To Be or Not to Be Shakespeare: What the portraits tell us

What did he look like?  Once again, as with his education, his presence in London, and his presence at Court, nobody knows; meaning nobody in the Shakespeare Establishment, i.e. the University English Departments, writers published by university presses, speakers from the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, and the mainstream media.  None have any real answers, all are still heavily, fiercely, defensively, protective of the Stratford biography.  Dozens of portraits from the period have been promoted as Shakespeare at one time or another; all have failed to convince either the reading public or the authorities. (click images to enlarge)

Most unconvincing are: the frontispiece from his 1623 collected works and the bust in the memorial niche in Stratford’s Trinity Church, neither of which looks like the other; both derided by generations of authorities and ordinary viewers alike.  Nor is this a modern phenomenon, related to the authorship question, but a general reaction from the very first.  In fact, the apologetic comment by the editors of the First Folio on the Droeshout, the engraving meant to identify the author: “This Figure . . . for gentle Shakespeare cut . . .” ends with “. . . Reader, look––not on his picture, but his book.”

L- The Droeshout, frontispiece to the First Folio       R - The Bust in Trinity Church memorial

L- The Droeshout, frontispiece to the First Folio
R – The Bust in Trinity Church memorial

For centuries Shakespeare enthusiasts have attempted to provide a better image than the Droeshout  (named for the artist who created it), frontispiece from the 1623 First Folio.  Scores of portraits of unknowns have been put forth at one time or another as the true image of the Bard, most of them just as awful in some way as the Droeshout or the Bust; most of them altered by having a Droeshoutian bald head painted over a normal hairline.  Busts and statues of bronze and marble have provided handsomer alternatives, none with any real claim to authenticity, though one would hardly know it from the way they’re  presented.

At a loss to explain the lack, academics simply ignore the issue.  Shakespeare was famous in his own time.  Poets and playwrights not nearly so famous have left believable portraits.  We have trustworthy images of Ben Jonson, Sir Philip Sidney, Francis Bacon, John Donne, John Harington, and John Milton.  We even have oil portraits of the actors who helped make Shakespeare famous.  Why not the Bard himself?

“Searching for Shakespeare” in 2006

Much like the top six candidates for the authorship (William, Oxford, Bacon, Marlowe, Derby, Mary Sidney), six portraits that  held the field at one time or another as a better image of the author than blank Droeshout or vacant Bust were the subject of a series of exhibits and articles in 2006, in which the provenance of each was compared . . . , and compared . . . , and compared . . . , and compared . . . , yet to no conclusion, for––guess what? something is wrong with all six!  Then why the show?

What determines an expert?  The fact that they have a PhD or that they can provide us questioners with conclusions?  Why is it that the Shakespeare experts, despite their impressive CVs and degrees, seem eternally committed to never coming to any sort of conclusion?  They will go on for pages repeating the opinions of fellow experts, yet every article about the problems they face in determining what he wrote, when, why (though never who he was of course: the only thing they do claim to know for certain) ends in something like, “we don’t know, and we’ll probably never know.”

JanssenWhy then was the Janssen (left), the favorite for years, plus four others long since dismissed as impossible, made the focal point of this exhibit?  Was this yet another example of the ruse continually employed by Stratfordia, yet another disinformation campaign meant to muddy the waters by including everyone who’s ever been put forward as the true author, no matter how ridiculous, as a way of suggesting that the entire authorship question is ridiculous?

The only four that matterChandos-2

For those who care about the kind of truth one sees with one’s own eyes, only four portraits (out of the gazillions proposed) have any real relevance to Shakespeare, and of these, only one was actually included among the six pseudo-contenders for the Shakespearean laurel wreath.   This is the portrait known as the Chandos after the first aristocrat who ever owned it.   It seems that from its first

Droeshout comparied to Chandos, with Chandos face fitted into space alloted Droeshout image.

Droeshout comparied to Chandos, with Chandos face fitted into space alloted Droeshout image.

appearance it’s been assumed by most critics and others that this was the model for Droeshout’s engraving.  Why Droeshout found it necessary to modify it for the frontispiece, making the face thinner and the forehead higher, has called forth numerous explanations:  Droeshout was a bad artist (not true); he was just learning his trade (not true); he was working from an earlier portrait (pure conjecture); and (total denial): neither it nor the Droeshout had anything to do with Shakespeare.

