EHF Lyceum

January 2006


by Mark Vinet

A Canadian owned painting, possibly of playwright William Shakespeare [1564 - 1616, born & died in Stratford-upon-Avon, England], has sparked international debate amongst historians, art collectors, scientists and academics. The controversial portrait is of a youthful man with the beginnings of a receding hairline, and a somewhat enigmatic, possibly ironical, smile. He is described as alert, mischievous, keen-eyed - almost flirtatious. Half twinkle, half smirk, he looks out from his portrait with a tolerant, world-weary air.

The painting is said to be the work of Elizabethan actor-artist John Sanders, who was born in Worcester, England, in 1575. Like the Bard himself, Sanders as a young man made the journey to London to seek his fortune and became involved with Shakespeare's theatre company as a bit actor, and for reasons unknown painted Shakespeare's portrait in 1603 -- the date on the painting. The Sanders family stayed in the Worcester area until the early 1900s when a large branch of the family immigrated to Canada, bringing the portrait with them. The painting, handed down through 12 generations, about 42 centimeters by 33 centimeters, in tempera (made of pure pigment and egg yolk) on solid oak. It is slightly worm-eaten at the top but otherwise well preserved, its colors rich, its sheen bright. It shows a Shakespeare with fluffy red hair and blue-green eyes, an appearance that matches descriptions of him in the journals of his contemporaries Christopher Marlowe and Francis Bacon. The painting has been kept in the Sanders family, handed down with care through the generations, identified in wills, "To my eldest son, the portrait reputed to be Shakespeare." Throughout the centuries, it was hung on a dining-room wall and stored under various beds & in several closets until its current owner, Lloyd Sullivan, a retired engineer from Ontario and descendent of John Sanders, decided to consider putting the portrait up for auction, first undertaking a reassessment of its authenticity. The current owner's grandfather brought it with him in a collection of paintings when he came from England early in this century. It has been exhibited only once, in the early 1960s. The owner's uncle, in whose custody it was then, thought of selling it and had it shown briefly at a gallery. But the painting, then unauthenticated, aroused little interest.

The public controversy over this portrait began in 1909 when the painting's owner took it to a London expert on Shakespearean iconography, who concluded that it could not be Shakespeare (or "Shakspere" as the playwright spelled his own name). The expert, A.M. Spielmann, claimed that the style of the painting was typical of the seventeenth century, but he believed that parts of the painting had been altered sometime after its inception and that the note affixed to the back of the painting was not authentic. Recent scientific analysis by chemical and radiological experts to rule out retouching and even one of the world's leading specialists in dendrochronology (the science of dating wood by the tree rings), however, has questioned this judgment. Radiograph testing at the Canadian Conservation Institute indicates that the painting was not forged in the nineteenth century, as Spielmann claimed, and tree-ring dating on the wooden panel on which the painting was executed indicates that it dates from as early as 1597. Similarly corroborating the painting's claimed date of 1603, analysis of the paint flakes taken from the Sanders painting are consistent with seventeenth century methods.

The major point of contention regarding the painting's authenticity surrounds a rag paper note affixed to its back (upper right-hand corner). While time has rendered the words on this paper largely illegible, a transcription made by Spielmann in 1909 reads:

Shakspere / Born April 23, 1564 / Died April 23, 1616 / Aged 52 / This likeness taken 1603 / Age at that time 39 ys.

While the rag linen paper on which the note was written is consistent with the type of paper used in Shakespeare's day, images of the remains of this note taken under ultraviolet light show handwriting that is not consistent with either secretary or italic scripts which would have been used by Shakespeare and his contemporaries; instead, the note is in a round script, which did not appear until the 1700s. Certain scholars believe that this evidence is corroborated by the diction of the note that suggests an eighteenth century origin. While some connoisseurs feel that this is proof of the painting's inauthenticity, others feel that a member of the Sanders family probably added the wording of the note at a later date.

