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The real face of William Shakespeare, wherefore art thou?
March 22, 2006 | More from Ann MacMillan

Ann MacMillan - Manager London Bureau Veteran journalist Ann MacMillan signed on as a reporter-producer for CBC TV in London in 1981. She is now Managing Editor of the CBC London Bureau.

While based in London, MacMillan has reported on a variety of events for The National, including the Royal Weddings, the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, major anniversaries of The Second World War, peace efforts in Northern Ireland and other European stories.

The Flower portrait, one of the most well-known paintings said to show William Shakespeare, is a fraud, done more than 200 years after he died, according to experts at Britain's National Portrait Gallery. (National Portrait Gallery/Associated Press)

What did Shakespeare look like? It's one of the great mysteries of English literature.

There is no shortage of portraits of the world's most famous playwright but all are different. After centuries of controversy over which is the real face, the National Portrait Gallery in London has turned to science for an answer. Curator Tarnya Cooper has spent almost four years putting the three best known portraits through a battery of tests.

The results are on display in an exhibition called Searching for Shakespeare.

First up was the so-called Flower portrait, the most widely used image of Shakespeare. It's owned by the Royal Shakespeare Company and has a date of 1609 in its upper left-hand corner.

X-rays showed the portrait had been painted over a 16th century Italian painting of the Madonna and Child with John the Baptist. Nothing unusual in that, but when microscopic paint samples were subjected to infrared and ultraviolet examination, it turned out the chrome yellow and ultramarine colours used were not available until 1814 and 1828 respectively. Shakespeare died in 1616 so the Flower portrait was declared a fake.

The second painting that went under the microscope was the Grafton, which has 1588 inscribed in its upper right-hand corner. On the back of the painting a note says the sitter was 24, Shakespeare's age at the time. Tree ring analysis showed the portrait was painted in 1588 but there is no evidence that the man in the picture is William Shakespeare.

"There's a big question mark about this portrait," Cooper told the CBC in a recent interview. "It's very beautiful but does it represent Shakespeare? Probably not. The sitter is far too elaborately costumed. It's much more likely to be a man who is wealthier than Shakespeare was at that period."

Portrait number three is known as the Chandos. Tests confirmed it was painted between 1603 and 1610. The man in the picture appears to be in his late 30s or early 40s, the same age as Shakespeare at the time.

The Chandos portrait was painted between 1603 and 1610 when the playwright was in his late 30s or early 40s. (Sang Tan/Associated Press)

Cooper believes this painting is most likely the real thing.

"The loose shirt ties worn by the sitter and the very charming bohemian earring are associated with theatre, literature, patronage," she said. "I think the research we've done has highlighted more evidence that provides a stronger indication that this could be the face of Shakespeare."

Coincidentially, the Chandos is owned by the National Portrait Gallery. It was the first painting given to the gallery when it opened 150 years ago.

So where does that leave the portrait known as the Sanders, owned by Canadian Lloyd Sullivan? It was not put to the test with the other three paintings because it has already undergone extensive scientific analysis in Canada.

A retired engineer living in Ottawa, Sullivan has spent nearly 20 years and thousands of dollars trying to prove that the painting is of Shakespeare. He says the portrait is the work of his ancestor John Sanders who acted in Shakespeare's company.

Cooper is not convinced.

"It's a very interesting painting," she said. "It dates undoubtedly from 1603 but who does it represent? In 1603 Shakespeare was 39. The sitter in this portrait looks much younger."

So should Sullivan give up his claim of owning the only real portrait of Shakespeare?

"Why would I quit?" he asked. "Would you give up a project where every year we've been successful in finding more evidence? This is a life's work really."

The Sanders portrait, uncovered in Ontario in 2001, is said to have been painted while Shakespeare was alive. The Canadian Conservation Institute conducted 15 tests on the artwork, all were positive including tree-ring dating done on the portrait�s two wooden panels. (Art Gallery of Ontario/Canadian Press)

Whatever its provenance, the Sanders painting is also being featured in the Searching for Shakespeare exhibition and in the accompanying book. The other two portraits on display are the Soest, painted after the writer's death and the Janssen.

When the Janssen was cleaned in 1988, it was discovered that hair on the subject's head had been painted over and replaced with a bald forehead like Shakespeare's. The Janssen is now thought to represent Jacobean courtier, Thomas Overbury.

In the end, even Cooper says it is impossible to prove categorically that one portrait above all others is definitely the face of William Shakespeare.

"I think the Chandos is the most likely contender but it's not absolutely watertight," she said. "We may never find the clincher piece of evidence, though it may yet turn up."

Perhaps the last words should go to Shakespeare's literary contemporary, Ben Jonson. In his preface to the first folio of Shakespeare's plays, Jonson wrote "Reader, looke not on his Picture, but his Booke."


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