Handsome Shakespeare

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It’s getting on for eighteen months since we announced the discovery of what has come to be known as the Cobbe portrait of Shakespeare. Its launch was greeted with a massive wave of publicity with photographs of me alongside the portrait on front pages of many of the world’s newspapers, from New York to Tokyo, Paris to Adelaide. As we expected, along with the enthusiasm it evoked numerous expressions of scepticism, some from predictable quarters. Of course we were expecting healthy debate but the number of knee-jerk reactions from scholars who refused to engage seriously with our arguments was disappointing. The Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington D C owns one of the copies, and had exhibited it as a portrait of Shakespeare for many years until the mid twentieth century when Sir David Piper suggested that it represented the Jacobean courtier and poet Sir Thomas Overbury, who died, probably as a result of a murder plot, in the Tower of London in 1613.  We believed we had discredited Piper’s supposed evidence for this but his theory was revived in an article written for the Times Literary Supplement by Katherine Duncan-Jones. We had invited her to the launch of the portrait because she is both an eminent Shakespeare scholar and a confirmed controversialist from whom we expected disagreement. We were not mistaken. Feeling that she had misrepresented our case my colleagues and I wrote a letter in reply; it was published (though another letter from an eminent art historian in support of our case was turned down), but the damage was done. It is true that a superficial facial resemblance exists between the subject of the Cobbe portrait and known portraits of Overbury, but no serious art historians will accept such evidence as a basis for identification.  Regular readers of Private Eye will be familiar with that magazine’s weekly representations of look-alikes.  And surely misidentification even of people we know well is a common experience. ‘O, so sorry, I took you for so-and-so.’ Or ‘He’s the spitten image of …’ Indeed we are compiling a collection of near-doubles in anticipation of a resumption of the debate.  Moreover research undertaken since the controversy blew up has strengthened our belief that Piper was mistaken. It has also turned up another early copy of the painting – more about that in the fullness of time.

The case for the painting’s authenticity as a life portrait of Shakespeare is circumstantial but, I believe, strong. It rests on a confluence of streams of evidence. These include provenance –the association of the painting with others that derive from descendants of Shakespeare’s only literary patron, the Earl of Southampton; the fact that it is the original (no one disputes this) of several other known paintings, at least three of which have long traditions of being portraits of Shakespeare; strong resemblances to the Droeshout engraving of Shakespeare which stands as frontispiece to the First Folio of 1623; and the presence of an inscription (on the original only) of a phrase from an ode by Horace addressed to a playwright which can be interpreted as an allusion to the involvement of Shakespeare’s company with the Earl of Essex’s uprising against the Queen. An objection that has sometimes been made is that the man in the picture looks too prosperous to represent an actor-cum-playwright. I think this rests on mistaken ideas about the social status of the theatrical profession and of Shakespeare himself.  He had officially become a gentleman – a costly procedure – in 1596 when his father was granted a coat of arms. As a member of the King’s Men he was in effect a courtier. He was wealthy, having been able to buy a grand house in Stratford as early as 1597, only three years after he helped to found the Lord Chamberlain’s. Several other members of his company also achieved high social status and amassed considerable estates, as we can see from the wills of actors such as John Heminges and Henry Condell. And the costume in the Cobbe portrait seems to me no less grand that that depicted in the paintings of his collaborator and friend John Fletcher and his partner Francis Beaumont . It has been objected too that the man portrayed looks younger than 46, Shakespeare’s age at the time that we believe the picture was painted. I would concede this while also pointing out that it is no new thing for portraitists to flatter their subjects.

Since the discrediting of the Flower portrait, in the possession of the Royal Shakespeare Company, a few years ago on the grounds that it uses a pigment that became available only in the early nineteenth century, no more than three portraits have any remotely plausible claims as life portraits of Shakespeare. The evidence for one of them, the Sanders portrait in Canada, is very slim. That for the Chandos, in the National Portrait Gallery (the endlessly reproduced one with an ear-ring) is tenuous too and is not supported by authorities such as Sir Roy Strong or even the Sixteenth Century Keeper of the gallery herself. Those for the Cobbe are, I believe, stronger than either of these. And it’s a far better picture of a really handsome man.

