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'It's a labour of love. I believe in the painting. And I'm going to prove it."

Lloyd Sullivan is on the telephone from his home in Ottawa and he's talking about a 17th-century oil painting he has owned for more than three decades. You may know it as "the Sanders portrait," named for John Sanders, the Londoner who supposedly painted it on an oak panel, circa 1603. The portrait gained international attention almost five years ago when a Globe and Mail article reported that its subject could be William Shakespeare and -- even better -- that it could be the only likeness of the Bard painted during his lifetime (1564-1616).

Indeed, events in the last year have convinced Sullivan that his heirloom is within striking distance of being named an authentic lifetime likeness of Shakespeare. If he's right, the painting could be worth as much as $20-million. Certainly it's a claim that's going to receive renewed attention this spring as a much-anticipated Shakespeare-themed art exhibition goes up in London.

A former engineer with Bell Canada, Sullivan, now 73, has spent almost two decades and as much as $1-million delving into the history of the modest-sized work that has been in his family for more than four centuries. Sullivan inherited the now-famous portrait from his mother in 1972 who, just before her death in Montreal, urged her only son to "do something" about the portrait, perhaps as a retirement project.

Until Sullivan took possession, it had been common currency among his ancestors that the oil with the 1603 date in its upper-right corner depicts the author of Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet at age 39, and that its creator was a distant relative who had been a bit player in Shakespeare's company.

He was also an occasional stage worker and portraitist. However, none of these relatives had done any significant research to either bolster or disprove the oral tradition. Sullivan was determined to change all that.

And indeed, he has. When The Globe's Stephanie Nolen published a series of articles in May, 2001, revealing that a Canadian had a work that, on the basis of research and authentication tests undertaken by Sullivan, could very possibly be a lifetime likeness -- maybe the only lifetime likeness -- of the world's greatest playwright, it prompted interest and debate around the globe.

As Nolen wrote in her subsequent 2002 book, Shakespeare's Face, "we have no picture of [Shakespeare]when he was writing his great works." And those images now generally agreed to be of him number only two and both of these were created years after his death.

Discussion about all this will be resumed in a few weeks when a representative from Toronto's Art Gallery of Ontario takes Sullivan's proudest possession to St. Martin's Place in London to hang in the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) with five other portraits that claim or have claimed to be genuine likenesses of Shakespeare. (The AGO has housed the Sanders since mid-2001, when it hosted the portrait's first public exhibition.) The London show is being organized by Tarnya Cooper, an internationally renowned expert on 16th- and early 17th-century English portraiture, to mark the 150th anniversary of the founding of the NPG.

Titled Searching for Shakespeare, the exhibition opens March 2, to be followed by a conference on Shakespeare portraiture at the NPG in May.

Two works have been discredited in advance of the show. Last April, Cooper announced that one of the most recognizable Shakespeare images, the so-called "Flower portrait," was, in fact, a fake. The painting, named after the Stratford brewing dynasty that donated the work to the Royal Shakespeare Company in the 19th century, carries a date of 1609 on its upper-left corner. But after four months of testing, the NPG experts determined it was painted between 1814 and 1840, on top of a 16th-century image of the Virgin Mary and the baby Jesus with St. John. The giveaway? Traces of chrome-yellow paint embedded deep in the portrait, a pigment that was first manufactured in the early 19th century.

Six months later, Cooper downgraded the so-called "Grafton portrait," named after the Duke of Grafton who reportedly once owned it in the 1700s. Until last October, its main claim to being a genuine, lifetime likeness was a series of marks on its front identifying its subject as being 24 and its date of completion as 1588, plus the initials "WS" on its back. Bogus, declared Cooper. The NPG had determined the initials had been added in the 19th century and, even more decisively, the sitter's clothes are simply too posh to have been worn by someone of the Bard's age and standing in 1588. "Scarlet was a very expensive colour, and silk was a very expensive material," noted Cooper -- haberdashery well beyond the reach of an aspiring actor in London.

The third Shakespeare painting coming up for pre-exhibition consideration is the "Chandos portrait," dated 1610 and owned by James Brydges, Duke of Chandos, during the mid-18th century. Cooper is expected to deliver the NPG's verdict on it on The Culture Show on the BBC on Feb. 16. Furthermore, the NPG has agreed to give The Sunday Times Magazine on Feb. 19 -- one day before the Searching for Shakespeare catalogue is published -- "an exclusive feature drawing on the NPG's complete research" into the six paintings.

The Chandos is significant, not least because it is the first portrait ever donated to the NPG, in 1856 by the Earl of Ellesmere, who declared it a genuine likeness of the Bard. The painting is credited to John Taylor who, before his death in 1651, was reputed to be both a member of the Painter-Stainers Company, the artists' guild, and a performer with the King's Men, the troupe for which Shakespeare apparently served as playwright-in-residence from 1603 to 1610. Moreover, it's been said that the Chandos was once owned by William Davenant, a 17th-century theatre manager, poet and playwright who reportedly "claimed at different times to be Shakespeare's godson, his illegitimate son or both."

