Shakespeare in the New World

SUN JOURNAL

Family heirloom: Others have guessed at the playwright's visage, but a portrait recently revealed in Canada may be the only image painted while he was alive.

May 17, 2001|By Colin Nickerson | Colin Nickerson,BOSTON GLOBE

NEW LONDON, Prince Edward Island - The portrait, dated 1603, shows a man on the cusp of middle age, blue-green eyes sharp with intelligence, lips bent in faint smile, bushy auburn hair just starting to recede from a forehead that somehow seems so familiar.

What may be the only existing portrait of William Shakespeare painted during the playwright's life has surfaced in Ontario, the property of a family that emigrated from England to Canada in the early 20th century carrying a pigment-on-wood miniature they say has been passed from father to son for 12 generations.

As art, the 17-inch by 13-inch portrait is crude, unremarkable and not terribly valuable as antique paintings go. But if the winsome image can be proved to be the true face of the greatest writer of the English language, it will be priceless, an heirloom for all humanity.

"If it's authentic, it's extraordinary to have found Shakespeare in the New World," says Richard Monette, artistic director of the Stratford Festival in Stratford, Ontario. "This is a very romantic picture, the way we want Shakespeare to look, like a bohemian."

Investigation of the painting, first reported by Toronto's Globe and Mail newspaper, has fired both excitement and debate across the worlds of art, history, drama and Shakespearean scholarship.

Scientific scrutiny suggests that the portrait was almost certainly painted in the early 1600s, but no amount of X-ray spectrometry, carbon-dating or pigment analysis can verify the astonishing inscription on the back of the portrait: "Shakspere, born April 23 1564, Died April 23 1616, Aged 52. This Likeness taken 1603, Age at that time 39 ys."

"Scientific work makes it clear that the materials are consistent with the date 1603," says Ian Wainwright, who oversaw eight years of chemical, radiocarbon and microscopic studies of the painting by the Canadian Conservation Institute, a government research agency.

Simply proving that a painting is not a forgery does not necessarily mean that the subject is accurately rendered or is not someone else entirely.

"The evidence seems to point to its authenticity," says David Franklin, chief curator at the National Gallery of Canada. "But how can we know that it is a true likeness?"

The owner of the portrait has been identified only as a retired engineer living in Ontario. According to the Globe and Mail, he has insisted on anonymity because he fears for the security of the painting, which was stowed for years beneath his grandmother's bed and later hung on his own dining room wall.

Family lore holds that the painting is the work of an ancestor, John Sanders, believed to have been a set painter and bit actor in Shakespeare's theatrical troupe. The owner has made proving the portrait's provenance the work of his retirement, and he has spent nearly all of his savings paying for exhaustive tests usually undertaken only by museums and other institutions.

After 400 years, "it's time to reveal Shakespeare to the world," he told the Globe and Mail.

The esoteric science of dendrochronology, or the dating of wooden objects, was used by the University of Hamburg in Germany to show that the oak panel on which the portrait is painted came from a tree cut down around 1597.

The reaction of Shakespeare scholars ranges from cautious to skeptical.

Says Stanley Wells, chairman of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford-on-Avon, Britain: "I'm suspicious. ... It doesn't look like the accepted images of Shakespeare."

But other specialists take a more positive view. "The fact that the hair is the right color is the best argument in its favor," Stanford University's Stephen Orgel told the Globe and Mail. "We know Shakespeare had light brown or auburn hair."

Over the centuries, only two of the 450 purported likenesses of Shakespeare have consistently withstood scientific and historical analysis. And both were completed after his death, showing the familiar bald pate and pointy beard.

The most famous image - the print from the First Folio of Shakespeare's plays - is thought to be based on a lost sketch made of the playwright as an aged man. The other authenticated likeness is the bust on Shakespeare's tomb at the Church of the Holy Trinity in Stratford, cast from his death mask.

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