It is a curious fact of history, which my research on antiquarianism has brought home to me, that if something is believed in or wanted for long enough, it will eventually materialise. From John Aubrey’s passing remark in 1665 that Stonehenge might have been built by druids, through William Stukeley’s obsessively detailed and almost entirely invented account of the druidic religion it took another hundred and fifty years, but in the early 20th century druids appeared at Stonehenge and they have been there ever since. It is often pointed out that there is no continuous tradition connecting ancient and modern druids, and archaeologists have demonstrated, with some impatience, that even if there were such a link, Iron Age druids didn’t build Stonehenge. This makes no difference to events at the solstices nor did it stop the Oxford University Press bookshop from putting up a window display featuring a cardboard model of the stones surrounded by cardboard druids.
The wish for a portrait of Shakespeare from life has a similar but shorter history. For centuries the monument in Stratford Church and the Droeshout engraving from the First Folio were the only widely known images. The Shakespeare revival of the 18th century took place in an age of neoclassicism which was content with idealised representations to show what Shakespeare signified rather than what he looked like. Scheemakers’s full-length marble in Poets’ Corner is an image of a national bard. Roubiliac’s version was commissioned by David Garrick, who posed for it himself and while this was certainly vain of him, it was not as vain as it would be today. At a time when the play, rather than the biography, was the thing, Garrick was not unjustified in seeing himself as the embodiment of Shakespeare’s art in his own time.
Once the Romantic conception of the artist as an expressive individual took hold, however, the need for a portrait began to be felt. Idealised images were now dismissed as caricatures, the Droeshout as disappointing, ‘narrow, peaked and priggish’ the antiquary John Britton called it, while the Stratford bust was hors de combat, having been whitewashed during the last throes of Enlightenment good taste. The search for the face and the private life of the bard became intense. By 1850 Britton could report that ‘since the commencement of this century, it may be asserted that more has been written and published on the life … of Shakspere, than during the whole of the preceding period between the acting of his first drama and the year 1800.’
Katherine Duncan-Jones, in her brilliant, scholarly and concise Portraits of Shakespeare (Bodleian, £14.99), deals with two of the images ‘taken from life’ that duly emerged. One, known as the Flower portrait, was bequeathed to the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1895, by which time the RSC had quite a collection of pictures. The provenance of this one went back no further than 1840, and after a century of argument the National Portrait Gallery carried out a technical examination in 2005 which showed that it dates from between 1828 and 1840, which is exactly what might be expected. The other portrait, known as the Chandos, was the first picture the NPG acquired at its foundation in 1856, a ‘vividly informal’ image that conveys ‘a powerful sense of presence’ as Duncan-Jones writes. Although it had been obscure and in private hands since the 17th century, it came with a continuous provenance which further investigation has supported. Only the question of its authorship was troublesome. The identity of ‘Jo: Taylor’ has been subjected to a needle-in-haystack search for a painter called John Taylor. Duncan-Jones, threading her way carefully back through the marginalia of the historian George Vertue into the theatrical networks of Shakespeare’s day has solved the mystery beyond reasonable doubt. Jo: Taylor was Joseph Taylor, a relatively well documented actor.
This is a major discovery, but the appearance of Duncan-Jones’s book did not make the national news. Country Life, however, managed that feat when, as Michael Neill discussed in the last issue of the LRB, it devoted its May issue to the horticulturalist Mark Griffiths’s contention that the title page of John Gerard’s Herball of 1598 contained a portrait of Shakespeare. This led to headline variations on the theme of ‘Is This the Face of Shakespeare?’ The short answer appears to be no, though that didn’t prevent the British Society of Magazine Editors from awarding it ‘Scoop of the Year’.
The last new portrait to appear before Duncan-Jones wrote her book has acquired even more traction. This is the so-called Cobbe portrait which was presented to the world in 2009 as a painting done from life in about 1610 and recently acquired by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. At the time Duncan-Jones argued in the TLS that this was not only not Shakespeare but was identifiable as Sir Thomas Overbury. The usual uproar ensued. Impartial scrutiny of the historic evidence places the balance heavily on the side of its being Overbury, but this has not stopped the Birthplace Trust from exhibiting the portrait and including it on its website. It is on posters all over Stratford and in her book Duncan-Jones comments through lightly clenched teeth that it is ‘unfortunate’ that it has been embraced ‘so eagerly’ by the tourist board.
Last February the Observer illustrated the latest claim to have identified the ‘enigmatic “Mr WH”’ of the Sonnets with the Cobbe portrait, captioned ‘a portrait of Shakespeare’; one shaky hypothesis illustrating another. Also in February the Department for Culture, Media and Sport announced financial support for the Shakespeare Trust’s £5.25 million project to mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death in 2016 by creating, at New Place in Stratford, ‘a major new landmark heritage attraction where people can get to the heart of the story of Shakespeare the family man and the writer at the height of his success, in the very place where he lived for the last 19 years of his life’. This is what the Romantics so much wanted to find in the Stratford of the early 19th century. Then, however, there was disappointingly little appearance ‘of anything like antiquity’ in the town. Over the next two hundred years antiquity has been steadily appearing. New Place, the house Shakespeare certainly owned and may have lived in towards the end of his life, was demolished in the 18th century. Its successor was knocked down by the owner, Francis Gastrell, who was annoyed by people constantly asking to see it. That left the house, then a butcher’s shop, in Henley Street which was known to have belonged to Shakespeare’s father and in which he may well have been born. By 1864 it had become The Birthplace, the exact room specified. The Reverend J.M. Jephson, who revisited Stratford that year, was taken aback to find the building ‘so smug and new’ with ‘everything scraped and polished up’, complete with new timbers and more varnish than he thought necessary. The current development of the New Place site, candidly described as a ‘reimagining’, will greatly extend the visitor experience. ‘Great news for … our national and international tourist economy’ and a Romantic dream come true.