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.

The Sanders Portrait
The Sanders Portrait

Described in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, exhibited at a Manhattan department store in the 1920s, offered for sale to the Folger Shakespeare Library in the 1930s, and then ‘discovered’ once again, to a blaze of publicity, in Montreal in 2001, the Sanders portrait must be one of the most famous likenesses in the world of a completely unknown Elizabethan. By contrast, the second portrait has languished in obscurity, though its provenance is a good deal more picturesque and its connections with the name of Shakespeare are in one respect at least rather more verifiable. It depicts a girl, perhaps nine or ten years old, seen full-length in front of a vague, idealised landscape. Her right hand rests on the head of a large greyhound, which sits beside her looking up into her face, while her left hand holds a pear, which she appears to be trying to feed to the dog. Her own face, which stares stiffly out at us, gives no clue as to what she thinks she is doing, but the more expressively painted greyhound looks surprised. The girl’s red satin dress, with a central panel of figured brocade, simple lace collar and cuffs, and only minimally puffed sleeves, is in the fashion of the 1650s, and the painting follows the mode of child portraiture exemplified in a more aristocratic and accomplished manner, complete with emblematic fruit, by John Michael Wright’s c.1668 painting of James Cecil, fourth Earl of Salisbury and his sister Lady Catherine, now at Hatfield. Unhelpfully, there is no indication on the canvas as to the pear-bearing girl’s identity, and no date either. However, a modern brass plaque affixed to the frame confidently supplies the former, and suggests by implication a date of about 1595. It reads: ‘Judith Shakespeare 1585-1661-2.’

The Judith Shakespeare Portrait
The Judith Shakespeare Portrait

I don’t believe for a moment that this painting really represents the poet’s younger daughter – she was probably in her sixties by the time it was painted – any more than I think that there is more than wishful thinking behind the Sanders family’s identification of their fluffy Elizabethan, but the fact that someone wanted this little girl to be a member of Shakespeare’s family, and Judith at that, is in this instance particularly striking. The painting now belongs to a family who bear the same surname as the playwright – to that extent it would be perfectly proper to call it the Shakespeare portrait – but who are probably just as closely related to the fishing-tackle manufacturers (it isn’t an uncommon name, and the playwright’s direct line died out in 1670 with his granddaughter Lady Elizabeth Barnard). The picture came into the family soon after the First World War, kindly provided by someone who couldn’t bear the idea that a modern-day William Shakespeare – whom she met, moreover, in her adopted home county of Warwickshire – shouldn’t own a relic connected with his better-known namesake. This someone was the self-styled Marie Corelli (whose real name was Mary Mackay), bestselling novelist and spiritualist, who was probably one inspiration for E.F. Benson’s Lucia, and was certainly the most conspicuous if not the most talented writer ever to live in Stratford-upon-Avon. Her household at Mason Croft, the grand building on Church Street that now houses the Shakespeare Institute, included not only her lesbian partner but a gondolier, brought from Venice with his boat to chauffeur them elegantly up and down the Avon.

Did Corelli really believe that this portrait depicted Judith Shakespeare and, if so, on what grounds? The family has no record of any claims she may have made about its provenance; if she did believe it to be genuine, it is possible that this belief was communicated to her by spirit guides tapping on tables. It might be more apt, though, to imagine Corelli conferring this name on the girl with the pear as an in-joke with herself made at both the Elizabethan and the latterday Shakespeares’ expense, a private allusion to William Black’s 1884 novel, Judith Shakespeare: A Romance. In Black’s book the rebellious Judith becomes involved in an attempt by the Stratford locals on whom Shakespeare has based many of his characters (including Holofernes) to demand royalties from the playwright, before achieving a reconciliation with her famous father (and marrying Thomas Quiney, a rather better-behaved character in this novel than the fornicator remembered in Stratford’s parish records). The idea of returning a counterfeit Judith Shakespeare to a not-the-original William Shakespeare might well have appealed to Corelli’s sense of humour. Whether or not Black’s novelisation of Judith’s life was in Corelli’s mind as she passed the picture on, it must surely have been somewhere in Virginia Woolf’s when she wrote A Room of One’s Own a few years later. In Woolf’s essay an imaginary Judith Shakespeare (who here is William’s sister rather than his daughter) serves as a figure for all women writers denied opportunities in life, and then forgotten by literary history. In one form or another, with or without pear and greyhound, Judith keeps coming back to haunt her father’s image.

