On Monday in London, Stanley Wells, the chairman of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, unveiled what he claims is the only picture of William Shakespeare painted during the playwright’s lifetime.
The trust explains the significance in a statement on its Web site:
Up to now only two images 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 –- Shakespeare died in 1616. The engraver, who was only in his teens when Shakespeare died, must have had a picture, until now unidentified, to work from. Professor Wells believes it to be the one he has revealed today and that it was done from life, in about 1610, when he was 46 years old.
As Time magazine explains: “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.”
Then, three years ago, a member of the family that has owned the painting for generations, an art restorer named Alec Cobbe, noticed during a visit to the National Portrait Gallery in Britain that a painting of Shakespeare then on loan from the Folger Shakespeare Library, which is believed to be a copy of an earlier one, strongly resembled a painting in his own family’s art collection.
As Time reports, Mr. Cobbe turned for help to his friend Professor Wells, the Shakespeare scholar:
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.”
According to the trust, research has also established the painting’s “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.”
At the unveiling in London today, Professor Wells said:
The identification of this portrait marks a major development in the history of Shakespearian 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.
Image and text by The New York Times Online