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The Great Shakespeare Faceoff Add to ...

'It's a labour of love. I believe in the painting. And I'm going to prove it."

Lloyd Sullivan is on the telephone from his home in Ottawa and he's talking about a 17th-century oil painting he has owned for more than three decades. You may know it as "the Sanders portrait," named for John Sanders, the Londoner who supposedly painted it on an oak panel, circa 1603. The portrait gained international attention almost five years ago when a Globe and Mail article reported that its subject could be William Shakespeare and -- even better -- that it could be the only likeness of the Bard painted during his lifetime (1564-1616).

Indeed, events in the last year have convinced Sullivan that his heirloom is within striking distance of being named an authentic lifetime likeness of Shakespeare. If he's right, the painting could be worth as much as $20-million. Certainly it's a claim that's going to receive renewed attention this spring as a much-anticipated Shakespeare-themed art exhibition goes up in London.

A former engineer with Bell Canada, Sullivan, now 73, has spent almost two decades and as much as $1-million delving into the history of the modest-sized work that has been in his family for more than four centuries. Sullivan inherited the now-famous portrait from his mother in 1972 who, just before her death in Montreal, urged her only son to "do something" about the portrait, perhaps as a retirement project.

Until Sullivan took possession, it had been common currency among his ancestors that the oil with the 1603 date in its upper-right corner depicts the author of Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet at age 39, and that its creator was a distant relative who had been a bit player in Shakespeare's company.

He was also an occasional stage worker and portraitist. However, none of these relatives had done any significant research to either bolster or disprove the oral tradition. Sullivan was determined to change all that.

And indeed, he has. When The Globe's Stephanie Nolen published a series of articles in May, 2001, revealing that a Canadian had a work that, on the basis of research and authentication tests undertaken by Sullivan, could very possibly be a lifetime likeness -- maybe the only lifetime likeness -- of the world's greatest playwright, it prompted interest and debate around the globe.

As Nolen wrote in her subsequent 2002 book, Shakespeare's Face, "we have no picture of [Shakespeare]when he was writing his great works." And those images now generally agreed to be of him number only two and both of these were created years after his death.

Discussion about all this will be resumed in a few weeks when a representative from Toronto's Art Gallery of Ontario takes Sullivan's proudest possession to St. Martin's Place in London to hang in the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) with five other portraits that claim or have claimed to be genuine likenesses of Shakespeare. (The AGO has housed the Sanders since mid-2001, when it hosted the portrait's first public exhibition.) The London show is being organized by Tarnya Cooper, an internationally renowned expert on 16th- and early 17th-century English portraiture, to mark the 150th anniversary of the founding of the NPG.

Titled Searching for Shakespeare, the exhibition opens March 2, to be followed by a conference on Shakespeare portraiture at the NPG in May.

Two works have been discredited in advance of the show. Last April, Cooper announced that one of the most recognizable Shakespeare images, the so-called "Flower portrait," was, in fact, a fake. The painting, named after the Stratford brewing dynasty that donated the work to the Royal Shakespeare Company in the 19th century, carries a date of 1609 on its upper-left corner. But after four months of testing, the NPG experts determined it was painted between 1814 and 1840, on top of a 16th-century image of the Virgin Mary and the baby Jesus with St. John. The giveaway? Traces of chrome-yellow paint embedded deep in the portrait, a pigment that was first manufactured in the early 19th century.

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