LONDON: After more than three years of detailed study of paintings — six of them — the National Portrait Gallery has come to the conclusion that the Chandos portrait by a little known 17th century artist is the nearest in looks of Shakespeare. The study has been carried out for one of the biggest exhibitions on Shakespeare in his own time and is open from Saturday at the Gallery.
According to Tarnya Cooper, who has curated the show, the first painting of the poet known to have been donated to the institution some 150 years ago could be the best guess. The Chandos portrait dates back to the lifetime of Shakespeare and many scholars have vouched that it is the correct depiction of the Bard of Avon.
Cooper says the claim of the Chandos portrait to represent Shakespeare has “increased, but it’s not absolutely watertight. We may never find the clincher piece of evidence – though it may yet turn up”.
A detailed forensic examination of the paintwork has concluded that some of the details in the portrait, like the earring and necktie, represented the time when Shakespeare was alive. An 18th century antiquarian, George Vertue had done great work on Shakespeare, tracing him via a theatre manager, who was Shakespeare’s godson, William Davenant, and also the painter, John Taylor, who has done this portrait.
Dr Cooper says unfortunately there are no surviving works by John Taylor. He was not a great artist. “If Davenant was making up claims, you would expect him to say it was by someone more famous.
“I’m sure Vertue’s evidence is absolutely accurate but we’re relying on a chain of Chinese whispers. What is clear is that it was assumed to be Shakespeare within 50 years of his death. It’s a pretty close link.”
The Gallery has conducted tests on several so-called Shakespeare portraits, subjecting them to X-rays, ultraviolet examination, microphotography and pigment analysis. It found that one of the best-known images, the Flower portrait owned by the Royal Shakespeare Company, was a fake, painted 200 years after the writer’s death. Forensic studies revealed that the chrome yellow paint used in the portrait was first used in 1814. This portrait has been widely reproduced and is often printed on the covers of his plays.
Studies also showed that the Grafton portrait, which shows a dark-haired, highbrowed young man in a rich scarlet jacket was not true. While the painting could be dated to 1588, when the poet was 24, there was no evidence that it depicted the poet. Cooper says it was unlikely that Shakespeare, then a young struggling actor, could afford such luxurious clothes.
All said and done, paintings and pictures fade into insignificance as Ben Jonson said in his preface to the First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays: “Reader, looke not on his Picture, but his Booke.”
The exhibition, Searching for Shakespeare, has six of the best-known “Shakespeare” portraits with original documents from the playwright’s life, including the bond of his marriage to Anne Hathaway, the deed to his house in Stratford and the will in which he left his wife his “second-best bed.”
Also on display are early editions of Shakespeare plays, clothes worn on stage and other rare items relating to his life like the parish register from the Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon containing details of his family life, a document which has recorded an objection to Shakespeare being granted a coat of arms because a stage player was not entitled to this honour and a painting of the Swan Theatre.
The exhibition runs until 29 May.