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The Severn River flowed by, quiet and green. The dark stone cathedral towered over the town, while the smaller All Saints Church stood at the edge of the encircling walls, overlooking the river. The streets were cobbled and the space between the two churches was packed with hardscrabble housing.

The town was home to about 10,000 people, a centre of the weaving and glove-making trade -- for gloves, long a Worcester specialty, had of late become a fashion. It was a stop on the itineraries of travelling players, who performed in the guildhall or in the market.

This was Worcester in 1575, the year John Sanders was baptized at All Saints. It was a time of considerable religious tension. The entire population was obligated by law to attend Church of England services and receive communion; accusing someone of being a secret Catholic was much like the accusations of communism in the United States of the 1950s. The Sanders family, in Worcester, lived immediately under the eye of one of the most powerful bishops in the country.

John Sanders grew up here, and it was from Worcester, so the story goes, that he set out about 20 years later for London, then about a two-day ride or a four-day walk away.

We know all about a similar migration by a young Elizabethan man, for historians have pieced together one William Shakespeare's trip to seek his fortune in London. We know he prospered there, became part-owner of the most successful theatre in the capital and eventually, a few years before his death, retired home to the substantial properties he had acquired in Stratford-upon-Avon.

The bulk of actors for whom records survive were from London and lived there through their lives. But it is not a great stretch to imagine John Sanders setting off, seduced by the tales of the playhouses of teeming London, according to Andrew Gurr, an English professor at the University of Reading. Gurr chaired the scholars committee that directed the recent restoration of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre in London.

"It may well be that Sanders was part of a travelling [players]company that stopped off in London, and he stayed -- that he started off in Worcester as Shakespeare did in Stratford," Gurr said.

Along the way, they connected: Sanders became a bit actor in Shakespeare's company and painted a portrait of the playwright in 1603 -- the only picture of William Shakespeare painted from life. Or so the story goes.

And there's the rub.

In the weeks since The Globe and Mail revealed the existence of the painting, now in the possession of a retired Ontario engineer descended from John Sanders, scholars have leapt to question its authenticity.

Some claim there was no record of any such actor as Sanders, while others point out possible candidates.

"There was a Saunder [and the spelling of Sander, Sanders and Saunders is largely interchangeable in this era]in Burbage's company in 1591, at the time William Shakespeare became an actor-playwright," said Ian Lancashire, a professor of English at the University of Toronto. "He is found playing two women's parts in The Second Part of the Seven Deadly Sins."

Some scholars argue that Saunder is an abbreviation of the name Alexander. Lancashire said maybe not; perhaps it was John, who was not a particularly good actor and got the boot when his voice changed.

A "J. Sanders" is on the list of actors of the Lord Chamberlain's men from 1593 to 1603, according to Fleay's History of the London Stage, first published in the 1800s.

Sanders did not, it would seem, have any great success in the theatre. He does not appear on any of the records of players who became "sharers" in any of the playhouses.

But there was plenty of other work about. "Theatres had hired men, there were lots of different things to be done, painting, backstage things, there was a tire man [the costume-maker]and maintenance people and walk-on parts and a lot of hanging around theatres," Gurr said.

And, through the late 1500s and early 1600s, as theatres became more wealthy and established, there were ever more job opportunities. In the late 1580s, Gurr said, there are records of more than 200 people calling themselves "actor," and "I would be surprised if there were any less than that waiting for a chance to join a company."

Gurr said that while there is no significant record of a John Sanders, it is nonetheless quite plausible that he was an actor -- and that we would know nothing of him.

"The statistics about this sort of thing are pretty daunting," he said. "We have records of 2,000 to 3,000 named actors known to be active through this period."

That compares with the Spanish, the great bureaucrats of the age, who recorded everyone. A recently published index of Spanish actors lists 9,300 names.

"It's possible that there were [about]that number in England, so even if that evidence is only remotely parallel, it is still likely that one-30th of named actors are all that we've got record of. So there is that likelihood of there being a John Sanders about at the time and our not having heard of him."

