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Lloyd Sullivan and the Sanders portrait, quite possibly of William Shakespeare. (Dean Palmer)
Lloyd Sullivan and the Sanders portrait, quite possibly of William Shakespeare. (Dean Palmer)

Reputed Shakespeare portrait prepares to strut upon the world stage Add to ...

“Look here upon this picture.”

So commands Hamlet of his mother, Queen Gertrude, in Act III of perhaps William Shakespeare’s greatest play. Hamlet’s father, also named Hamlet, has recently died, been murdered, in fact, and now Gertrude, with unseemly haste, is married to Hamlet’s uncle, King Claudius. Son and mother are standing before oil portraits of Hamlet Sr. and Claudius, to each of which the bitter young prince imputes qualities of character.

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A variation of this exercise will be repeated later this month when the University of Guelph hosts a highly anticipated day-long conference in Toronto dedicated to the Sanders portrait, the oil-on-oak panel often called Canada’s candidate as the only likeness of Shakespeare painted during the playwright’s 52 years.

The existence of the portrait and its claims to authenticity sparked international headlines and debate in the spring of 2001 when The Globe and Mail broke the story of how its custodian, a retired Bell Communications engineer from Ottawa, had spent almost two decades and hundreds of thousands of dollars firming up its bona fides after inheriting the painting from his mother in 1972. Twelve years later, an 80-year-old Lloyd Sullivan continues to champion the 410-year-old oil. Indeed, the estimated tab for his various researches – genealogical, forensic, historical, provenant – now totals more than $1-million. And this “colonial’s” pursuit has been done in the face of counterclaims by two prominent, powerful institutions in the Bard’s homeland, each touting its own particular – and, of course, hotly contested – authentic lifetime likeness. Call it the Battle of the Wills – and wills.

Sullivan’s portrait takes its name from its purported creator, one John Sanders, a (very) distant ancestor of Sullivan’s mother, Kathleen (whose maiden name was Hales-Sanders; genealogical research positions John Sanders as Lloyd Sullivan’s 13th great-grandfather), an occasional painter and a bit player in Shakespeare’s acting company. As the researches have progressed, Sullivan has learned that not only is he related to some of the Bard’s closest associates, he’s related to the creator of Hamlet and Macbeth himself, possibly by blood, certainly by affinity.

These findings, previously published in The Globe, and the many fruits of the other researches that Sullivan has precipitated – forensic, provenant, historical – are to be reviewed, discussed and debated Nov. 28 at the Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto. The event is called, aptly, Look Here Upon This Picture, with the subtitle “An international symposium on the Sanders portrait of Shakespeare.”

No “smoking gun” – the 17th-century equivalent of an invoice, say, or a commissioning letter or a diary entry from 1603 reading, “Willy Shake went to Sanders’ studio a fortnight ago” – is likely to be revealed at the symposium nor “bombshells” dropped, admits Daniel Fischlin. He’s head of the Canadian Adaptations of Shakespeare Project at Guelph, a dedicated researcher into the authenticity of the Sanders portrait and senior organizer of the symposium. Rather, it will be, he says, “a cumulative unpacking of a weight of evidence that simply does not exist for any other image of Shakespeare,” and a convening, “in one place, of the people who know the most about the portrait in a public forum.”

At the same time, Sullivan, who’s in poor health, hopes the conference can help pave the way for the portrait’s move from private ownership to the permanent collection of a public institution, preferably Canadian, with sufficient muscle to advance the portrait’s claims and get it touring around the world.

Fittingly, the now-famous painting, brought by Sullivan’s relatives to Canada from Britain in 1919, will be taken from its current secret location in Ontario to be displayed for the duration of the symposium – its first public showing since it appeared at the Macdonald Stewart Art Centre in Guelph, Ont., in 2007. Also on display: the first-ever editions of Shakespeare plays to feature the Sanders portrait on their covers – in this instance, trade paperbacks of The Tempest and Romeo and Juliet, published by the Canadian division of the world’s largest academic imprint, Oxford University Press.

