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shakespeare portraits

The Janssen portrait of William Shakespeare.

A new, public chapter in the hotly contested William Shakespeare portrait saga begins later this month in Stratford-upon-Avon, England, when the so-called Cobbe portrait of the Bard goes on display in a 41/2 month exhibition.

The display of the Cobbe, named after the aristocratic Anglo-Irish family that has owned the portrait for centuries, in effect marks the official start of a battle between two great bastions of the British establishment.

On one side, there is the 162-year-old Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, based in Stratford, Shakespeare's hometown. Last month, the SBT visited London to give the international media a sneak peek of the Cobbe, declaring that it was "90 per cent sure" the portrait was the only authentic image of William Shakespeare done during the playwright's lifetime (1564-1616).

Manning the opposite parapet is the 153-year-old National Portrait Gallery, based in London, site of Shakespeare's greatest artistic triumphs and where, in 1603, James I granted royal patronage to the Bard's acting troupe, the King's Men. In 2006, after decisively discounting the authenticity of several portraits previously touted as Shakespeare portraits, the NPG announced that only the so-called Chandos portrait has any claim as the "likely" authentic lifetime representation of the writer.

Ironies abound in this feud of supposed equals, of course. Each institution, for instance, dates its respective portrait to around 1610, the year of Shakespeare's 46th birthday - yet the face and manner of dress in each are strikingly different, even accounting for artistic licence. The Cobbe is of a pale-faced, rosy-cheeked, long-nosed, high-foreheaded aristocrat. The Chandos portrays a rather swarthy-looking individual, dressed much less ostentatiously than his alleged doppelganger, with an almond-shaped face, domed head and an earring rakishly piercing his plump left ear lobe.

That the NPG-championed Chandos - named after one of its owners, an English duke, and previously held by Shakespeare's alleged godson William Devenant (born 10 years before the Bard's death) - also happens to be the first painting ever admitted to the NPG is a coincidence that has not gone unremarked. And neither has the support proffered the Cobbe by one of the world's foremost Shakespeare experts, Stanley Wells, co-editor of the Oxford Companion to Shakespeare. Previously, Wells was a supporter, albeit cautiously so, of the Chandos claim. But he's also chair of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, and it is the Trust's curator and head of education, Paul Edmonson, who's been working with Mark Broch, curator of the Cobbe collection, to both champion the Cobbe and mount its exhibition starting April 23.

Scientific tests and related research have proved that the wood on which the Cobbe is painted dates to Shakespeare's time and that the portrait came to the Cobbes via "their cousin's marriage to the great-granddaughter of Shakespeare's only literary patron, the third Earl of Southampton" (1573-1624).

However, is the man pictured really Shakespeare?

Tarnya Cooper and many others, including Daniel Fischlin, head of the Canadian Adaptations of Shakespeare Project, are convinced it is not. Just days after the Cobbe unveiling, Cooper, curator of 16th-century portraiture at the NPG, declared the image to be that of the courtier/poet Sir Thomas Overbury (1581-1613). Fischlin concurs, calling the Trust case "entirely circumstantial and impressionistic" and noting how, before the Shakespeare attribution, "the family traditions of the Cobbe [had]long associated it with" none other than Sir Walter Raleigh (1552-1618).

In fact, not a few observers have noted that the Cobbe suspiciously resembles another portrait dating, variously, to 1590 and 1610. This is the so-called Janssen portrait housed in Washington's Folger Shakespeare Library. The Folger acquired it in the 1930s, believing it an authentic portrait of Shakespeare and, in fact, the basis for the famous Droeshout engraving found on the title page of the First Folio of Shakespeare's plays from 1623. (The Folger has 79 copies of the 1623 Folio in its collection.) While generally regarded, in Fischlin's words, as "a hack job by a bad engraver," the Droeshout nonetheless remains the only generally accepted two-dimensional likeness of Shakespeare.

The Birthplace Trust has tried to manoeuvre around this difficulty by arguing that the Janssen is, in fact, a copy of the Cobbe, copy-making having been common practice back then. Therefore, both the Janssen and the Cobbe are authentic likenesses of Shakespeare, but the Cobbe rather more authentic since it was painted first. Further, the Cobbe "might well have served as the basis" of the Droeshout.

Unfortunately, the owner of the Janssen is not acceding to this interpretation. In an interview last week, Erin Blake, the Canadian-born curator of art and special collections at the Folger, said the library continues to hold to its determination of 1993 - that the Janssen is "probably" a picture of Overbury, not Shakespeare. "Although that identification is not certain, it seems likely," she remarked, adding: "I don't see a compelling resemblance between the sitter in the Janssen portrait and the Droeshout."

Amusingly and unsurprisingly, the NPG has argued that its portrait, the Chandos, is likely the primary source of the Droeshout engraving. Flemish-born Martin Droeshout was reportedly acquainted with one of the alleged painters of the Chandos, painter John Taylor (1585-1651) who, by some accounts, was an "intimate" of Shakespeare.

Equally unsurprisingly, Lloyd Sullivan thinks both the SBT portrait and the Chandos are, well … bogus. Sullivan, 76, is the retired Ottawa engineer who's the custodian of the now-famous Sanders portrait. It, too, is allegedly an authentic image of Shakespeare, done at age 39. Indeed, since its existence was revealed in The Globe and Mail eight years ago, the portrait has become a rallying point for those keen to puncture what they deem the dismissive, imperial hauteur of the NPG and SBT.

Sullivan has the support of the noted Canadian forensic facial-identification specialist Michel Fournier. Last summer, at the behest of Montreal director Anne Henderson whose new film, Battle of Wills, chronicles Sullivan's authentication effort, Fournier did a comparison study of high-definition images of the Chandos, Droeshout and Sanders at his lab in Moncton. Afterward, he told Henderson that he doesn't "believe" the Chandos and the Droeshout "are from the same person. There is some resemblance but if I go back to the bone structure, I'd have to say no." A closer match, however, exists between the Droeshout and the Sanders, he said.

Fournier also did a fascinating comparison of the left earlobes in each picture. The earlobes in the Droeshout and Sanders are what are known as "attached lobes" - and when Fournier digitally overlapped the two, the result was an almost perfect match. By contrast, the Chandos has what's known as a free, detached or unattached lobe. Even with the earring, you can tell it's round and somewhat removed from the face, certainly in relation to the Droeshout and the Sanders.

Clearly, more instalments are still to be written in The Mystery of William Shakespeare's Face.