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Much ado about latest portrait claiming to be Shakespeare Add to ...

Yesterday's unveiling of a portrait that its supporters believe is the only authentic lifetime image of William Shakespeare likely won't end the centuries-old debate over what the Bard actually looked like and what painting stands as the most genuine representation of the playwright.

Indeed, the portrait that the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust revealed to the media is expected only to intensify the debate. The Trust is touting the oil as having been painted in 1610, six years before his death, at 51, in 1616.

"Several copies of it were made early on," said Paul Edmondson, director of learning for the Trust, including the famous Droeshout engraving from 1623 currently housed in the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington. "So our portrait is the primary version of one of the greatest portraits of Shakespeare."

But is it?

Three years ago, after almost four years of scholarly research and forensic testing, the National Portrait Gallery in London declared the so-called Chandos portrait of Shakespeare (attributed to a little-known artist named John Taylor) to have the strongest claim of any of the known contenders to be the Bard's true portrait. Curator Tarnya Cooper acknowledged the gallery's case wasn't "absolutely watertight" but "it is certainly fairly likely we are looking at the face of Shakespeare ... "

The Chandos, which, in 1856, became the first portrait in the NPG's collection, was also painted in 1610, or thereabouts.

Yet even a casual examination of the two pictures reveals striking differences - even more striking in that they both stake a claim as portraits of the same individual done in the same 12 months.

Amusingly, both the National Portrait Gallery and the Birthplace Trust stress the resemblance of each of their paintings to the engraving that Martin Droeshout the Younger did for the frontispiece of the First Folio edition of Shakespeare plays. Scholars have long accepted the authenticity of the Droeshout, largely because Shakespeare's friend and fellow writer Ben Jonson affirmed it as a "good likeness."

The Trust painting - which has been in the collection of Ireland's Cobbe family for centuries and is expected to be displayed next month at the Shakespeare Centre in Stratford-on-Avon - shows a slender-faced, aristocratic-looking individual with (perhaps) rouged cheeks, pale mien and a high, unlined forehead topped by a dark wig or receding hairline. He has an expensive-looking lace collar.

By contrast, the Chandos oil - named after its first owner - presents a man of much rounder face and swarthier complexion. His eyes are brown, while those in the Trust painting are blue. His pate and hairstyle more closely resemble that of the Droeshout engraving - although neither the Droeshout nor the Trust portrait have the earring found in the Chandos sitter's left ear.

Meanwhile, there's another painting that its owner, Lloyd Sullivan of Nepean, Ont., claims to be an authentic lifetime portrait of Shakespeare. Called the Sanders portrait, it's said to depict the Bard at 39.

The Sanders has been widely exhibited, and tests have conclusively demonstrated it was painted around 1603. Britain's Portrait Gallery conducted extensive tests on the Sanders along with several other alleged Shakespeare portraits, including the Chandos, but finally argued the Sanders claims for authenticity rested too much on circumstantial evidence. It's a position Sullivan, 76, continues to dispute.

Edmondson, meanwhile, conceded of the Trust painting, that, while "we're 90-per-cent sure it's Shakespeare, you'll never be entirely certain. There will always be voices of dissent."

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