Painting Shakespeare


Image by Robert Conley — Creative Commons License Some Rights Reserved

Is this the face that launch’d a thousand PhDs,
And stormed the empty theatres of Brook?
Sweet Shakespeare, made so immortal with a test.*

Do we now know, for sure, what Shakespeare looked like?

According to a recent test by Joseph Brabe, a forensic analyst with McCrone Associates (the “world leader in microscopy, microanalysis, materials characterization, and the solving of tough materials problems”), a controversial painting appears in fact to be the only image of Shakespeare created during his lifetime.

Believing the science might be easier than believing the story.

In the late 1500′s, John Sanders joined the Lord Chamberlain’s Men as an actor. John also had a talent for painting. In 1603, he got his thirty-nine year-old boss, William Shakespeare, to sit for a portrait. Some time in the next fifty years, someone (Sanders? Sanders’ family member?) added the following inscription to the back of the painting:

Born April 23=1564
Died April 23-1616
Aged 52
This Likeness taken 1603
Age at that time 39 ys

The painting is handed down generation after generation, and travels with a descendant family member as they made their way to Canada. Over the years it sits under grandma’s bed, moves to a closet, hangs on a wall. Occasionally, experts are invited to take a look and offer an opinion.

Today’s descendant, Lloyd Sullivan becomes the most recent family member to put the painting to the test, going high tech — spending years and money to find out if John Sanders’ legacy is worth more than a thousand words.

The word choice seems unlike other Elizabethan inscriptions. The birth date was not well known until sometime later. The image is not close to the Martin Droeshout engraving (1523), nor the bust created by Geraert Janssen which sits at Shakespeare’s grave in the Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon. And, doesn’t the thirty-nine year old Shakespeare look too young here?**

Still, according to our CSI-obsessed culture, the ink used for the inscription is true to Shakespeare’s time.

Stephanie Nolan has been on the trail for some time, long before the most recent tests. Her book asks a good question, “Is this the Face of a Genius?”

Check out all the portraits of Shakespeare. Is there another addition to Brit’s National Portrait Gallery, Searching for Shakespeare?

No doubt the story continues — was there really a Shakespeare who single handedly wrote all these plays, let alone took time to sit for a portrait by one of his bit players?

If so, it’s time to face Shakespeare.

- Bill Reichblum

*   Apologies to Christopher Marlowe.
** The Canadian Conservation Institute holds all rights to the published image of the Shakespeare portrait; apparently, they are not fans of Creative Commons.

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