The Changing Face of William Shakespeare

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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….

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Author:Paul Edmondson

Head of Research and Knowledge and Director of the Stratford-upon-Avon Poetry Festival for The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Follow Paul on Twitter @paul_edmondson
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  • Jotandquill

    I’m very much looking forward to this event. I’ll see you there!

  • Looking forward to seeing you in NYC, Paul. 🙂

  • I spent a week last August at the Birthplace Trust as the American recipient of the English Speaking Union’s Shakespeare in Stratford-upon-Avon scholarship. I am thrilled to say that I will be at the New York City exhibition and will have another opportunity to listen to Stanley Wells and Paul Edmondson as they speak about the portrait and the playwright/poet.

  • Leebobble

    Why not display both portraits in NYC alongside their x-rays and reflectograms etc and let people decide for themselves? Honestly your article was exhausting to decipher not because of your prose but because the dual chronology becomes so convoluted. Why won’t anyone show us the entire tests results regarding the Cobbe group? (The Folger won’t, Alec Cobbe won’t, and I’m betting the SBT won’t.) There is a tradition, after all, some 400 years old, of fraud attached to Shakespeare ad vivum. What could be more educational than a neighboring light box? People would be fascinated to see the underdrawing, pentimentos, etc.
    (Plus the SBT should test their own portrait the Hunt!)

  • After spending sunday morning for months with The Cobbe Portrait – showing it to the public – which I greatly enjoyed – I cannot wait to see The Birthplace Trust’s version of the painting! I grew to be very fond of it and was amazed by the public reaction to it One woman actually cried and Professor Hildegard Hammerschidt – Hummel spent an hour and a half arguing why it wasn’t him I went to The Bodleian to look
    at their portrait of Sir Thomas Overbury and really do not think it is him The speculation is absolutely tantalising and fascinating Will we ever know the truth – very doubtful – but I should so like it to be The Bard! I have always thought since the Cobbe portrait came to prominence that the fact that it has been kept in the same family together with the portrait of the youthful Earl of Southampton since it was inherited from the Norton’s is very compelling evidence for it being Shakespeare!

  • Ty Unglebower

    So much mystery, around not just his works, but the man himself. Right down to what he actually looked like.

    Yet another fascinating aspect of the Bard to consider.

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