Shakespeare's best-known face
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The true face of William Shakespeare is one of the many enigmas that surround the British author. Now, the news of an unknown portrait that is for sale also raises a great mystery: its owner is anonymous and it is sold by private treaty without auction. If it is verified that the painting in question (under the magnifying glass of specialists) really represents the playwright, the image will be added to the very scarce visual material that exists, with the exception of the famous Chandos portrait, until now the most reproduced and validated painting of the author of Romeo and Juliet.

None of the surviving portraits are one hundred percent reliable in determining that they belong to the author of Macbethalthough until now the most plausible for researchers has been the Chandos, generally attributed to John Taylor, although its authenticity has not been confirmed, which has not been an obstacle for it to become the most reproduced image of the author.

However, the Chandos – named for having belonged to James Brydges, 1st Duke of Chandos – bears no resemblance to the bust of the playwright erected in Holy Trinity Church after his death, nor to the young Shakespeare on the cover. of the First Folio. In addition, there is no documentary evidence that certifies its true physiognomy.

Shakespeare’s best-known faceReuters

Since a few days ago, the inauguration and A proposed £10m sale of an early 17th-century painting purporting to portray Shakespeare has caused a stir. The work is being sold by its anonymous owner by private treaty without auction and is currently on display at the Grosvenor House hotel in west London.

Would it then be the only portrait of Shakespeare made while he was alive and not post mortem? The reveal of this early 17th-century painting has caused controversy, but what does the evidence say?

According to the specialized media The Art Newspaper, an examination of the image carried out by the Courtauld Institute in 2016 concluded that the pigments were consistent with the period in which the playwright lived and that its good state of preservation indicates that it remained in the same place for a prolonged period, possibly centuries.

The figure portrayed shows a bald, bearded man in a shirt and doublet, with the helpful inscription at the top left and right of the canvas 1608 and AE (age) 44, the correct age for the English author at the time.

The inside frame of the 20 x 18-inch portrait bears the caption “Shakespeare,” but this is an addition from the 18th or 19th century, when the painting was revised.

Cleaning of the work prior to analysis removed a thick black beard to reveal an original, trimmed, pointed beard. And, removing the frame for closer examination, revealed the stylized letters RP at the top right of the painting – the figure for Robert Peake the Elder (c.1551-1619), who oversaw the performance of plays for Queen Elizabeth I.

Peake’s son William (c. 1580-1639) owned a successful printing press and was acquainted with the engraver Martin Droeshout, who created the image of Shakespeare for the First Folio of the Complete Works of 1623.

Both Shakespeare and Robert Peake lived nearby and worked there before and after he moved from Clerkenwell to Blackfriars in 1608. Peake painted sets and other elements for the theatre, the only indoor King’s Men or Shakespeare Company establishment, where Shakespeare rehearsed and performed. many of his plays.

with the author of Hamlets at the height of his powers in 1608, a portrait from that time would make sense. Who better to commission than Peake, whom he must have met through the theater? Accounts show that Queen Anne was also a patron of the portrait painter at this time.

Comparisons between the image and the other two confirmed portraits of Shakespeare are more complicated: one is the “Droeshout portrait” or “Droeshout engraving”, the image of Shakespeare recorded by Martin Droeshout for the first page of the so-called First Folio. The other is the statue erected at his funeral monument in Stratford-upon-Avon, the town where Shakespeare was originally from. Both works are posthumous, that is, they were made after his death.

The bust in his Stratford-upon-Avon tomb has been much changed and restored over the years and is not believed to bear a good likeness. That leaves Droeshout’s engraving as more certain evidence: The researchers compared the left eye, with its drooping eyelid and a slight deformity possibly caused by cancer. Both portraits have thick eyelids, but in hard evidence this seems like an exaggeration.

The Danby family, who had direct connections to Shakespeare, are known to have had the painting on display at Swinton Hall between 1860 and 1865, and probably for much longer.

In short, the evidence is circumstantial but quite convincing: the portrait is of the correct period and bears a contemporary inscription indicating Shakespeare’s correct age.

Peake, arguably the preeminent official court artist of the day, has been identified as an associate of the playwright; and the artist’s son printed works of the creator of the engraved portrait of the First Folio.


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