In 2002, Jonathan Bate, author of The Oxford Illustrated History of Shakespeare on Stage, wrote that the Chandos "still has the best claim to be the only surviving authentic likeness of Shakespeare painted in his lifetime." In part, this is because it "resembles" but not "suspiciously so" the two posthumous images Bate and numerous other Shakespeare scholars consider authentic likenesses.

The first posthumous image of which scholars approve is the now well-known engraving by Martin Droeshout that two Shakespeare associates commissioned for inclusion in the First Folio of the bard's plays, published in 1623; the second is the painted limestone bust of Shakespeare supposedly ordered by his family in 1620 and now nestled above the playwright's grave in Stratford-upon-Avon. According to Bate, if the Chandos looked too much like the Droeshout or the bust, it could be plausibly suggested that "it was based on those images." However, it's at once "sufficiently" similar ("the domed forehead") to and different from them (the beard, the gold earring in the left lobe, the swarthy complexion) "for it to be plausible that it is the same man."

Lloyd Sullivan isn't buying this, however. "It's not a picture of Shakespeare," he says flatly, citing the opinion of one Shakespeare expert who, in the early 1990s, characterized the Chandos as being "more Italian butcher than English gentleman."

Two other "contender" paintings are to be included in the NPG show, but neither the Jansen portrait, believed to have been done in 1610, nor the oval-shaped Soest (or Zoust), completed several decades after Shakespeare's death, have had many serious champions in recent years. Moreover, the NPG has reportedly not subjected either work to the same scientific tests it has the Chandos, Flower and Grafton. (Tests initiated by Sullivan on the Sanders portrait were performed by institutions such as the Canadian Conservation Institute.)

So where does that leave the Sanders? In one sense, the process of selective elimination undertaken by the National Portrait Gallery has added to the cachet of Sullivan's property. But disproving or downgrading one batch of paintings doesn't automatically bestow authenticity on another. It's known that Cooper is fond of Sullivan's heirloom. She agrees with the various tests that have determined it was painted in England around 1603 and that its size (42 centimetres by 33) and presentation are in keeping with what someone of Shakespeare's status could have afforded. Her own research has located a family of painting Sanderses (including one named John Sanders) active in London in the mid-17th century and possibly earlier.

But she does have her doubts, centring mostly on the apparent age of Sanders's sitter. True, a tattered piece of linen attached to the back of the painting that identifies the subject as "Shakespere" whose "Likeness [was]taken 1603" has been determined to be as much as 500 years old. But some scholars believe this inscription was originally written as much as a half-century after Shakespeare's death and perhaps redrawn or added to in the 18th or 19th century. Cooper herself expressed concern in 2002 that the portrait is missing part of its right side where, in all likelihood, the sitter's age would have nestled alongside the 1603 date.

What is more worrisome to Cooper is the face of the sitter. "To my eye, the man we encounter appears considerably younger than 39, with his soft, downy facial hair, smooth skin, flushed soft cheeks and full head of hair," she has written. It's a view shared by noted British Shakespeare scholar Stanley Wells, among others, who said the Sanders portrait is of an Englishman in his late 20s.

Robert Tittler, however, is "not as put off as Tarnya seems to be by the appearance of the age of the sitter." Tittler, who has closely examined the Sanders portrait, is Canadian, a retired history professor at Montreal's Concordia University and the author of an upcoming book on non-courtly English portraiture from 1500 to 1640. "Some people age quicker than others. . . . Others can maintain a youthful appearance that belies their apparent years," he said recently.

And unlike some literary historians, he's "unwilling to dismiss the possibility" that the portrait is what Sullivan claims it to be. "I'm willing to hold the door open here and at least consider it a firm possibility." Where he departs from Sullivan is in his view that while the painting "very likely" was owned by a Sanders family of long standing in England, it's doubtful it was painted by the John Sanders Sullivan claims. He says it's simply too professional a portrait to have been done by someone of Sanders's apparent (limited) abilities. Moreover, archival research by other academics has failed to find a strong link between the Sanders that acted for the Bard and the family of supposed painters with the Sanders name that shows up in the records a half-century after Shakespeare's death.

"It's unlikely," Tittler notes, "that any more evidence will turn up that clinches the matter one way or the other."

All this debate hasn't phased Sullivan. "Experts don't impress me much," he said recently, especially after "all the phone calls I've made and the stamps and paper, the tests, researchers, the lawyers and my own work. I'm spending $500, $700 a month just keeping my office in my house running."

Eventually -- he won't say when -- he'll publish "a tell-all book, a conclusive book" that verifies the authenticity of the Sanders portrait with evidence from "other documents that nobody has seen."

Meanwhile, Sullivan says it's unlikely his portrait will ever again be stored in the upstairs cupboard of his Ottawa home where it was kept until 2001. In fact, his family would like the AGO to own the portrait. "Preferably, we'd have somebody buy it and then donate it."

The Searching for Shakespeare exhibition runs from March 2 to May 29 at London's National Portrait Gallery; it is at the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, Conn., June 26-Sept. 17.

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