Stanley Wells, a retired professor of English at Oxford University and the head of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford-upon-Avon, explained the reason. It is not simply that only some portion of the original, however haphazard, documents survive. In recent years, Shakespeare studies have focused largely on reinterpretations of the playwright's life and work -- feminist analysis, for example.

But very little of the current scholarship is research of documents -- court cases, manorial deeds -- from the period. The historical work is long and tedious, and a scholar could easily spend her or his life poring over bills of sale from 1607 and find nothing of relevance at all, Wells said.

It is not, ultimately, a great obstacle for the portrait that there is no exact record of John Sanders, actor. Shakespeare's brother, Edmund, for example, was a player, Wells said, but we know that only from the baptism record of his bastard son. There is no theatrical reference to him from the time.

John Sanders, in any event, seems not to have found his fortune in London. His children appear to have all been christened in Worcester -- as all of Shakespeare's were in Stratford -- which suggests that he kept his family there. Perhaps he packed in his limited show-business career and moved back there before they were born.

The Sanderses stayed in Worcester until the turn of the 20th century, when a large branch of the family emigrated to Canada. Their history is still there, though, preserved in the crumbling church registries of All Saints. In spotted, flourishing handwriting, the records list baptisms, deaths, burials -- and the odd extra detail, such as the weather at the time of a birth.

Some wills are here too, but few from the Sanders family, who either did not have the property to merit a formal will or whose testaments do not survive. There is one from the 1800s that passes on the "reputed portrait of Shakespeare" to the then-owner's eldest son.

Gurr raised the troubling question of the unlikelihood of Shakespeare's having had anybody at all paint his picture. "Painters never did paintings without getting paid for them," he said. "Portrait painting was a highly skilled and high professional activity, always done by professionals, usually Dutchmen although a few Englishmen tried." While many bills of sale for Italian paintings of this period survive, few British ones do.

"The real challenge to a Shakespeare portrait is who on earth paid for it," Gurr said. The two agreed likenesses of the poet -- the monument above his grave in Holy Trinity Church in Stratford and the engraving for the First Folio collection of his plays -- were commissioned after his death. Shakespeare was "a notorious skinflint" and unlikely to have paid someone to immortalize him for the wall, Gurr said.

That being said, there is a self-portrait of Shakespeare's well-loved actor friend Richard Burbage, who conceivably may have had a try at painting other people. There are a few other pictures of actors, "probably by amateur painters." So, Gurr concluded, it is "certainly possible" that an amateur had a go at painting his friend, the playwright from Stratford.

Sir Roy Strong, former chief curator of the National Portrait Gallery in London and an expert on portraits from the Elizabethan and Jacobean era, also considers it quite possible. He noted a line from a play entitled The Return to Parnassus, an anonymous student work written in about 1599 and performed at Cambridge University: "Oh Sweet Master Shakespeare, I'll have his picture in my study at the Court."

"Obviously pictures of Shakespeare were going around," Sir Roy said.

Lancashire thinks it obvious that the picture emerged from the theatrical environment. The subject makes sense, looking at the picture. "It's an actor's face," he said. "The eyes are not smiling, but the mouth is. I also wonder about the eyebrows -- were they applied [with makeup] That would also explain the youthful-looking skin."

The scholarly debate about the portrait also ventures into other fields. Take the crucial label. A small piece of paper affixed to the back of the painting bears these words: "Shakspere [as the poet himself often spelled his name] Born April 23, 1564/ Died April 23, 1616/ Aged 52/ This likeness taken 1603/ Age at that time 39 ys." The label is not legible today; parts of it are discernible under ultraviolet light, and it was copied down in its entirety and a facsimile preserved when the painting was examined by critic H. M. Spielmann in 1909.

The label is made of rag linen paper (from plant fibre) and dates between 1475 and 1640. Neither the ink nor the glue used to attach the paper is present in sufficient size to carbon-date it. But there is the question of the handwriting.

The Globe and Mail provided the best possible images of the remains of the label, taken under ultraviolet light by the Canadian Conservation Institute, to three of the most respected paleographers (historians of ancient handwriting). All three doubted that the label was written contemporaneously with the painting.

