- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 4, 2006


He’s a man in black with a full beard and a hoop earring. Or a clean-shaven, balding gent in a starched collar. Or a sensitive young man in a rich, red doublet.

For centuries, scholars have argued about the appearance of William Shakespeare. Britain’s National Portrait Gallery announced last week that a canvas by an obscure 17th-century artist is — most likely — the one true likeness of the playwright painted in his lifetime.

“I suspect this is the closest we’re ever going to get to looking at the face of Shakespeare,” said Tarnya Cooper, curator of the gallery’s 16th-century collection.

She said there was strong evidence but no conclusive proof that the so-called Chandos portrait depicted Shakespeare.

The portrait, the first painting presented to the gallery when it opened in 1856, forms the center of the “Searching for Shakespeare” exhibition, which opened Thursday.

Miss Cooper said it was fitting that the institution’s first acquisition was of “our national poet — at least we hope it is.”

Attributed to a little-known artist named John Taylor and dated by experts to between 1600 and 1610, the Chandos portrait provides an unusually bohemian image of Shakespeare. The Bard is shown dressed in black, sporting a gold hoop earring and with the strings on his white collar rakishly untied.

Earrings were worn then by “people of wit and ingenuity and creative ambition,” Miss Cooper said.

Similarities in style to portraits of other Elizabethan writers strengthened the argument that the painting is of Shakespeare, who died in 1616, she said.

There is no definitive portrait of Shakespeare painted in his lifetime. Only two likenesses, both posthumous, are widely accepted as authentic: a bust on his tomb in Stratford’s Holy Trinity Church and an engraving used as a frontispiece to the Folio edition of his plays in 1623.

The National Portrait Gallery has spent 1 years conducting tests on several possible Shakespeare portraits, subjecting them to X-rays, ultraviolet examination, microphotography and pigment analysis.

The gallery concluded that one of the best-known images, the so-called Flower portrait owned by the Royal Shakespeare Company, was a fake, painted 200 years after the writer’s death. The work, which shows the playwright gazing out at an angle and wearing a wide white collar, has been reproduced widely and is often printed on the covers of his plays.

Analysis uncovered chrome yellow paint from around 1814 embedded deeply in the work and revealed that it was painted on top of a 16th-century Italian Madonna and Child.

“Somebody had found a piece of wood of the right age to make a pretty convincing portrait of Shakespeare,” Miss Cooper explained. “It fooled historians for quite a long time.”

Tests also ruled out the Grafton portrait, which shows a dark-haired, high-browed young man in a rich scarlet jacket. Although gallery experts dated the painting to 1588 — when Shakespeare was 24 — they found no evidence that it depicted the playwright. Miss Cooper said it was unlikely that Shakespeare, then a young actor, could have afforded the luxurious clothes worn by the sitter.

The exhibition brings together 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.”

It’s unlikely to end the argument about Shakespeare’s image. A book by German academic Hildegard Hammerschmidt-Hummel, to be published in April, names another contender — a bust owned by London’s Garrick Club — as an authentic likeness.

Miss Hammerschmidt-Hummel, an English professor at the University of Mainz, says forensic analysis has revealed that the death mask, the bust and the Chandos and Flower portraits all “share 17 identical morphological features” and must be genuine. She also has noted that growths on the eyes of the portraits’ subjects indicate Shakespeare died of cancer.

Miss Cooper said Miss Hammerschmidt-Hummel’s methodology was “fundamentally flawed.”

“Portraiture is not forensic evidence,” she said. “[Portraits] are works of art.”

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