The problem with the Chandos has always beenChandos CU its subject’s (ahem) “foreign” look and its blank, somewhat sullen expression, not exactly what one might expect from the world’s greatest poet. Finally, after centuries of attempts to place the laurel wreath on the balding head of some wiser looking dude, the discovery that the Janssen, long the favorite, was just another unknown with an over-painted hairline has left the Chandos the only possible candidate, so for the past few years, bad as it is, it’s the one that’s now most often used on book jackets, the internet, etc..

Why not?  Its provenance proves, at least as well as anything can, that it’s a genuine portrait––not of Shakespeare the poet, but of William of Stratford.  Personally I have no doubt that the Chandos is a portrait of William.  Most likely he himself commissioned it about the time that he got the phony coat of arms that allowed him to call himself “William Shakspere, Gent.” It’s the kind of portrait that would have been available to someone on his social level––similar to the portraits of Elizabethan actors like Edward Alleyn and John Lowin.  For although the subject of the Chandos may not look like our concept of a great philosopher poet, it does fit what we know of the Stratford entrepreneur.  That the Chandos is the source of the DroeshoutMacbeth cartoon face and hairstyle also establishes the source of the bald dome and modified page boy hair style (missing the bangs), primary characteristics of every cartoon image since.

The Welbeck and the Ashbourne

The travelling show was padded out with a number of portraits that had only a marginal reference to the six Shakespeare candidates, among them big, impressive portraits of King James, Queen Anne, their daughter, Elizabeth of Bohemia, Sir Walter Raleigh, the Earl of Southampton, the playwright John Fletcher, and––pleasant surprise for an Oxfordian––the Welbeck, the one portrait of the Earl of Oxford that we can be certain reflects his true image.  This was included, not because the curators considered his portrait as a candidate for Shakespeare’s face, but (indulgent chuckle) because he’s the leading contender for William’s crown (another patronizing chuckle).

NPG L111; Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford after Unknown artistAs merely a copy of an original painted in 1575 while Oxford was in France, the Welbeck is not a great painting, but it does give a fair idea of what Oxford looked like in his twenties.  It shows his primary characteristics: a high well-shaped forehead, a long straight nose (A.L. Rowse called it a “big sexy nose”), and a strong chin––characteristics based on bone structure that would remain whatever else might sag or wrinkle over time.  Most distinctive are the slightly flared nostrils and tight upper lip, both indicating a habit of tightening the muscles around that area.

Why the Welbeck, never a contender for Shakespeare’s face, was included in the exhibit, but the Ashbourne––which for a number of years was definitely a contender––was not, is a good question, perhaps the only real question worth asking.  It was certainly as much of a contender as any of the six included in the
Ashbourne-Portraitshow, that is, from 1847 when it was “discovered” by a schoolmaster in Ashbourne Darbyshire until 1940 when X-ray photography revealed that, like the Janssen and so many others, its bald dome was the result of overpainting––overpainting that,  unlike their treatment of the Janssen, they have chosen, for reasons that will perhaps become clear, not to remove.

The factor never mentioned is that, unlike the sullen stupidity of the Chandos or the chilly stare of the Janssen, the face on the Ashbourne actually looks likes a humanist  philosopher, someone whose intelligence and attitude shows in his expression, someone like Erasmus, Sir Thomas More, Ariosto, Francis Bacon.four wise men

Perhaps the Folger wasn’t eager to reveal to the world the damage wreaked on the Ashbourne in the 1940s and ’50s by directors determined to hide the fact that what for so long had been considered a portrait of Shakespeare was in fact a portrait of the Earl of Oxford!  A record of the Folger’s unethical attempts to shift the subject’s identity from Oxford to the recondite Hugh Hammersly, sometime mayor of London, can be found in a series of articles by authorship scholar Barbara Burris published in the Shakespeare Matters newsletter in 2002 (Spring, 1,10).  Burris, having been given permission by a later Folger director to examine their files, provides a damning account of efforts by two earlier directors to obliterate the evidence that the portrait was of Oxford.

In 2007, British authorship scholars Jeremy Crick and Dorna Bewley published the results of their intensive research into the Ashbourne’s provenance including the reasons why a portrait of Oxford should bear what seems to be someone else’s coat of arms.  Based on the design of the cuffs, Burris had dated the portrait to the early 1580s.  In 2003, authorship scholar Katherine Chiljan took exception to this date, listing reasons why it should be placed in the mid-to-late 1590s, a date with which both Crick and myself agree: Crick because the overpainted coat of arms can be connected to the family of Elizabeth Trentham, the woman Oxford married in 1592; myself  because to my eye the face in the Ashbourne portrait is not that of a man in his thirties.

