Correction to This Article
The article misstated the age of William Shakespeare at his death. Shakespeare died at age 52, not 53.

Waiting for William: Is the Cobbe Portrait the True Image of Shakespeare?

By Sally Jenkins
Sunday, August 30, 2009

If it's him, we're going to have to rethink the hair. The styled courtier who gazes out of the portrait is undeniably a seducer, and that much was true of William Shakespeare: He was an arch-persuader with language. But we didn't reckon he was such a looker. Frankly, we always thought he was a bald pudge. Whereas this man is bouffant and handsome, complicatedly so, with his doily of a collar and come-hither expression.

The fellow is clearly no earl -- he lacks the arrogant jaw -- but he's someone. Maybe too much of a someone to be a mere playwright. Then again, there's a touch of Shakespearean mischief in his face. He wears a barely checked smile and a blush. He's ardent, and Shakespeare was nothing if not a lover. He loved roses, mirrors, doomed lords and, of course, a good psychological mystery.

The story of the Cobbe portrait would delight him. It's got everything from denouements to sex, and at its heart is the questionable identity of Shakespeare himself. The Cobbe, oil-on-panel circa 1610, is the centerpiece of a controversial exhibit through the first week of October in Stratford-upon-Avon titled "Shakespeare Found." The claim, backed by renowned scholar Stanley Wells, is based partly on the strange coincidence by which it was discovered: It is a dead ringer for a portrait held by the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, a picture that from 1770 to the 1940s was considered legitimately Shakespeare, until it was declared a forgery. Now it's possible that the Folger may not own a sham at all, but a scholarly grail, a true likeness of the bard painted during his lifetime.

For more than 250 years, the Cobbe portrait was a nameless head hanging obscurely in an Anglo-Irish country house outside of Dublin. Alec Cobbe glanced at it a thousand times as a boy and never thought much of it. "It wasn't the most interesting picture in the room, because it was just a man who was supposed to be Sir Walter Raleigh," says Cobbe, a 64-year-old with antic eyebrows who peppers his speech with cricket expressions.

Cobbe was reared in a Georgian manor called Newbridge House amid dim marvels and with no electricity. "It was a lamplit childhood," Cobbe says. The house was crammed with art collected over centuries by the Cobbes, who can trace their genealogy to the Third Earl of Southampton, Shakespeare's known literary patron. A descendant named Charles Cobbe left Hampshire to become the archbishop of Dublin, and he built Newbridge House in 1737. Among the treasures piled in the home were Tudor manuscripts in Latin and memorabilia from Captain Cook's sea voyages left behind by Cook's surgeon, a tenant. And there were paintings, hundreds of them, in glorious hues.

Each night, Cobbe carried a flickering oil lamp up the stairs to bed, past pictures of bearded men glaring from old frames. At the top of the stairs, Cobbe would pause before a Tudor woman with rouged lips, a jeweled earring and a plait of hair falling over one shoulder. She was the last face he saw before bed. "I was fond of her," he says.

At Oxford University, Cobbe decided on a career as an art restorer and met an equally art-obsessed schoolmate, Alastair Laing, who papered his rooms with copies of masterpieces. Laing became a curator of the National Trust, the largest collection of art in England, and it was he who in 2006 invited Cobbe to an exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery in London, titled "Searching for Shakespeare."

A few years earlier, the two men had made an important Shakespeare discovery in the Cobbe collection. Laing was cataloguing the family artwork when he paused to study the rouged lady to whom Cobbe had always bid goodnight atop the stairs. "That's no woman," Laing exclaimed. The portrait was actually of a longhaired man, and not just any man. He was identified as Henry Wriothesley, the Earl of Southampton and the "lovely boy" scholars suspect Shakespeare of obsessing on in some of his sonnets.

A woman's face with Nature's own hand painted

Hast thou, the master-mistress of my passion

-- Sonnet 20

"Searching for Shakespeare" was a quixotic title for a show, given that it's hard to go searching for someone when you don't have much of an idea who he was. What Shakespeare looked like in his prime is just one of the many things disputed about him, along with how many plays he wrote and in what order, whether he was a nice guy or a jerk, how he treated his wife, if he was a bisexual, or a secret Catholic, and what killed him at age 53. Just two images of Shakespeare are considered authentic by scholars, and both were done after the playwright died. A clumsy funerary bust over his tomb in the chancel of Church of the Holy Trinity in Stratford depicts a portly man in robes with a quill in his hand. It must have looked like him at his death because his family approved it. The other is the cartoonlike engraving on the cover of the First Folio, the authorized collection of his plays published in 1623, seven years after he died. The engraving, by a Flemish artisan named Martin Droeshout, shows a neckless man with an absurdly domed forehead, pouches under his eyes and a hint of flab around his chin.

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