Were I a certain kind of newspaper journalist, I might send copies of the pear-bearing so-called Judith to a number of art historians and Shakespearean scholars, persuade my editor to run a front-page story about this possibly priceless, possibly genuine new-found likeness of the Bard’s youngest child, badger forensic scientists into running elaborate tests on the picture, and then eventually publish a fat book narrating the entire episode. I could even intersperse the narrative with commissioned essays on Shakespeare and portraiture by most of the usual suspects in the field. This is what Stephanie Nolen has done for the Sanders portrait, and Shakespeare’s Face is the result. To judge by Nolen’s volume, mine – working title: ‘Shakespeare’s Daughter’s Face’ – would feature a fairly plodding narrative about the discovery and analysis of the portrait and its brief career as a media celebrity, interspersed with often wildly speculative contributions from a number of reputable academics. They might consider, for example, whether Shakespeare commissioned the painting to wax sentimental over at his London writing desk; whether or not it predates the death of Judith’s twin brother, Hamnet; whether the child in the picture doesn’t have a distinctly my-dad’s-just-written-Romeo-and-Juliet look in her eye; whether the greyhound can be identified with the dog-impersonating spirits who defend Miranda’s chastity by pursuing Caliban, Stephano and Trinculo in The Tempest, and so on.

To be fair, there are some nicely written pieces in Nolen’s book – Tarnya Cooper is good on the painting’s genre, and Jonathan Bate does his usual expert job on the still widespread folk belief that Shakespeare didn’t write his own plays (which would make the Sanders portrait, even if it is all that its current possessor hopes, merely a likeness of a pseudonym). But even here there are some odd lapses of judgment: Bate credits Robert Nye with the notion that the simile of the eddy in The Rape of Lucrece is based on observation of Clopton Bridge in Stratford, when Nye actually lifted the idea from Caroline Spurgeon’s important Shakespeare’s Imagery and What It Tells Us (1935), which even boasts a sketch of the bridge as its frontispiece. In the end Bate decides he wants the portrait to be of Shakespeare’s junior colleague John Fletcher – here again the book simply succumbs to the kinds of desire it intermittently purports to analyse. It is very striking that nearly all the contributors who argue that the painting is a genuine likeness of Shakespeare are Canadian, thrilled that this attractive picture should have come to light (again) in Montreal: a small team from the Toronto-based Records of Early English Drama project even produce an elaborate and implausible hypothesis in defence of the suspect cloth label on the back. The wish that was father to that thought is made helpfully explicit by the artistic director of the Stratford Festival in Ontario, Richard Monette, who contacted Nolen soon after the story broke, expressing a desire to adopt the Sanders as the Canadian Stratford’s own official portrait of Shakespeare, to be retitled ‘Shakespeare in the New World’.

Part of the appeal of the Sanders portrait, in short, is that it hasn’t been familiar for generations, unlike the four most immed-iately recognisable portraits of the Bard: Gheerart Janssen’s memorial bust at Holy Trinity in Stratford (in place by 1623), Martin Droeshout’s engraving on the title page of the First Folio (1623), the Chandos portrait (c.1610, provenance largely a matter of late 17th-century rumour) and the statue by Peter Scheemakers, commissioned years later for the monument to Shakespeare in Poets’ Corner, Westminster Abbey (unveiled in 1741). All of these are by now hopelessly burdened with connotations of British prestige, respectability and solid worth – hence the long-running tenure of an engraving of Scheemakers’s statue on the old £20 note – and the only one with any bohemian dash, the Chandos, with its fetching gold earring, probably isn’t a picture of Shakespeare at all. As Stephen Orgel points out in his excellent new collection of essays, Imagining Shakespeare, the sitter for the Chandos portrait has unambiguously black hair, while the Janssen bust, commissioned and supervised by Shakespeare’s surviving family and friends, originally had auburn hair. Orgel provides a nice history of attempts by 18th and 19th-century artists to produce a likeness more worthy of Shakespeare: a number of such paintings – among them William Blake’s cherubic retread of the Droeshout engraving, Angelica Kauffman’s idealised cavalier and John Faed’s wonderfully booze-free Victorian image of Shakespeare and His Friends at the Mermaid Tavern – were on display at the Dulwich Picture Gallery this summer, and they are ably discussed in a handsome catalogue, Shakespeare in Art, which boasts yet another helpful essay by Jonathan Bate.