Laetitia Yeandle is the retired curator of manuscripts at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington. "As far as I can tell from these photographs, the handwriting looks as though it dates at the earliest from the 18th century and possibly the 19th century," she said.

Elisabeth Leadham-Green, a retired professor at Cambridge University, raised other concerns. "I am struck by the very large gap between 'Aged' and '52.' It is hard to imagine what word or words could have come between those ('about,' perhaps?), but it is hard to avoid the suspicion that the writer was avoiding a hole already in the label, which in turns leads one to suspect that the label was artificially aged (an easy enough matter) before it was written on."

Consulting retired Oxford professor R. E. Alton, Leadham-Green said they doubted the writing. "A contemporary of Shakespeare's would have used either a secretary hand (which has very distinctive letter forms, many of them quite different from modern hands) or an italic hand, or a 'mixed' hand combining features of the two. What we see here is a 'round hand' or . . . an attempt at such. Round hand does not appear until the 18th century and it continues into the 19th, and indeed the 20th."

Peter Beal, curator of manuscripts at Sotheby's auction house in London, was equally skeptical. "The writing looks odd. It is not clear, but from what I can make out . . . [it]is certainly post-Jacobean. It is in a rounded script nothing like Elizabethan secretary script and with only minimal resemblance to Elizabethan/Jacobean italic. The words 'Born,' 'Died,' 'April,' for instance, would not have been written with those letter forms in the early 17th century. In my view, it is unlikely that this inscription was written earlier than the 18th century and more probably in the 19th century. However . . . if the label is made of linen, it might partly account for why the writer is inscribing in a deliberate, rounded print-like hand, rather than a normal cursive style.

"Thirdly, though, I'm very suspicious of the actual wording here. This does not strike me as the kind of inscription a contemporary would write. It's too crisp, efficient and comprehensive -- in short, too modern. It's the kind of thing a later antiquary [or art dealer]would write . . .

"Elizabethan/Jacobean inscriptions recording the details of the sitter tend to be much briefer, or in Latin, and do not use phrases like 'Likeness taken.' "

Others, though, have explanations for some of those problems. Lancashire said it is not surprising the handwriting is not contemporaneous.

"You would expect the label to go into the late 17th century anyway," he said, evoking an image of the third or fourth generation of Sanderses to possess the portrait being moved to identify it. "Why label something you already know? You label it because you suddenly realize members of the family who know what it is are dying out."

There are grounds to suspect 17th-century fraud. Gurr explained that, to be convinced of the painting's authenticity, he would want to see documentation from no later than 1610 that identified the subject as Shakespeare. "Because by the end of the 17th century, the mythology had built up so hugely -- even by 1650, people were creating Shakespeare myths -- . . . anything after that is likely to have been sucked into the magnetic attraction for things tied to Shakespeare."

Sir Roy said that while he believes the portrait "looks perfectly authentic for 1603, the costume addressed is absolutely correct" and the story of the descent through the family is "extraordinary," unless the picture can be documented to early in the 1600s, its claim is seriously jeopardized since there are "racks" of pictures from the 1650s onward claiming to be Shakespeare.

Catherine MacLeod, curator of European art at the National Portrait Gallery in London, concurs that the Sanders picture is clearly Elizabethan. But she and her curatorial colleagues say now, and told the painting's then-owner in the 1950s when he wrote them about it, that they see no reason to think it is Shakespeare, painted from life.

There is an obvious reason for the NPG's default skepticism. In its archives are neat rows of cream envelopes of correspondence with owners of paintings, people who think they may have something of value. On the shelf with the S's, there are no less than 10 envelopes bursting with letters from people making passionate arguments about their "Shakespeare." MacLeod said she is told of the discovery of a new Shakespeare painting at least once every 18 months; none has yet had any real claim to authenticity.

But the gallery may have a less conscious motive for its skepticism. It has a reputed picture of Shakespeare called the Chandos portrait, which it displays with the claim "This is the only picture of him which has a real claim to have been painted from life."