OUP editor Jennie Rubio tries to downplay the significance of reproducing the Sanders on their covers. “We’re not saying, ‘We are taking a stand on this’,” she noted recently. “We’re just having a picture that’s associated with Shakespeare … especially one with a Canadian connection,” even as she acknowledged that everyone at OUP Canada is “pretty much convinced it [is] what it’s believed to be.”

Fischlin, however, thinks Oxford is demonstrating “courage … by stepping up to the plate on this and making a decisive move.” In the mostly polite but occasionally heated war of Shakespeare images, anything with the potential of gaining a purchase on the public imagination is welcome.

Supporters of the Sanders are pitted against the National Portrait Gallery in London and the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford-upon-Avon.

Early in 2006, the NPG announced, after considerable scientific testing, historical research and comparative analysis with other alleged Shakespeare portraits, that it, in fact, was the proud possessor of what was “certainly fairly likely” an authentic lifetime likeness of the playwright. Called the Chandos, after the British aristocrat who acquired it in the mid-18th century, the portrait was the first painting given to the NPG, in 1856. It depicts an almond-eyed, rather swarthy-looking individual with a gold hoop in his left ear and dark, curly, thinning hair. It’s been determined the portrait was painted in the early-17th century and its face somewhat resembles that in the Droeshout engraving – the famous posthumously created image of Shakespeare found in the First Folio of his plays, published in 1623. (Thanks, in part, to the approbation of Bard contemporary Ben Jonson, the Droeshout is universally accepted as an authentic portrait even as there’s near-universal agreement it’s not an especially good one, artistically speaking.) However, the Chandos’s claim for many as a lifetime likeness is weakened by a provenance more reliant on oral tradition than written accounts.

The Birthplace Trust, meanwhile, is touting the Cobbe portrait, named after the Irish estate that held it for centuries under an identification other than that of Shakespeare. Indeed, when the trust announced in March, 2009, that the Cobbe was a lifetime likeness of the Bard, painted at roughly the same time as the Chandos and possessing similarities to the Droeshout, several scholars, among them Fischlin and Tarnya Cooper, now chief curator of the NPG, were quick with the skepticism. To their eyes, its depiction of a slender, fine-featured, rosy-cheeked, undeniably aristocratic figure bore too close a resemblance to the Janssen portrait, a painting that at one time enjoyed some support as an image of Shakespeare but is now generally deemed a rendering of the author Sir Thomas Overbury, who died three years before Shakespeare.

While agreement has been building that of all the Shakespeare paintings, the Sanders has the most thorough and best-credentialed paper trail plus a rigorously examined history and an impressive battery of supportive scientific studies, it remains what Anne Henderson calls “an outsider portrait,” especially among the Bardology establishment. Henderson is the Montreal-based director of Battle of Wills, an hour-long documentary exploring the history, science and controversy of the Sanders. Well-received upon its premiere in 2009, Battle has since been screened widely, but surprisingly (and perhaps tellingly) not in Britain. “How,” Henderson asked recently, “do you get scholarly consensus about it, even though it may have better claims to authenticity than the other portraits, without the ‘silver bullet’ – the document that puts Sanders and Shakespeare in the same room? That could emerge at some point,” she said. “The Brits, after all, were wonderful archivists and there are still thousands of documents and wills that haven’t been read. But it hasn’t emerged yet and, you know, it may never.”

Fischlin, in the meantime, isn’t content to wait around. “Let’s make something happen,” he says. “It’s time, really time, for people to pile in,” raise high the profile of the Sanders and give the scholarship that’s accumulated around it as wide an airing as possible.

Look Here Upon This Picture takes place Nov. 28 at the Munk School of Global Affairs, 1 Devonshire Place, Toronto. Details at news.canadianshakespeares.ca.

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