A portrait believed by its Canadian owner to be the only likeness of William Shakespeare painted in his lifetime got a major boost in its credibility this week when experts in the United States announced that the ink identifying the portrait as such dates back to the Bard's era.
The so-called Sanders portrait, named after its reputed painter, a Shakespeare-era actor named John Sanders born in 1576, came to international attention in the spring of 2001 in a series of articles in The Globe and Mail. The work, painted in oils on wood, has been in the possession of Lloyd Sullivan, a retired Ottawa engineer, since it was given to him by his mother in 1972.
Sullivan has spent 15 years and an estimated $750,000 on scientific tests and genealogical studies to firm up his family's long-held belief that the 400-year-old heirloom is truly the only extant lifetime portrait of the creator of Hamlet, Macbeth and Romeo and Juliet.
Wednesday, Joseph Barabe, a forensic analyst with Chicago-based McCrone Associates, world experts in microscopy and materials characterization, said that "the formula of the ink" used for the small handwritten label on the back of the Sanders portrait "certainly fits" with the manufacturing methods and materials available in the first 50 or so years of 17th-century England.
"I see all of the evidence kind of falling in the realm of authenticity - and I don't see any evidence coming forth that brings it into question," Barabe said.
Radiocarbon tests on the tattered rag label done in 2000 date the portrait to between roughly 1627 and 1697.
But there were concerns that the ink inscription - it reads, in faintly legible old-time script: "Shakspere/Born April 23=1564/Died April 23-1616/Aged 52/ This Likeness taken 1603/ Age at that time 39 ys" - had been added years, perhaps even centuries later. ("Shakspere" has been determined to be the spelling that the playwright himself used in his Stratford home. Moreover, grammar and spelling were not standardized in Elizabethan England.)
Now these doubts have been laid to rest. The ink "is integrated into the paper fibres of the label," while "the writing implement used was most likely a quill pen."
Further, in tandem with other scientific evidence, Barabe thinks the ink identification speaks strongly to the portrait's authenticity.
While acknowledging that "the time window is quite large," he said: "Something I found, beyond what I did, … that leads me to think this has some possibility of authenticity is the fact that the label material was carbon-dated to the right time period and that coincides pretty well with the carbon-dating of the panel. … And the analysis of all the [painting]materials fits so well too."
Lloyd Sullivan was happy and excited to get the substantiation - he had submitted the label to McCrone's for testing in fall 2006 - but not all that surprised since, to his mind, he has received one confirmation after another over the years as to its authenticity.
"It's probably the most tested painting not only of all the Shakespeare portraits but also likely one of the most tested in the history of art," he said.
"The ink was the only thing that hadn't been tested and now that it's done - it's huge for our painting - there's nothing more to prove forensically. … Now, we can concentrate on getting some documents to back up the genealogy, which we're working on. Our success rate augurs well for the future."