Very much in the 18th-century tradition of suiting the likeness to the cultural need, Michael Wood, attempting to enthuse the nation with his breathless account of a dashing Merrie English crypto-Catholic in his recent television series In Search of Shakespeare, tried to bypass the canonical portraits’ ‘balding middle-aged man in a ruff, an establishment figure’, in favour of yet another apocryphal Shakespeare. Wood prefers the well-dressed, ingenuous youth depicted by the Grafton portrait, first declared as being of Shakespeare in the 1880s, a time when just about every unidentified 16th-century portrait was being touted as a likeness of either Shakespeare or Queen Elizabeth. ‘Shakespeare looked like this: a young blade, diffident, sensitive, witty, ambitious; a provincial poet making his way in the world,’ Wood declares in his tie-in book. It’s a nice picture, and since it doesn’t rule out Shakespeare, the date remains intact – ‘aetatis suae 24, 1588’ – but how the young and obscure actor could have afforded to get himself painted, never mind this well and in these clothes, is never quite explained. If Shakespeare did commission this portrait ‘to send back to the family: proof to proud parents, and to his wife and children, that he was doing well’, as Wood would have it, I’m sure that Anne, at the time trying to bring up a five-year-old daughter and three-year-old twins, would much rather have had the money.

All this betrays a deep and enduring confusion between Shakespeare as a corpus of writings and Shakespeare’s physical body; somehow the most attractive collection of plays ever written has to have had the most attractive author, and a supposed picture of the writer’s daughter must be as interesting as the offspring of his Muse. Even Stanley Wells, making the first star cameo appearance in Nolen’s book, seems to share this identification between the poetry and the portraiture, declaring that ‘a true picture of his face would make the greatest relic of all.’ What, greater than an annotated holograph manuscript of Hamlet, or an autographed copy of the missing Love’s Labour’s Won? Orgel traces all this back to the First Folio, whose editors made the surprising and expensive decision to put the Droeshout engraving of Shakespeare onto the title page itself instead of opposite as a frontispiece: as a result, the final injunction of the little Ben Jonson poem about it which occupies the facing page, where the portrait would normally be – ‘looke/Not on his Picture, but his Booke’ – becomes pretty much impossible to obey. And the association between Shakespeare’s work and his image goes back even further: a character in the Cambridge skit The Return from Parnassus (c.1600), enthusing over Venus and Adonis and Romeo and Juliet, exclaims: ‘O, sweet master Shakespeare! I’ll have his picture in my study at the court.’ But as even the rather obtuse King Duncan finally realised, there is no art to find the mind’s construction in the face, and anyone planning to commit their opinions about portraits of Shakespeare to print should take note of this first recorded utterance on the subject, and especially of who makes it. The character in question is called Gullio. The desire for a new likeness of Shakespeare, it seems, can still make a gull of almost anyone. Perhaps, as John Self suggested in Money, we should just content ourselves with the consolations offered by the old one:

The beaked and bumfluffed upper lip, the oafish swelling of the jawline, the granny’s rockpool eyes. And that rug! Isn’t it a killer? I have always derived great comfort from William Shakespeare. After a depressing visit to the mirror or an unkind word from a girlfriend or an incredulous stare in the street, I say to myself: ‘Well. Shakespeare looked like shit.’ It works wonders.