We all know what William Shakespeare looks like. A bit like a hippie uncle balding, moustached, longish hair in back. How do we know? Mostly from an engraving by Martin Droeshout that appeared with the First Folio, the collection of Shakespeare’s work that was published in 1623, seven years after his death. That engraving is reproduced with almost every edition of Shakespeare that offers a picture of him at all.
But engravings are typically copied from another source, a drawing or painting. Shakespeareans have been tantalized for generations by the possibility that a genuine life portrait of the man survives somewhere. Now Stanley Wells, professor emeritus of Shakespeare Studies at Birmingham University and one of the world’s most distinguished Shakespeare scholars, says he has identified one. Wells is convinced that an oil painting on wood panel that has rested for centuries in the collection of an old Irish family was painted from life in around 1610, when Shakespeare was 46. If that’s so, it would be only true likeness we have of the greatest writer in the English language.
The picture has languished for centuries at Newbridge House, home base of the Cobbe family outside Dublin, where until recently no one suspected it might be a portrait of the Bard. Three years ago Alec Cobbe, who had inherited much of the family collection in the 1980s and placed it in trust, found himself at an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London called “Searching for Shakespeare.” There he saw a painting from the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. that had been accepted until the late 1930s as a portrait from life. Looking it over, Cobbe felt certain that the Folger painting was a copy of the picture in his family collection. He asked Wells, an old friend, for his help in authenticating it.
The two men arranged to have the Cobbe picture subjected to a battery of scientific tests tree-ring dating to determine the age of the wood panel, X-ray examination at the Hamilton-Kerr Institute at Cambridge University and infrared reflectography. The tests produced persuasive evidence that the wood panel dated from around 1610 and that the Cobbe painting was the source for the one in the Folger and several others. Wells is now sure of it. “I don’t think anyone who sees [the Cobbe portrait] would doubt this is the original,” he says. “It’s a much livelier painting, a much more alert face, a more intelligent and sympathetic face.”
It also matters that the Cobbe picture appears to have been copied more than once. In addition to the Folger there appear to be three other versions, all from the 17th century. “It suggests that this is someone who was famous enough that there was a demand for copies,” says Wells. “We have a fascinating reference in a play from 1603 in which there is the character of a young man who was obviously a fan of Shakespeare. He quotes bits of Romeo and Juliet and is rather foolish. And he says the line: ‘Sweet master Shakespeare, I have his picture in my study at the court.’ That also shows that there was likely to be a demand for his portrait.”
And how will the Cobbe portrait change our picture of Shakespeare For one thing, it shows us a man of substance. Though Shakespeare came from relatively humble beginnings his father was a glove maker he ended as a wealthy man. “The Cobbe portrait will show people a man who was of high social status,” says Wells. “He’s very well dressed. He’s wearing a very beautiful and expensive Italian lace collar. A lot of people have the wrong image of Shakespeare and I’m pleased that the picture confirms my own feelings this is the portrait of a gentleman.”
In April, the Cobbe portrait will go on display for several months at the Shakespeare Center in Stratford-on-Avon. After that it will return for the Cobbe family trust. Wells says that to his knowledge the family has no plans to sell the painting.
The Cobbe collection includes works handed down from the family of the Third Earl of Southampton, Shakespeare’s only known patron. Shakespeare dedicated to the earl both of his long narrative poems, Venus and Adonis in 1593 and The Rape of Lucrece in 1594. The second inscription is particularly intimate: “The love I dedicate to your lordship is without end…”
This is just one of several reasons why the earl, who was ten years younger than Shakespeare, is often proposed as a candidate for the “fair youth” who turns the poet’s head in some of Shakespeare’s sonnets. How fair A painting of the long-haired Southampton at 19, also in the Cobbe family collection, was mistaken for many years as the portrait of a young woman. And though the earl later married and fathered children there is a letter written about him during his participation in the Irish Wars that alludes to a sexual relationship between him and one of his captains.
Wells mentions a rumor dating back to the 18th century that Southampton once gave Shakespeare a thousand pounds, possibly to allow Shakespeare to purchase the second-largest house in Stratford-on-Avon. That would be an extraordinary amount of money even from a patron who was, as Wells describes him, “very rich and very generous, almost profligate.” But if it’s true, it might be another sign of the very high regard that Southampton had for his favored poet. “This rumor has often been discounted,” says Wells. “In one of my own books I said it was ridiculous. But I’m beginning to have a bit more faith in it.”
It hasn’t been established whether the Cobbe portrait of Shakespeare, if that’s who it is, is one of the paintings that came to the Cobbe family via Southampton, though Wells believes the evidence is strong that it did. But if it is, that inevitably invites speculation that the earl himself might have commissioned it. Could it even have been as a keepsake for himself, a memento of his loving maybe very loving admirer
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