The Chandos picture was given to the gallery in 1856, the very first portrait it acquired. And as such, said Richard Stein, an English professor at the University of Oregon who is currently researching the history of the gallery, it has a sacred place in the British art firmament. "There's a great deal at stake in a lot of ways for Britain and for the NPG," he said. "It tells England who it is and who it was and how it got there, that is the centre of its raison d'être. And No. 1 is Shakespeare."

Beyond the cultural issue, of course, is the crass economic one. In the gallery's gift shop, the Chandos portrait appears on computer mouse pads, playing cards, chocolates and T-shirts. Items with that picture on them are the perennial bestsellers, clerks said.

Wells noted, looking a little amused, that he suspects there is some question of nationalism in the debate about the Sanders picture -- that Canadian scholars, or even North Americans, might be particularly anxious to have the portrait be authentic.

But Stein said the opposite is also true -- that the response from the British academy has been, consciously or not, muted or skeptical because the picture surfaced in Canada.

"There has to be that British response to this because they've been trained to look upon this image of Shakespeare as very important to their cultural identities. Rationally, the response to this is ridiculous, trivial, childish behaviour and there is no reason for them to exhibit it.

"Shakespeare is dead-centre in their cultural identity, so to own Shakespeare and to have exclusive rights would somehow seem to be very important. Ownership in the sense of cultural patrimony is a very powerful emotional issue."

But nothing, ultimately, will resolve the academic questions, or answer the central mystery of just who sat for this portrait. "In the end," Gurr said, "this will go down in history as what some people in the beginning of the 21st century thought Shakespeare looked like." John Sanders's London Elizabethan London was enormous, the biggest city in the world. It doubled in size from 1550 to 1600, and doubled again by about 1645, to about 400,000 people. Huge numbers of people poured in from the countryside in search of economic opportunities, but most found only squalor.

The "immigrants" from the country lived in the suburbs, then neighbourhoods such as Whitechapel and Shoreditch, which today are considered just about central London. They were then outside the city walls. Newcomers rented a room, almost certainly shared, or, if they could afford it, stayed in a tavern, where they got meals as well as lodging.

"It was quite appalling," Andrew Gurr, an English professor at the University of Reading, said of this time. "The number of immigrant kids who starved, or went into prostitution." Or, in one of the more popular and marginally more respectable ways of seeking work, hung around the playhouses.

The city, as such, had essentially no infrastructure. There were no police, though the Watch patrolled at night. No services. Refuse was slopped out windows. The plague was a constant fear; the city's population had been decimated by succeeding waves of epidemics. In 1603, the date on the Sanders portrait, 38,000 people died of the plague in London.

The Lord Mayor controlled only the area within the city walls; the church ruled the suburbs. The theatre owners paid regular bribes as "poor relief" to the parish where they were situated to buy off the local authorities, who would otherwise come around threatening about ditches unrepaired or sewage dues unpaid.

Very little of the population could read; books, such as there were, were sold in the market outside St. Paul's Cathedral. This was, though, the most litigious age that England has ever known. Legal help was expensive, but it was the only recourse to collect money, and people continually sued over debts owed, sureties guaranteed. In fact, one of the first things Shakespeare did, upon retiring to Stratford, was to sue for a debt of £5 owed to his by-then-deceased father from a loan 16 years earlier. There were lawsuits against merchants who used false weights in the market and against braggart men who slandered the morals of women with their gossip.

If Sanders found work at Shakespeare's Globe, he went to an open theatre built of oak, modelled on the amphitheatres of Greece and Rome. It was 30 metres in diameter at the outer walls, its stacked layers of three balconies roofed in thatch. The theatre held 3,000; the stage was in the centre, covered by a roof gaudily painted in reds and greens and golds and blues with the signs of the zodiac, and supported by pillars painted to look like marble.

The "groundlings," as Shakespeare called them, about 700 of them, paid a penny to stand in the open yard below the stage, shifting and chatting and buying ale and oranges -- the peels of which they hurled at the actors if they did not like the show. They relieved themselves in buckets at the edge of the crowd. The wealthier folk sat on the second level; the top balcony was the purview of pickpockets and ladies seeking, as it were, company. Aristocrats took their place in a gallery behind the stage, for it was less important for them to see the play than for the crowd to get a good view of them in their finery.