And That Rug!

Michael Dobson

  • Shakespeare’s Face: The Story behind the Newly Discovered Portrait by Stephanie Nolen
    Piatkus, 365 pp, £18.99, March 2003, ISBN 0 7499 2391 1
  • Imagining Shakespeare: A History of Texts and Visions by Stephen Orgel
    Palgrave, 172 pp, £25.00, August 2003, ISBN 1 4039 1177 0
  • Shakespeare in Art by Jane Martineau et al
    Merrell, 256 pp, £29.95, September 2003, ISBN 1 85894 229 2
  • In Search of Shakespeare by Michael Wood
    BBC, 352 pp, £20.00, May 2003, ISBN 0 563 53477 X

Above the entrance to the saloon bar there is a picture of Shakespeare on the swinging sign. It is the same picture of Shakespeare that I remember from my schooldays, when I frowned over Timon of Athens and The Merchant of Venice. Haven’t they got a better one? Did he really look like that all the time? You’d have thought that by now his publicity people would have come up with something a little more attractive.

Martin Amis, Money

Well, they keep trying. Look here upon this picture, and on this. Both are unsigned 17th-century portraits, one depicting a man, the other a child. The man is an affable-looking chap, reminiscent of Phil Hopkins, a percussionist at the repro Globe on Bankside. The head-and-shoulders format allows us to see that he is wearing a fancy late Elizabethan doublet with an unusual semi-transparent lace collar. He has fashionably shortish brown hair, a fairly high forehead, bags under his eyes as if he hasn’t been sleeping well lately, and a lightweight, almost fluffy beard and moustache. The top right-hand corner of the painting gives a date – 1603, perfectly consonant with the clothes, the style of the painting and the lettering employed for the word ‘ANo’ which precedes it – but there is no indication of who this man is, and it is clear from the asymmetry of the picture (we can see most of his right shoulder, but only a little of his left) that at some point a strip of wood about two inches wide (the painting is on two oak panels) has been detached from the right-hand side. This is a pity, since it is just where we would expect the words ‘Aet. suae’ next to the sitter’s age, and maybe a small heraldic badge to indicate his lineage. This is the painting which has become known as the Sanders portrait, after Thomas Sanders, the man who in 1908 took it to Marion Henry Spielmann, author of the pioneering Portraits of Shakespeare (1907), claiming that a hitherto undocumented family tradition identified it as a likeness of William Shakespeare. Spielmann liked the picture, about which he wrote in the Connoisseur and later in the 1911 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, but was unimpressed by the claim that it depicted Shakespeare; he was particularly unimpressed by an unnaturally informative cloth label pasted to the back, which read: ‘Shakspere/Born April 23 = 1564/Died April 23 – 1616/Aged 52/This Likeness taken 1603/Age at that time 39 ys.’ Spielmann doesn’t say so, but it’s hard not to suspect that this label was written to overcompensate for that missing two-inch strip, which if it had given the sitter’s age as anything other than 39 (or 38) would have precluded the potentially lucrative identification of the portrait as a likeness of Shakespeare. The sitter looks about 27 to me, but then again, so does Phil Hopkins, and he must be 40.

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