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Author:Stanley Wells

Stanley Wells is Honorary President and a Life Trustee of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, Emeritus Professor of Shakespeare Studies of the University of Birmingham, Honorary Emeritus Governor of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Follow Stanley on twitter @stanley_wells or visit his website
  • Stephen Spry

    I’ll sound like a novice because I am a novice, but Overbury, and Wentworth as well, are in their portraits represented with distinctly brown eyes, as best I can reckon from jpegs on the internet. Perhaps I’m wrong. The Cobbe subject has grey eyes if I perceive correctly.

    I’m surprised this is never raised, though jpegs aren’t reliable. Very much looking forward to its tour of the USA.

  • Lee

    Local librarian just called, said only a couple copies available in the entire country (USA) and they won't lend out Shakespeare Found.

  • Liz Woledge

    Thanks for this. I’ve forwarded it to the owner of the portrait. Yes, the book does include x-rays and reflectographs. The portrait is likely to be shown in the U S A next spring – at present I’m not allowed to say where, but we shall be restating and elaborating our arguments about it then.

    Best wishes,
    S W

  • Liz Woledge

    Thanks for this. I’ve forwarded it to the owner of the portrait. Yes, the book does include x-rays and reflectographs. The portrait is likely to be shown in the U S A next spring – at present I’m not allowed to say where, but we shall be restating and elaborating our arguments about it then.

    Best wishes,
    S W

  • Lee

    The book on the Cobbe, no offense intended, is a bit dear and hard to find (at least on this side of the pond). I still think the SBT's statement of purpose should dictate the x-rays etc be put on a web page for anyone to access. It would be fascinating and educational. Are there actually the reflectographs reproduced in the book? Historical photographs of the Cobbe.

    By the way, your jack greatly resembled Sir Thomas Wentworth, who, upon being condemned to the chop block, stood and cried out, “Put not your trust in princes!”

  • StanleyWells

    My blog is only a short version of the arguments. You may find a fuller version which addresses the questions you raise in the book Shakespeare Found? which I edited and which was published last year. On p. 11 it is stated that the inscription was added after the background was repainted; and the x-rays which you ask about are reproduced on pp. 9-10.

    Best wishes,

    S W

  • StanleyWells

    The interests of fair debate would also be served by posting a link to our reponse to this, also published in TLS

  • Leedurkee

    I think much of your argument here is sound, but I don't think you can in all honesty say there is a strong resemblance to the Droeshout engraving. There simply isn't, especially not to the Unique First Proof of the Droeshout currently kept in a vault in the Folger SS Library. I also wish your article had dealt some with the restoration of the Cobbe done at the hands of it own Alec Cobbe in which to my understanding a 400 year old layer of paint, one though perhaps contemporary to SS's life, was removed. I would also bring up your argument regarding the inscription is whimsical. It could refer to the Essex Rebellion or it could refer to Overbury's murder. Certainly such a cautionary tale would seem more likely to refer to a murdered man than a famous playwright who as you mentioned prospered. One point I do thing needs attention is that his inscription is painted atop patches, thick patches of what appears to be overpaint (this is all quite obvious and all quite ignored). Where, I wonder, are the xrays of the Cobbe. Where are the infra-red reflectographs? the Ultra violets? It would seem to me that any portrait making such a grand claim should have to provide this evidence to the public. There are, after all, hundreds of frauds in this field, a whole parade of would-be Shakespeare. Where, I wonder, can we see the x-rays, etc?

  • In the interests of “healthy debate” you can read Katherine Duncan-Jones TLS article here: http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts….

    It seems to my inexpert eye to be just as fair, balanced, detailed and reasonable as Stanley's blog; neither a knee-jerk reaction nor a misrepresentation, just someone who doesn't agree with you!

  • You manage to describe the arguments so succintly and so well. I hope the 'experts' will start to take them seriously.

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