Next week I shall be travelling to New York with three colleagues to take part in the opening of an exciting new exhibition at the Morgan Library: The Changing Face of William Shakespeare (4 Feb – 1 May 2011).
A few months ago, The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust acquired a lost copy of the Cobbe portrait of Shakespeare (pictured here). Our new-found portrait has not been seen in public since 1947 when it was sold by Sotheby’s from the collection of the 1st Earl of Ellenborough (1790-1871). It came to light again in Madrid in 2009, when it was offered for sale by an art dealer.
Our picture, despite the fact that it is painted with a full head of hair, has an independent and long-standing historical identification as Shakespeare. Until now, only bald-state versions of the picture had historical identifications as Shakespeare. The analysis of the newly found portrait validates the Shakespeare traditions of the other extant copies with hair.
The Cobbe portrait was originally painted with receding hair, but was altered at an early date by another painter to extend the hair. X-ray and infra-red examination of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust portrait show that painting commenced before alterations were made to the hairline in the Cobbe Portrait, but then was continued and completed to include the same alterations. This suggests that it was copied directly from the Cobbe portrait while the latter was in the process of being altered, almost certainly in the same studio. It is therefore probably the earliest of the several 17th-century copies of the Cobbe portrait extant. Tree ring dating further confirms that it is a near contemporary copy of the Cobbe, which was painted around 1610.
The alteration to the Cobbe portrait is likely to have been commissioned by its owner, believed to be the 3rd Earl of Southampton, who was Shakespeare’s only known literary patron. It would not be unusual for a rich patron with several houses to want copies of portraits, so it is possible that Southampton also commissioned the Shakespeare Birthplace copy. Southampton’s direct descendant, Jane Digby, was the wife of the Earl of Ellenborough, in whose collection the picture was inventoried in 1878.
The exhibition at the Morgan Library will allow visitors to see the two pictures together for the first time, alongside other rarely seen portraits. It’s sure to fuel the continuing debate and intrigue about the likeness of Shakespeare.
And The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust portrait will be on exhibition in its new home, the Shakespeare Centre, this summer.
I’ll let you know how it all goes….