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A scene from the film Battle of Wills, about Sullivan’s near-20-year quest to affirm the authenticity of the Sanders portrait.
A scene from the film Battle of Wills, about Sullivan’s near-20-year quest to affirm the authenticity of the Sanders portrait.

Ottawa portrait owner is the Bard's kin Add to ...

Here's something to possibly twist your codpieces and flip your crispines, gentlemen and ladies. …

A 76-year-old retired Bell Communications engineer from Ottawa has discovered that he is related to William Shakespeare. Yes, the Shakespeare of Hamlet, Macbeth and Romeo and Juliet fame, the bestower of "obscene," "fancy-free," "arch-villain," "play fast and loose" and "all's well that ends well," among many thousands of other words and expressions that enliven the English language.

The discovery is significant because Lloyd Sullivan already is famous, in a sorta/kinda way, as the inheritor and custodian of a portrait that The Globe and Mail, in a front-page story in May, 2001, unveiled as very possibly the only authentic portrait of the Bard painted during his 52 years on the planet. Gasps were heard around the world: A colonial from Upper Canada with a portrait of the world's greatest playwright wrapped in cardboard and brown paper and stored in a cupboard in his home?! ?

The revelation of Sullivan's familial relation to the Bard (and, it turns out, to some of the playwright's friends and intimates) can only heighten interest in - and possibly reinforce - Sullivan's claims about the so-called Sanders portrait. In fact, it's occurring at a particularly charged moment in the long-running and controversial saga over what Shakespeare looked like, and who, if anyone, has the painting - or drawing or engraving or bust - with the strongest claim to his truest representation.

It's a fight, as one scholar has noted, about "who or what institution has the power to make a particular interpretation stick." And Sullivan is betting his will prove the most adhesive, while sticking it to those who previously have pooh-poohed his claims.

Just last month the mighty Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford-upon-Avon, England, scored international headlines when it unveiled what it claims is the only authentic portrait of Shakespeare completed during his lifetime (1564-1616). Known as the Cobbe portrait, it has been dated to around 1610 - the same date attributed to the Chandos portrait that Tarnya Cooper, curator of 16th-century portraiture at the National Portrait Gallery in London, declared three years ago to be the only "probable" authentic lifetime image of Shakespeare.

Also last month, Canadian documentarian Anne Henderson launched, at Montreal's Festival international du film sur l'art, Battle of Wills, a sympathetic portrayal of Sullivan's now-$1-million, near-20-year quest to affirm the authenticity of the portrait of which he has been custodian since 1972.

What fascinates Henderson, she said in an interview, is "how much political spin underlies the stories of these portraits. People have … not really analyzed the agendas behind institutions like the National Portrait Gallery and the Birthplace Trust. At the same time, those very institutions hold Sullivan to a higher standard. He's sort of required to have the 100-per-cent-bullet-proof document, whereas they don't."

Her $400,000 film, completed late last year, was also screened recently in Guelph, Ont., sponsored partly by the University of Guelph's Canadian Adaptations of Shakespeare Project. The project's head, Daniel Fischlin, has been a major researcher and advocate on behalf of Sullivan's initiative. Indeed, he and Sullivan have been busily collaborating on a book, "waiting for the last pieces in the genealogical puzzle to fall into place."

Those pieces appear to be doing just that. Thanks to a still-growing body of genealogical evidence accumulated in the last six years, it's now clear that Sullivan is indeed kin to the world's greatest playwright. True, it's a "relative of relatives / the thigh bone is connected to the backbone via the hip bone" phenomenon, but real nevertheless: a link by what genealogists call "affinity" - in this case, a string of marriages stretching back centuries among families with such sturdy English surnames as Sanders, Throckmorton, Catesby and Arden. Before, during and after Shakespeare's time, these families lived in closely connected communities in the English Midlands, in such towns as Coughton, Huddington, Droitwich, Temple Grafton, Worcester and Stratford-upon-Avon, Shakespeare's birth (and death) place.

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