and a hint of flab around his chin."
"Both depictions are so unintelligent-looking that scholars blame them
for instigating the Author Controversy, which is not really a
controversy so much as a campaign by conspiracy-minded amateurs to prove
that someone more visually appealing wrote the plays. . . . The Author
Controversy persists despite considerable documentary evidence. We have
the man from Stratford's pay stubs for performing at court, his
certificate of occupancy for the Globe Theatre, and his will, in which
he left memorial rings to some London actors. Funny he would do that if
he was just a country burgher who didn't write the plays."
[ . . . ]
"The hunt for a likeness of the bard in his heyday has turned up various
candidates over the centuries, almost all of them illegitimate. Up to
now, the painting with the most credible claim as a life image is the
Chandos portrait, the star of London's National Portrait Gallery. It
shows a dusky, writerly-seeming man with receding hair and an earring.
But its provenance is unclear. The search is complicated by the fact
that a 1770s mania for Shakespeare souvenirs resulted in a spate of good
forgeries. The Janssen portrait held by the Folger was thought to be one
of those. The "Searching for Shakespeare" exhibit was therefore really a
show about likely and, mostly, unlikely contenders. Cobbe and Laing
wandered through the viewing, looking at bogus bards, until they arrived
at a far wall, on which the Janssen portrait hung, on loan from the
Folger. The oil-on-wood is legitimately dated to 1610, but it was
discredited in 1937 when new X-ray technology showed the brow had been
over-painted to make the sitter bald. It fell from grace under the
supposition that it was altered to look more like the Droeshout. In
1988, the Folger restored the original hairline and exhibited it as an
[ . . . ]
"O, sweet Master Shakespeare!" he says, "I'll have his picture in my
study at court." Portraits of Shakespeare, Wells believes, would have
been in demand. By the mid- to late-1590s, he was so hugely popular that
his name began appearing on quartos of his plays, the Tudor version of
paperbacks-the first time audiences ever cared who wrote their
entertainments. In the early 17th century, portraits of actors were
coming in vogue, and Shakespeare "was kind of a pinup, shall we say,"
[ . . . ]
The case for the Cobbe, Wells asserts, is complicated and not easy to
trace, but after three years of research and evaluations from art
historians at Cambridge and the Tate Museum, he was persuaded it
deserved higher consideration than the other impostors parading around
in wooden frames. The proof for the Cobbe is not definitive, Wells
acknowledges. "I've never declared myself absolutely finally certain."
Still, the various strands of evidence add up to "a very strong
Here is the case that has been developed by Wells and the team of
researchers that includes Paul Edmondson, Mark Broch, Alastair Laing and
POINT ONE: "The first task was to establish the portrait's period
*authenticity*. Tree-ring dating, X-rays and infrared reflectography
showed the wood was felled between 1579 and 1593, and the oils were
consistent with the era. Curator Rupert Featherstone, former art
conservator to the queen, affirmed a dating of around 1610, when
Shakespeare would have been 46.
POINT TWO: Next, they examined the painting's *provenance*. Cobbe traced
the probable genealogical path of the painting into his hands:
Southampton's great-granddaughter Elizabeth had married a Cobbe cousin,
and when the couple died childless, Charles Cobbe, the
archbishop-builder of Newbridge House, inherited much of their artwork.
The fact that the painting was stashed away in a country house along
with the image of the young Southampton-it wasn't peddled by art
dealers-is in its favor, according to Laing. "There's no evidence of
pictures having been bought; they really do seem to have been passed
down through the family," Laing says.
From there, the case became more tortuous. The Cobbe portrait, it
developed, was just one of a *cluster of five paintings of similar
appearance, including the Janssen*. They all depicted an enigmatic
courtier in silver-blue doublet and close beard. None of them, however,
had the Cobbe's liveliness of expression. This led the team to believe
that the Cobbe was the original "prime" portrait, of which the others
One of those copies was called the Dorchester, another puzzling
lookalike -- but the really interesting thing about it was that it was
Follow closely: The Dorchester appears to be a work from the mid-1600s.
If the bald Dorchester is a copy of the Folger's Janssen portrait --
which it certainly appears to be -- that means the Janssen was already
bald when the painter copied it. Which means it was altered in the
mid-1600s, a lot earlier than previously thought.
The assumption was that the Janssen was made bald as a forgery at the
height of Shakespeare mania in 1770. But if the revision dates to around
1660 or earlier, that means the portrait was altered within living
memory of Shakespeare, when people who knew him were still alive. It was
not uncommon for portraits to be modified to reflect changes in age or
appearance. It's possible the picture was innocently updated to reflect
the sitter -- Shakespeare? -- at the end of his life.
The next portion of the article involves the attitudes of the Folger
Library staff regarding the authenticity of the Janssen portrait, which
is being re-hung from, if I remember correctly since it has been a
number of years since I last read at the Folger, in the periodicals
section of the Library addition to the Founders' Room, so the public can
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