The weight of evidence on either side of this argument suggests that the controversy surrounding the Saunders painting will not ebb any time soon. For example, some commentators suggest that the portrait seems either an early likeness lifted from the celebrated engraving of Shakespeare found in the 1623 so-called "First Folio" of his collective works, and made younger, or it served as the likeness for that engraving, which was then "aged" by the First Folio engraver. At present, the only authentic likenesses of Shakespeare are considered to be a bust on his tomb in the Church of the Holy Trinity in Stratford, cast after his death, possibly from a death mask, and approved by his wife; and a print done by the artist Martin Droeshout for the frontispiece of the First Folio of his plays, which seems to have been taken from a sketch that has never been found. The engraving, too, seems to have been approved by Anne Hathaway; it was published in 1623, after his death. Few individuals are as culturally important in England and English speaking cultures as Shakespeare, and thus artifacts and ideas that challenge established traditions surrounding this canonical figure are likely to meet with academic and social resistance; yet, Shakespeare's cultural importance makes Shakespearean artifacts monetarily valuable, and consequently a target for forgery.

William Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon, England, and baptized on the 26th of April 1564. As it was common practice to baptize children shortly after their birth, it is assumed that William's date of birth was the 23rd of April. His parents, John Shakespeare and Mary Arden married in about 1557. His father was a butcher, wool merchant, and maker/seller of leather goods, primarily gloves. Surprisingly, William's father appeared to have been illiterate. Despite this, John Shakespeare was a burgess of the borough, an alderman and a bailiff. He died in 1601 following years of financial misfortune. William's mother came from a very well established family and was an heiress to some land. She died in 1608.

William was the third oldest in a family of eight. The oldest was Joan who was born in 1558 and died in infancy. The second child was Margaret who died in 1563, a year old. Gilbert was immediately after William and he died when he was 50. After Gilbert was Joan (it was common practice to use the name of a dead older sibling again). Joan lived until she was 77 years old. Next was Anna who died when she was 8 years old. Richard followed Anna and he lived until he was 39. Finally there was Edmund who died when he was 27. William himself very nearly died as a child from a plague that swept the village.

By the time William was 7, he could both read and write. He attended Grammar School and studied Latin. At the age of 18, in 1582, William married Anne Hathaway who was eight years his senior. Little more is known of William until 1592 (referred to as the "lost years") when his acting and writings begin to be noticed in London. In January 1593 he was involved in a group of 6 other men who started a new theatre company called the Lord Chamberlain's Men (aka the King's Men). During this time, William wrote most of the plays for the group, averaging two plays a year. In 1599, he was involved in the building of a new theatre called The Globe, which was completed in May. In 1613, it appears he retired to Stratford to the life of a prosperous gentleman landowner and died in 1616. During William's 52 years he wrote 37 plays (and perhaps co-wrote a few more), 154 sonnets and various other poems. In 1623 Anne died and was buried alongside her husband in Stratford's Trinity Church.

William Shakespeare did no leave any direct descendants. His wife Anne bore three children, two girls and one boy. The boy called Hamnet died in 1596 when he was 11. The two girls both married. The oldest, Susanna, married Dr John Hall and had one daughter, Elizabeth, who, although she married twice, had no children. The other daughter Judith (Hamnet's twin) married Thomas Quiney Vintner. She and Thomas had three boys. The first died when he was a year old and the other two died at ages 21 and 19 without any children.


Shakespeare's Face: Unraveling the Legend and History of Shakespeare's Mysterious Portrait by Stephanie Nolen, Free Press, 2004.
Is this the face of genius? article by Stephanie Nolen, Canadian Press 2001.
A new image of Shakespeare? by Ryan Vernon, ISE, July 2001.
Newspaper Archives: Globe and Mail, National Post, Washington Post. by Ryan Vernon, ISE, July 2001.
The Connoisseur, article by A.M. Spielmann, 1909.
Photo Source: John Baker's New & Improved Marlowe/Shakespeare School of Thought Emporium. 2001-02, Centralia, WA.
William Shakespeare: A Short Biography by Jane Dickerson, 2005.
A mystery that spans centuries, Warren Clements, Canadian Press 2001.