Bard Portrait Is A Unique Find, Experts Say

By Mary Jordan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, March 10, 2009

LONDON, March 9 -- A 400-year-old painting that had been hanging in a stately home in Ireland appears to be the only known portrait of William Shakespeare painted during the playwright's lifetime, experts said at its unveiling Monday.

Stanley Wells, one of the world's most distinguished Shakespearean scholars, said a series of scientific tests, including X-rays and infrared reflectography, have convinced him that the painting dates to 1610, when Shakespeare was 46. Wells said that he believes the portrait is a genuine, unique likeness of the bard. "Though it is circumstantial, [the evidence] is, in my view, overwhelming," he said.

Finding the portrait, which depicts a wealthy man with a lace collar, finely trimmed beard and receding hairline, is a "major development," said Wells, chairman of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. When he looks at it, he said, he sees a "portrait of a gentleman."

Many facts of the bard's life have remained elusive through the years, including his appearance. Some insist all the discussion over which painting of Shakespeare is most authentic -- several famous ones were created after his death -- is much ado about nothing. But because Shakespeare is considered one of the greatest writers ever, there has been an ongoing scholarly quest to know what the man who wrote "Romeo and Juliet" really looked like.

The painting unveiled Monday had been displayed in Newbridge House, an 18th-century manor outside Dublin that has belonged to the wealthy Cobbe family. Three years ago, Alec Cobbe went to see an exhibit at London's National Portrait Gallery called "Searching for Shakespeare."

There he saw a portrait of Shakespeare on loan from the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington that he thought looked like the one in his family's home. He asked experts to help authenticate it.

"I don't think anyone who sees [the Cobbe painting] would doubt this is the original" of the one at the Folger, Wells said. "It's a much livelier painting, a much more alert face, a more intelligent and sympathetic face."

Erin Blake, curator of art and special collections at the Folger, said in a telephone interview that she is most excited about the "serendipity" of the Folger lending a painting to a London gallery and then someone seeing it there and connecting it to one of his own. "It is highly probable that the one unveiled today is the original of the one at the Folger," she said.

But, Blake said, it is still impossible to know "for certain" that Shakespeare himself sat for the painting. After all, she said, it was four centuries ago. Other paintings exist that were done just after he died.

The painting is scheduled to be exhibited at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford-upon-Avon beginning April 23, Shakespeare's birthday.

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