Shakespeare's Likeliest Likeness, Forsooth

A woman looks at the Chandos and Sanders portraits of William Shakespeare, two of six likenesses of the Bard on exhibit at London's National Portrait Gallery.
A woman looks at the Chandos and Sanders portraits of William Shakespeare, two of six likenesses of the Bard on exhibit at London's National Portrait Gallery. (By Sang Tan -- Associated Press)
By Mary Jordan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, March 4, 2006

LONDON, March Opening this week in London: William Shakespeare, the face. Or the closest rendering we'll probably ever know, according to a new exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery.

"People love the idea of encountering his face," explained Tarnya Cooper, the gallery's 16th-century curator. The gallery this week opened a headline-grabbing exhibit, "Searching for Shakespeare," that claims to cast new light on the centuries-old search for Shakespeare's true appearance. Part of the answer to why so many people want to know what Shakespeare looked like -- if he was, for instance, homely or handsome -- is that his writings showed "such an enormous range of human emotions -- anger, love, devotion, jealousy -- and people want to be able to encounter the author who created that," Cooper said.

"We wonder if you can glimpse great genius in his face," she said about the painting, known as the Chandos portrait, painted by John Taylor. It is believed to have been created around 1610 and is named for a former owner.

After applying X-rays, ultraviolet exams and other scientific analysis to leading contenders for an authentic likeness of Shakespeare painted during his lifetime, Cooper and her crew declared the Chandos the most likely to be the Bard -- although there is still no conclusive proof. She said the scientific evidence indicates that the Chandos was certainly painted during Shakespeare's era and there is much evidence to support that it is, in fact, a rendering of Shakespeare.

Another familiar portrait, known as the Flower, owned by the Royal Shakespeare Company, was deemed a fake; a yellow paint used was only available in the 19th century, well after Shakespeare's death in 1616. The exhibit showcases the Chandos alongside the Flower and four other Shakespeare portraits.

"He looks pretty deep in thought," said Wolf Balke, an assistant professor of natural science who was staring at the Chandos this week, taking in the gold earring in the left ear and the ever-so-slightly annoyed look suggesting a man who would rather be anywhere but sitting for a portrait.

"Yes, I would say this is Shakespeare," he said with grand conviction.

Bald on top, with scraggly wings of hair falling to his shoulders like an aging 1970s rocker, the face in the Chandos portrait is not the most flattering image of the Bard. It makes Shakespeare look like the kind of guy you might find smoking dope in David Crosby's garage.

Or, the author of "Hamlet" and "Romeo and Juliet." That's what he looked like to Juliana Edwards, a history student who was among the first to see the exhibit celebrating the gallery's 150th anniversary. She said the brown-eyed man's lack of a polished look made him all the more interesting.

"There is a need to connect a face to the words 'To be or not to be' and 'O Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou, Romeo?,' " she said.

Cooper, the curator, said she spent more than three years staring at the Chandos. And what does she take from all that up-close time?

"He looks slightly bohemian," she said. "He looks like someone you could have an interesting conversation with."

Stanley Wells, chairman of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford-upon-Avon, pointed out that Shakespeare himself was keenly interested in what people looked like. At a packed lunchtime gallery lecture, he said the Chandos portrait has been popularly known as the "one with the earring." (The exhibit points out that other portraits of men with earrings around the same period included maritime adventurers, courtiers and "men of creative ambition." )

"Searching for Shakespeare" closes in London on May 29, then opens June 23 at the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, Conn.

Posthumous renditions of the Bard were commissioned by family and friends, scholars said. Still, they said, part of the fascination of Shakespeare is that so many facts of his life -- including what he looked like -- remain elusive.

"This may be as close as we ever get to what he looks like," said Edwards, lingering over the Chandos, still looking for clues to the great writer in the eyes staring back.

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