Identity is not a matter of clothing or even hair styles, though they can help affirm or question a conclusion, certainty of identity cannot be based on them.  Identity resides in the shape of the head and the features of the face.  Having seen the Ashbourne up close during a tour of the Folger in 2004, with many years of experience both in drawing and painting portraits and in examining them in museums, this was no larky thirty-something looking back at me from the wall of the Folger.

The Vertue engraving

Engraving from 1719, source: unknown portrait

Engraving from 1719, source: unknown portrait

It was at that same authorship conference in Washington DC during which some of us were entertained with a tour of the Folger that I saw the other portrait that I believe to be of Oxford.  Upon entering the main display room, lined with glass cases filled with objects, largely products of the hundred-year-old Shakespeare trinket industry, as I continued to walk towards the end of the hall, an image in a glass case facing me from its far end compelled my attention.  Amongst a cluster of engravings, most meant to represent Shakespeare, all different and all equally unappealing, was something to examine up close.  Here, caught by the artistry of the engraver, was the intelligence, the spark of life, so missing in the others.  Except for the bald head it stood out from the rest of the engravings like a living thing among the dead, the awakened among the sleeping.  And there was the familiar tight upper lip, the slightly flared nostrils!  Because to me it represents Shakespeare in a way that the Welbeck, even the Ashbourne, cannot, as a record of his face during the final, most brilliant, phase of his life, I chose it for the header on this blog.

Although labelled “William Shakespeare,” the engraved face was nothing like any of the other faces similarly labelled.  Dated 1721, it was by someone named George Vertue, who apparently was responsible for many of the other engraved portraits in the glass case, including another one  labelled Shakespeare, which, strangely, looked nothing like the one that caught my eye.  It was after that that I saw the Ashbourne, hanging in another room, then back to the Vertue engraving.  I was convinced!  These were portraits of the same man, the Earl of Oxford at later stages of his life than portrayed in the Welbeck.

Ever suspicious of any strong “feeling” as a basis for true knowledge, I’ve given many hours since to examining what evidence there is that the artist who made the engraving and the Augustan coterie with which he was closely involved––Lord Robert Harley, 1st Earl of Oxford (by the second creation), his heir Lord Edward Harley, (2nd earl, etc.),  Alexander Pope, et al––were aware of the truth about the Shakespeare authorship, and that they tried, without openly stating it, to express it using the kind of subtle suggestions that the subject has relied on from the start: first through the images they used to illustrate Pope’s 1725 edition of Shakespeare’s works; later through designs for the 1741 memorial in Poet’s Corner, designs that were rejected by a later consortium in favor of the present ambiguous sculpture garbed in 18th-century attire.

Poet’s Corner

If , as so much evidence suggests, the Earl of Oxford (by the first creation) was in fact the true author of the Shakespeare canon, then his authorship would surely have been a family secret that endured among his descendents and their close associates for generations, with certainty perhaps gradually fading to rumor (though the remark made by Winston Churchill when asked his opinion on the authorship question is sufficiently ambiguous to wonder if the aristocracy isn’t still dedicated to keeping the secret; said Churchill: “I don’t like my myths disturbed.”

I believe that the Augustans who first planned the Shakespeare monument in Poet’s Corner, including some descended from Oxford or his relatives, also either knew or believed that he was Shakespeare, and that the statue eventually placed there in 1741 was, like the Droeshout, the result of a compromise between hidden truth and public falsehood.Poet's Corner

The first poet (that we know of) to be buried in Poet’s Corner was Edmund Spenser in 1599; the second Francis Beaumont in 1616; both interred beneath the floor.  They had been preceded in 1556 by a monument to Chaucer set against the wall, his body residing elsewhere in the Abbey.  The name Poet’s Corner didn’t come into public use until after 1631 when the Countess of Dorset created a monument there for the recently deceased Michael Drayton.  The Countess, formerly Lady Anne Clifford, patroness of literary men, youthful companion of Emilia Bassano Lanier, (Shakespeare’s Dark Lady), was the second wife of the 4th Earl of Pembroke, following the death of his first wife, Susan Vere, Oxford’s youngest daughter (Shakespeare’s Cordelia).

Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, as Poet’s Corner began to fill up, the floor near the stained glass window, next to Poet’s Door and St. Benedict’s Chapel, got covered with memorial plaques for the persons buried beneath them.  These had to be removed when the monumental Shakespeare screen was erected in 1741, effectively creating a separate space from what had until then was open through to the window.  Among those lost must have been the tablets for Spenser and Beaumont.  None of the plaques that now occupy what space is left just inside Poet’s Door date from earlier than the late 18th century.  In 1620, a monument to Spenser was placed on the wall where it looks down at the space where he was probably buried.  There is at present no plaque or monument for Beaumont.

poets corner-2

I believe that the immense Shakespeare monument was placed where rumor had it that Oxford was “lodged,” as Jonson slyly suggested in his memorial ode in the First Folio: “I will not lodge thee by Chaucer, or Spenser, or bid Beaumont lie / A little further, to make thee a room . . . .”  When Jonson wrote this I believe that he knew that Oxford’s bones had in fact been lodged, quietly, at night, without public fanfare, near Chaucer’s memorial, between where Spenser had been buried a decade earlier and Beaumont more recently in 1616.  We don’t take such things so seriously today, but where a man was buried was of immense importance in the 17th and 18th centuries.  I think it highly likely that the screen and memorial erected in 1741 stands on the spot where Oxford was buried, between the plaques commemorating Spenser and Beaumont.

Is this a slice of baloney that I see before me?

Sadly those who have provided the most significant discoveries and insights have also on occasion confused things further by propounding wrong conclusions, usually at  length.  In his 1940 article for Scientific American, Oxfordian Charles Wisner Barrell claimed that all three of the paintings he photographed for the Folger were portraits of Oxford, which is so obviously not the case that it would surely have endangered his conclusions about everything else had not the world gotten so worked up over what he revealed about the Ashbourne.  The Janssen, its original and all its other copies have been proven to be of Sir Thomas Overbury.  The Hampton Court portrait, whoever it is, was certainly not Oxford, no matter what kind of a sword he was holding.

Throughout this study I’ve seen the most outrageous claims made for portraits that contradict the evidence of my own eyes.  Yes, conclusions based on personal responses to what is seen must necessarily be subjective, mine included, but if I have a claim to a better understanding of this than the next opinionizer it’s because I’ve been painting and drawing portraits of family, friends and famous people since I was a kid.  (To see some of it, check here; click the art to get rid of the ad).

I’m no Rembrandt; talent alone won’t cut it; one must work at such a thing every day for a lifetime to become truly expert, which I have not done, but years of effort and a lifelong study of Art History have given me a very good understanding of the subtleties required to capture the likeness of another person, whether from life, a photograph, or another portrait, and a great appreciation for those who have a talent for it.  Beyond the shape of the head, the shape, size and placement of the features, there’s the matter of expression.  Everything else can be right, but without that elusive thing called expression, there’s simply  no likeness.

A lack of understanding of studio procedure must be one problem, for until the advent of photography, studio portraits were produced by a sort of assembly line process whereby only the all-important face was painted by the master.  Important sitters did not have the time or the patience to remain in one position for hours, so they would leave with the artist the clothing they wanted depicted, which would then be modelled by servants for him (or her; many portraits were painted by women who were not allowed  to sign them then, at least not with their own names).  Backgrounds, objects, even hands would be left to apprentices.  No doubt in some cases the clothing, even the face, would be copied from an earlier portrait.

The evolution of Shakespeare’s image

In 1623 when the “grand possessors,” the Pembroke brothers, sons of Mary Sidney, one of them the husband of Oxford’s daughter Susan, finally reached the point where they felt they could proceed with publishing the First Folio, the problem of confirming the author’s identity had reached the point of no return.  Ben Jonson, Pembroke’s “Poet Laurette,” was given the task of creating the necessary front material, his Ode, plus dedicatory poems by three others.  Much sleight of hand can be performed in words, but the requisite frontispiece was another matter.  Possibly a composite of the Chandos and the Janssen, the result was the peculiar image we know as the Droeshout.  We’ll call this image #1.

Frontispiece for Rowe's 1709 Shakespeare

Frontispiece for Rowe’s 1709 Shakespeare

In 1709 as Nicholas Rowe got set to publish a revised edition of the plays, he used an entirely different engraving (#2), one with an entirely different face from that of the Droeshout.  In 1714, when Rowe published a second edition, the previous frontispiece was replaced by a hideous version of the Chandos (#3).

Pope frontispiece

By 1725, when Alexander Pope got set to provide his version of the plays, his choice for frontispiece was an engraving by the expert artist and art historian George Vertue, an engraving based, not on the Chandos, but on a miniature owned by his patron, Robert Harley, 1st Earl of Oxford (by the second creation).

