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Portrait piques world interest Add to ...

Aflurry of international interest greeted the unveiling of what may be the only portrait of William Shakespeare painted from life, revealed yesterday in The Globe and Mail.

World news organizations clamoured for details about the painting and its owner, a retired engineer who lives in an Ontario city, the grandson of English immigrants.

The painting became an instant subject of debate in academic circles, where some Shakespeare scholars greeted it with enthusiasm and excitement, while others derided it.

The conservatory that did authentication work on the painting was inundated with calls from people seeking its owner.

News organizations including CNN, ABC News, Time magazine, The Washington Post, and a half-dozen British newspapers, including the Sunday Times and Daily Mail, chased the story and sought to reproduce the picture -- testament to the world's enduring fascination with the great English playwright, who died in 1616.

"We know so little about Shakespeare that it's always wonderful and important to get a bit more information," said Richard Monette, artistic director of the Stratford Festival in Stratford, Ont.

He said the painting's discovery in Canada made him quite emotional.

"If it is authentic, it is Shakespeare in the New World. I'd love to adopt him as our Shakespeare."

The painting's owner plans to continue his efforts to verify its provenance. "I think people really want to see this mystery solved," he said. "They really want to know what he looked like."

To date, only two of hundreds of purported images of Shakespeare have undisputably stood up to scientific and scholarly analysis. One is a print by Martin Droeshout for the frontispiece of the First Folio of Shakespeare's plays, believed to have been taken from a sketch that has never been found. The print was published in 1623, seven years after Shakespeare's death. The second likeness is a bust on his tomb in the Church of the Holy Trinity in Stratford, cast after his death, possibly from a death mask. Both show a lumpy, dour, balding Bard.

"I believe it was Northrop Frye who said it's hard to reconcile oneself to the idea that the Shakespeare on the Folio, a 'blinking idiot,' is the real one," he said. "But this, this is a very romantic picture."

The portrait has been handed down through the owner's family for generations, always with the piece of lore that it was painted by one John Sanders, reputedly a bit actor in the same theatrical company as Shakespeare who also did such jobs as painting scene sets.

There was more debate yesterday over who Mr. Sanders might have been.

The on-line international genealogy index lists a John Sanders as being christened in Worcester, England, in March, 1575.

But David Kathman, a Chicago stock analyst with a doctorate in linguistics who is the author of the authoritative Biographical Index of Elizabethan Theatre, said there was no record of any John Sanders in the theatrical companies of the time.

Mr. Kathman said a William Sanders was a musician with the King's Men in the 1620s, and a John Sands was a provincial puppet showman in the 1620s. James Sands was a minor actor with the King's Men in the first decade of the 17th century.

Fleay's History of London Stages from the 1800s puts "J. Sanders" in the King's Men at the same time as Shakespeare. Fleays is cited in Notes on the Bacon-Shakespeare Question, by Charles Allen, published by AMS Press in 1970.

But Mr. Kathman dismissed Fleay's as ancient and unreliable.

However, he acknowledged: "Especially with the minor actors, the information we have is very sketchy. I don't think lack of documentation of a John Sanders disproves anything. This Sanders could have been primarily a scene painter."

The Canadian owner of the portrait took it out of the cupboard and began the authentication as a retirement project, which has turned into a long and expensive process of analysis. The research confirmed it is from the period, that the date it bears (1603) was added at the time, and that the linen label that identifies it as Shakespeare was from the right era.

International art experts declined yesterday to speculate on the painting's authenticity or value.

"Unfortunately, our specialists cannot give any idea of value without having seen the actual painting," Bendetta Roux, spokeswoman for Christie's New York, said. "Especially in a case like this -- where the painter is not a listed artist who regularly comes up for auction -- it is impossible to give any indication to the market value of the work."

Catherine Johnston, curator of European and American art at the National Gallery of Canada, said the portrait "looks very interesting, but it is not by a known painter, clearly."

She noted that "painting in England was not any great shakes at this time," that there were important miniature painters in this era, but that few were native to England.

"There is a whole school of Elizabethan painting. This is not of that quality, but the angle is not unlike the Chandor's and the Folio Print. It is three-quarters [view] to the left and the eyes look back at you, but the others are of an older, bald man. The value of this is that it [may be]Shakespeare, not as a work of art."

Stephen Orgel, a professor at Stanford University and one of the world's leading Shakespearean scholars, seized on the hair in the portrait.

"We know Shakespeare had light brown or auburn hair," he said. "The fact that the hair is the right colour is the best argument in its favour."

The source of information on the hair colour is the Stratford bust, on which the hair was originally painted auburn. But there are no other contemporary descriptions of Shakespeare with which to compare the painting, he said.

At the University of Toronto, Shakespearean scholars took competing positions.

Alexander Leggatt called this image of Shakespeare "the liveliest and least dignified," adding, "I quite like it for that reason."

Mr. Leggatt observed that the portrait's subject appears quite young to be a 39-year-old Shakespeare, but said that if the material that identifies the playwright checks out scientifically, the portrait "must be taken seriously."

The image does not look dissimilar to the man in the Folio engraving, he noted -- speculating that the image for the engraving, its source long unknown, might in fact have been taken from this picture, or that both were based on an even earlier, now lost, portrait.

However, John Ashington, another professor of English, was highly skeptical of the picture. "It looks like another Elizabethan panel painting to me," he said. "The man looks too young to me, and Shakespeare was 40. And he would have been more respectably dressed at that time of his life. If he was sitting for a portrait, he would have dressed himself up more."

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