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Tuesday, March 10, 2009


Posted by Adam Roberts on 03/10/09 at 11:14 AM

So, does anybody think (a) this is likely a portrait of William Shakespeare, or (b) that we should care, either way?

There’s Stanley Wells, with his ‘I endorse this portrait’s authenticity’ expression on.  The argument seems to be that the more familiar Droeshout picture is actually a copy of this portrait.  I find it hard to swallow that, for the following four reasons (a) Droeshout’s Shakespeare’s nose is the nose of a completely different person; (a) the new portrait is of a wall-eyed gentleman (check out his right eye, as we look at him ... it’s actually kind of upsetting, dude); (c) Droeshout’s Shakespeare’s face is much rounder, especially about the chin; and (d) where Droeshout’s Shakespeare is wearing a starched ruff, the new portrait is of a decapitated head lying upon a lace-trimmed pillow which in turn has been propped on an old armoured chestpiece.

Personally I’d prefer to believe that Droeshout saw that photo of Stanley Wells, up there via some freak Dr Who-style accident, took off a couple of decades and copied that.  The logic of Wells’s endorsement seems to be that truly to test the authenticity of a suggested portrait, it must be ranked on a scale going from ‘Dull (Cannot Be S.)’ to ‘Fine (Must Be S.)’

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.

Blogging the Renaissance has a complementary theory: ‘I personally like to imagine Shakespeare having weight issues as the reason for the fluctuating rotundity of his face in various paintings and carvings.’ Doctor Cleveland glosses, in the BtR comments: ‘as the old saying goes, Shakespeare can never be too rich or too thin.’


What’s the current status of the Chandos portrait?

By Jonathan Goodwin on 03/10/09 at 02:23 PM | Permanent link to this comment

As I understand it, from my skimming of this story in the media, the theory is that all the other portraits that have been identified as Query Shakespeare are actually copies of this, the Cobbe portrait.  I guess that includes the Chandos.

(When Stanley Wells talks about ‘two images have been widely accepted as genuine likenesses’, there, he means the Droeshout and the Stratford Church bust.)

By Adam Roberts on 03/10/09 at 03:02 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I dunno, Adam. They look pretty similar to me. The nose is a bit different, but is still a straight plane from the top of the eyes down. The same eye looks off to the side. The Droeshout face is a bit fuller, but not drastically so. Look at the temple in both portraits—

I think it’s plausible that the Droeshout portrait is based on the painting. Should we care? Eh, we all care about lots of things we perhaps shouldn’t. And now I’m going to the store to replace some frayed shoe laces.

By on 03/10/09 at 03:29 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The guy with the clip-on microphone is not Shakespeare.  Otherwise, anything goes.

By on 03/10/09 at 06:51 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Ignatius Donnelly explained all this a cebtury ago.

By John Emerson on 03/10/09 at 10:55 PM | Permanent link to this comment

But, Luther, how can you be sure?  The nose is a bit different, but is still a straight plane from the top of the eyes down. Clip-mic Guy’s face is a bit fuller, but not drastically so.

I suppose, to be serious, that there seems to me something arbitrary in the way similarities between portraits (receding hairline! ruff!) get used as both the basis for and the justification of identification, whilst differences get simply elided away.  So, the guy in the Cobbe picture is in his twenties, tho’ Shakeapeare would’ve been in his forties when the portrait was painted, but the experts then insist that this is just the painter flattering the sitter.  Like, whatever.

On the other hand, Trent is surely right that shoelaces may matter as much as this, depending on context.

By Adam Roberts on 03/11/09 at 08:09 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam, you mocking me? I really don’t have a stake here. The impulse to comment just barely rose above velleity. I will simply observe that photographs of a person taken in the same year often can look very different. And when you consider a portrait that doesn’t try to slavishly imitate another portrait—well. ... Let me state my plausible comment another way: I don’t think on the basis of the portraits alone you can rule out that they depict the same person, or that one portrait is based on another. Hence the minimal degree of possibility I implied with “plausible.” I will toss out an observation that seems to support your case—the light source in place differently in the two depictions (look closely at the eyes—you’ll need to look at a larger depiction of the Droeshout engraving). Not conclusive, of course, but useful for piling on.

I suppose if I cared enough I could review the circumstantial evidence, but I find I need to go buy some plastic trash bags.

Btw, the new laces have a nice black and brown pattern—a bit dandyish, but offset by my conservative shoes

By on 03/11/09 at 09:17 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I didn’t mean to mock you, Trent, There is a great deal in what you say.

Actually (this is wholly serious) I need some new shoelaces myself.  I might go for a black/brown pattern.

By Adam Roberts on 03/11/09 at 12:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

First, the fellow in the new portrait looks a lot like the fellow in the Sanders, doesn’t he? 

Second, isn’t one of the problems with this exercise that we’re comparing an engraving to a painting?  Are there any comprehensive studies in which portraits of certain authenticity have been compared to similarly authenticated engravings?  Because it seems like the medium might be fouling up the comparison.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 03/11/09 at 06:51 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The medium is clearly going to be a fouling factor (if you see what I mean) yes.  But it also seems to me that there’s a degree of radical subjectivity about facial recognition (because its so crucially hardwired into our subjective primate brains; and because individual primate brains differ one to another in lots of important ways) that gets in the way of pretending objectivity in a matter like this.  So, to me the Sanders pic Scott links to looks to me more like the Droeshout than the new portrait: the nose, the underbagged eyes, ‘something’ in its vibe.  But I can understand that for Trent, say, the similarities of the noses outweighs the differences re: Droeshout/New pic.

Scott leaves a third implicit: the strange yearning to be able to say: ‘I have looked upon the face of Agamemnon’, and the warm fuzzy feeling that gives you, even whilst some more rational part of your brain knows that almost certainly you’ve done no such thing.

By Adam Roberts on 03/12/09 at 04:20 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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