A Portrait Handed Down Over Centuries Is Said to Be Shakespeare

News   A Portrait Handed Down Over Centuries Is Said to Be Shakespeare
The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust has unveiled a newly discovered portrait painting that is "almost certainly the only authentic image of Shakespeare made from life," professor Stanley Wells, chairman of Trust, announced.

The painting shows a younger, leaner William Shakespeare than in other representations known throughout history. The English playwright died in 1616.

"The newly discovered picture has descended for centuries in the same family, the Cobbes," according to the Trust. "It hung in their Irish home, under another identification, until the 1980s, when it was inherited by Alec Cobbe who was a co-heir of the Cobbe estate and whose heirlooms were transferred into a trust."

In 2006 Alec Cobbe visited the National Portrait Gallery exhibition "Searching for Shakespeare," where he saw a painting that now hangs in the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC. "It had been accepted as a life portrait of Shakespeare until some 70 years ago, but fell from grace when it was found to have been altered," according to the Trust. "Mr. Cobbe immediately realized that this was a copy of the painting in his family collection."

The Cobbe portrait, along with other relevant material, will go on public exhibition at The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford-upon-Avon starting April 23, Shakespeare's birthday. The show is curated jointly by Mark Broch and Dr. Paul Edmondson, Curator of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

Professor Wells stated, "The identification of this portrait marks a major development in the history of Shakespearean portraiture. Up to now, only two images have been widely accepted as genuine likenesses of Shakespeare. Both are dull. This new portrait is a very fine painting. The evidence that it represents Shakespeare and that is was done from life, though it is circumstantial, is in my view overwhelming, I feel in little doubt that this is a portrait of Shakespeare, done from life and commissioned by the Earl of Southampton and believe it could certainly be the basis for the engraving seen in the First Folio." Research on the picture was a three-year endeavor by Mark Broch, curator of the Cobbe Collection. The Trust announced that "the research conclusively demonstrates that the Cobbe picture is the prime version of the portrait and establishes beyond reasonable doubt its descent to the Cobbes through their cousin's marriage to the great granddaughter of Shakespeare's only literary patron, Henry Wriothesley, the 3rd Earl of Southampton. In addition to the Folger copy, several other early copies of the Cobbe portrait have been located and no less than three of them have independent traditions as portraits of Shakespeare. In two cases the traditions date back to within living memory of the poet — providing compelling evidence that the identification of the sitter as Shakespeare was correct all along. The conclusion that the sitter is Shakespeare is strengthened by the fact that the original picture, the Cobbe portrait, was inscribed with a quotation from the Classical writer, Horace, taken from an ode addressed to a playwright. The original and its copies are being considered together as a group for the very first time."

Additional scientific investigation has been carried out to support the research including examination by x-ray at the Hamilton Kerr Institute, Cambridge; tree-ring dating by Professor Peter Klein, Department of Wood Science, Hamburg University; and infra-red reflectography by Tager Stonor Richardson.

There are two well-known images that have been "accepted as authentic representations of what Shakespeare may have looked like." One is the engraving by Martin Droeshout published in the First Folio of 1623. The other is the portrait bust in Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon; the monument is mentioned in the Folio and therefore must have been in place by 1623. Both are posthumous.

For more information visit www.shakespeare.org.uk.

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