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March 28, 2002 Be it Shakespeare, or be it not? Robert Tittler investigates



Robert Tittler

Professor Robert Tittler with the Globe and Mail article on the surfacing of a new portrait.

Photo by Andrew Dobrowolskyj

by Anna Bratulic

Is the man in the portrait with the crafty look on his face William Shakespeare? While he will not say that it is, Professor Robert Tittler thinks there is a distinct possibility that the subject of the controversial painting which surfaced last summer at the Art Gallery of Ontario might very well be the Bard.

Tittler is among seven scholars who contributed to Is This The Face Of Genius?, a book of essays which will be published by Knopf Canada in June commenting on the authenticity of claims that the painting is of Shakespeare.

Painting is striking and revealing

The anonymous portrait, which is painted on wood and dated 1603, is of a man who looks to be in his late thirties with a receding hairline and a youthful flip of bangs. He is dressed in an expensive-looking doublet that looks to have gold and silver threads running through it. The background is blank and there are no other clues (such as jewellery or facial marks, for example) that would help in the identification.

“If this really turns out to be a portrait of Shakespeare, it tells us something for sure about something we do not know: what he looked like,” said Tittler, who does research on non-courtly English portraiture of the period.

“What strikes us most about it is the face itself, the emotional content, the character in it. He’s half smiling. He’s looking at you, but not looking at you. He has a very alluring, sly, perhaps mischievous kind of appearance. The actor’s virtue is in his face.”

The Globe and Mail broke the story last May. The painting belongs to a family living in Ontario who claim that the portrait was painted by an ancestor, John Sanders, who was a fellow actor and friend of Shakespeare. The painting has been handed down through the generations within the Sanders family. There is an inscription written in ink on cloth on the back, attesting that the portrait is a likeness of William Shakespeare.

While chemical testing of the paint done by the Canadian Conservation Institute, tree-ring analysis of the wood panel, and costume assessment validate the fact that the painting was done around 1600, scholars remain sceptical of the family’s claims as to who did it.

“No one has been able to track down who John Sanders is,” Tittler said. “There’s very little record of that. Shakespeare is one of the most famous and most written-about people in English history, but one of the striking things is how little we actually know of him, despite ardent searching by generations of scholars.”

However, it does seem strange, Tittler added, that there was a painter called John Sanders who knew Shakespeare well and performed with him — and painted this painting solely for his own admiration. “The sense of character that he has captured, and the very delicate brushwork in the collar and on parts of the face, suggest that this is a person who is highly skilled at painting, and not an amateur who does it on Sunday afternoons when it’s rainy outside.”

Tittler emphasized that “the crucial point abou this portrait is that there are no known portraits done of Shakespeare during his lifetime. This would be the only one, if it is authentic.”

Shakespeare died in 1616, and only two portraits of him have been generally accepted authentic, and both were likely painted after his death, although this is a matter of dispute. One is a 1623 engraving by Dutch artist Martin Droeshout that appeared in the posthumously published first folio edition of Shakespeare’s plays.

The other is the Chandos painting, named after the Dukes of Chandos, who were its previous owners. It hangs in Britain’s National Portrait Gallery, which claims that it dates from around 1610; however, its origins are obscure.

Both works depict the playwright as heavyset, jowly and rather bland-looking. However, Tittler said that the nature and function of portraiture at that time may in fact bolster the claims of the Sanders supporters.

“Portraits of that time were not necessarily meant to be perfect likenesses of what the person looked like,” he explained. “They were often meant to be like icons, aimed at representing a certain type of person, so that a portrait of the mayor, for example, is a portrait of the mayor because he’s wearing a red robe and holding some prop or symbol of his office.”

It would not be unusual, then, for Shakespeare, who was primarily known as an actor during his lifetime, to have himself depicted in a way that would display his ability to express personality and emotion.

“The real prop in this painting isn’t a prop at all,” Tittler said. “It’s the face. I think this is an actor’s face. I think in painting this, that’s what the painter was trying to tell us. This is not the face of anybody else but an actor. Who else would want to look like that?”