L - Fletcher; M - Pope frontispiece; R - Harley miniature

L – Fletcher; M – Pope frontispiece; R – Harley miniature

This miniature, identified on the back as “Shakespear’s face,” looks enough like the portraits of playwright John Fletcher that it’s worth mentioning that for awhile during the early 17th century, it seems that Fletcher was believed by some to be the true author of the Shakespeare canon, an opinion eradicated through the efforts of William of Stratford’s “godson,” William Davenant.

Vertue monument-2Most strangely however, as an illustration facing his reprint of Rowe’s “Life of Shakespeare,” Pope published another Vertue engraving on page 30, this one of the monument in Stratford, but with a Bust that bears an altogether different face from any other yet used by an editor of Shakespeare (#5) or any known version of the Bust.  Constantly described  as a copy of the Chandos, as anyone can see (below), it depicts an altogether different face, the same face that I saw on the engraving at the Folger.  Thus between 1623 and 1725, each succeeding edition of Shakespeare’s plays showed different images for what the playwright looked like, with Pope’s edition providing two that were different, not only from what had gone before, but different from each other!

L - Vertue's Shakespeare; M - Vertue's Bust; R - the Chandos

L – Vertue’s Shakespeare;  M – Vertue’s Bust;  R – the Chandos

Wherever the trail of subsequent engraved illustrations may take future investigators, if the beginning is any indication, they are in for a complicated, if interesting, adventure.

Unable to do more here than touch on  a few of the most glaring of the anomalies regarding the depiction of Shakespeare’s face, a subject that to do it justice would require years of research and a fairly hefty book, more detail on some of the more salient points is provided in the following pages:  Visualizing Shakespeare provides more detail on each of these points, plus others; George Vertue provides a closer look at the artist who created the engraving of (as I believe) Oxford as Shakespeare, plus a number of other interesting engravings.

NB:  This is as good a place as any to name the faces above in the header, in case not everyone recognizes them.  At the center is George Vertue’s engraving of the unknown face, usually, and ridiculously, described as a copy of the Chandos, but I believe copied by Vertue from a  portrait of the 17th Earl of Oxford, painted in his early fifties, once in the posssession of Henrietta Bentinck Holles, Countess of Oxford (by the second creation).  (The color has been added to the original black and white engraving to make it stand out from the rest of the images.)  Behind him are a few of the multitude of great actors who have brought his stories to life on film and stage: from left to right: Derek Jacobi (an Oxfordian) as he announces Olivier’s Henry V; Marlon Brando as Mark Antony in Julius Caesar; Jude Law as Hamlet; Mark Rylance (a Baconian) as Hamlet; John Gielgud (not sure which role); John Barrymore as Hamlet; Laurence Olivier as Hamlet; and Flora Robson, in my view the best Queen Elizabeth ever filmed.

2 responses to “To Be or Not to Be Shakespeare: What the portraits tell us

  1. I love the Ashbourne likeness, it ‘grabbed’ me the first time I laid eyes on it.

    I have absolutely no doubt that it is de Vere.

    The immediate – and I mean *immediate* – impression I had was as you describe;

    [A] “humanist philosopher, someone whose intelligence and attitude shows in his expression,…”

    The *intelligence* in particular – the penetrating, impatient gaze, and the lips, slightly ‘pursed’ or even clamped together.

    Assuming it was by Cornelius Ketel, it’s easily one of his finest portraits, and I can imagine the man was impressed enough by his sitter’s exceptional intelligence and charisma that he was intent on communicating it to the viewer as vividly as his skill allowed.

    (As for the date, I’ve heard it said that Ketel resided and worked in England in the 1580’s and therefore it can’t be by him. Even if the painting dates from the 1590’s, are we to take it as given that after the Dutchman returned to Holland he NEVER visited England again?)

    This expression of the mouth is also seen in the Welbeck, which the painter who copied the original was impressed enough by to ensure it is present in his version. It’s a characteristic or tendency I’ve noticed in many hyper-intelligent people (my father actually pointed this out in pictures of a famous (or infamous) heretic thinker of the 20th C., when we were talking about the latter’s work).

    It’s almost a tragedy that this (shockingly vandalised) image hasn’t been restored to a semblance of its original form, the ridiculous, over-painted pate removed.

    Perhaps at some time a suitably skilled painter could produce a ‘restored’ copy, or even someone skilled enough with computer graphics could undertake a ‘virtual’ restoration (I’m aware of some crude photoshops that have gone someway toward this).

    As ever, thank you for your absolutely riveting blog, Stephanie,

    warm regards,
    Rainer.

  2. BTW, another tragedy (!) is that I had a superb, high resolution image of the Ashbourne which I managed to lose (probably when I built a new PC last November), and which is now nowhere to be found on the internet – aargh!

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