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The announcement sent gasps through a quiet lecture hall: last Saturday morning in Toronto, a noted British art historian revealed that she had found John Sanders.

Not, it turned out, the John Sanders. But a John Sanders, who painted portraits in Jacobean England. And that was enough to set the crowd atan interdisciplinary symposium on the Sanders portrait of Shakespeare buzzing.

The portrait, owned by a retired Ottawa engineer named Lloyd Sullivan and made public in The Globe and Mail last May, may be the only portrait of William Shakespeare painted from life. Its sitter is identified as Shakespeare in a label on the back, and the painting's date of 1603 (though not the identity of the sitter) has been authenticated through a battery of scientific and art-historical analysis. According to family lore, it was painted by John Sanders, a minor actor in Shakespeare's company. But neither Sullivan nor various experts had been able to find any record of such an actor -- or painter.

But on Saturday, Tarnya Cooper, an expert in Elizabethan portraiture who teaches at University College London and is the acting curator of 16th- and 17th-century collections at Britain's National Portrait Gallery, told a crowd of scientists, academics and lay folk that she had found a family of painting Sanderses in London.

"I found 'John Sanders' as a painter active in London in the 1640s . . . in the Guildhall manuscripts archive, the court minutes for the painter-stainers," she said. The records, for what was in essence a trade association of apprentice painters, survive from 1623.

Clearly this John Sanders (an apprentice at the time, so likely in his early 20s) did not create the Sanders portrait in 1603. But Cooper suggested it was nonetheless an important clue. "Like most tradesmen, sons of painters frequently followed in their father's footsteps," she explained. "So although this John Sanders is not the individual, we can link with the family tradition of a Sanders portrait. The information does provide clear evidence that a Sanders family were practising artists in the later 17th century. . . . In these records, 'John Sanders' (or occasionally Saunders) is documented as a painter of coats of arms who is made free of the company [became a fully-fledged painter]on July 13, 1647. . . ."

The records also revealed that this John Sanders later had a son of the same name who was also a painter, suggesting that John Sanders was a family name, Cooper added.

This was an important revelation for Sullivan (who was in the audience and who called Cooper's news "exciting") because the mysterious identity of the artist, and the fact that the Sanders attribution rests only in oral tradition, is a key criticism of those who doubt the Sanders sitter is Shakespeare.

"I was completely astonished to find him," Cooper admitted later.

Alexandra Johnston, director of the Records of Early English Drama project at the University of Toronto (which, with the Art Gallery of Ontario, organized the symposium) pronounced herself well pleased with "Picturing Shakespeare," saying the event's unusual mix of Shakespeareans, forensic experts and curious civilians had been a greater success than she dared hope. While no firm conclusion on the sitter's identity was reached, there was plenty of "lively debate," she said.

A pair of British costume experts, who dissected the doublet worn by the portrait sitter for all the information it holds, were symposium favourites. Jenny Tiramani, the director of theatre design at the Shakespeare's Globe Theatre in London and an expert in the clothing practices of actors in Shakepeare's time, revealed new clues from the "laces" (or decorative braid) in the doublet.

Tiramani had experts at the Globe recreate the decorative pattern in the doublet with a number of different fabrics, using methods and materials from the early 1600s. Consensus from the symposium-goers mirrored Tiramani's own conclusions. "I couldn't make wool or leather look like the painting. Only silver thread" on silk satin recreates the look of the portrait.

And that is indeed a clue. Until 1604, England had sumptuary laws which strictly governed who could wear what colours, fabrics and styles of decoration. Only earls, marquises and dukes could wear purple silk, for example.

"People dressed to the top of what they were allowed," Tiramani explained, noting that Elizabethans were quick to modify their wardrobe as soon as a small jump in social status put new options (such as silver laces) open to them. "Silk lace on silk satin was something only a gentleman could wear," she said -- and 1603 was the earliest the social-climbing Shakespeare would have been permitted such ornamentation.

But while Tiramani's small samples of doublet stitching had people buzzing, the main source of chatter at the symposium had little to do with the Sanders portrait.

The conference was (in the words of one startled organizer) "infiltrated" by a small band of "Oxfordians" -- those who believe that Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, actually wrote the plays attributed to William Shakespeare.

The Oxfordians in the crowd were in fact fairly easy to identify, because they wore large buttons reading "Oxford is Shakespeare" and because they raised their hands immediately at the end of every lecture to make some case for their hero -- asking a costume historian whether a mere playwright could possibly have known enough about court dress to accurately describe the gold and pearl on King Henry's coronation robes, for example.

The Oxfordians were particularly keen to get their metaphoric hands on Erin Blake, an expatriate Vancouverite who serves as curator of art at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington. Blake spoke about the various putative portraits of Shakespeare, including one called the Ashbourne, which the Folger owns and which a 1940 restoration revealed to be a portrait of another British noble, altered to look like other images of Shakespeare. Blake had no sooner flipped the last page of her notes when the Oxfordians began to grill her about the Ashbourne ear.

"The ear?" asked Blake.

As she explained later, Oxfordians "believe the Folger has repeatedly damaged the painting to disguise that the Earl of Oxford is the true sitter, in order to bolster the claim that he wrote the plays, not the man from Stratford." Blake reassured her audience that she has "looked carefully at all the evidence in Ashbourne files" and there is "nothing out of the ordinary." But the Oxfordians, led by amateur art historian Barbara Buriss, allege among other points that the Folger has changed the shape of the Ashbourne sitter's ear so it looks less like the Earl's is known to have looked. They seemed unpersuaded by Blake's assurances that there had been no tampering with the painting.

"I also can't prove the painting wasn't deposited by space aliens," the curator said with a sigh shortly after leaving the lectern.

Nothing, it appears, irritates a room full of Shakespeareans more than Oxfordians: By the end of the conference, as the Earl's supporters tried to make one last point, they were shouted down by an angry tide of hissing, paper-rattling, symposium participants. And then the Stratfordians, as they're known, retired to the University Art Centre for a bracing drink, with the whimsical face of the Sanders sitter looking out over them.

The Globe's Stephanie Nolen is co-author of the book Shakespeare's Face, which tells the story of the Sanders portrait.

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Follow on Twitter: @snolen

 

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