Shakespeare’s life portrait: ‘He falls to such perusal of my face as he would draw it.’

This year is the 450th anniversary of the birth of William Shakespeare (1564 – 1616); and today, St George’s Day, is his official birthday. William Oldys the eighteenth century antiquary, began the tradition that Shakespeare was born on the same date that he died, April 23rd. But we know that he was christened on April 26th, so the true date must be on the 23rd or thereabouts.

I’ve been reading Samuel Schoenbaum’s Compact Documentary Life of Shakespeare 1977, and Tarnya Cooper’s catalogue for the 2006 NPB exhibition Searching For Shakespeare. Only two portraits, both posthumous – the Droeshout engraving in the First Folio 1623, and the Gerard Jonson effigy of the same year – were acknowledged as likenesses by Shakespeare’s family and friends. A third image, the Chandos Portrait c.1600 – 1610, is generally accepted to be a true portrait, by its provenance and by the fact that it was believed and reproduced within memory of Shakespeare’s lifetime.

NPG 1; William Shakespeare attributed to John Taylor

(c) National Portrait Gallery, London

George Vertue mentions the Chandos Portrait in his Notebook in 1719:

‘The Picture of Shakespeare one Original in Possession of Mr Keyck of the Temple he bought it for forty guineas of (Mr Baterton [Thomas Betterton the actor]) who bought it of Sr W. Davenant (to whom it was left by will of John Taylor.) who had it of Shakespear,. It was painted by one Taylor. a Player & painter contempt. with Shakes and his intimate Friend. another of Shakespear painted in Oil by (I suppose Mar. Garrard) 1595.’

This reference to a second portrait by Marc Garrard – or Marcus Gheeraerts (1561/2 – 1636) is tantalising. Tarnya Cooper notes that when Vertue revisits Mr Keck’s again he doesn’t mention the 1595 portrait. Did he no longer consider it was Shakespeare? Or was it not there?

Gheeraerts Shakespeare

I am currently trying to identify this panel portrait by Gheeraerts that belongs to a friend of mine. We attributed it on the basis of the inscription, mid right, giving the sitter’s age and the date it was painted in the standard Latin formula Aetatis suae, anno – so many years of his age in the year. This style of calligraphy is unique to Gheeraerts and functions as his signature; it appears in this form of inscription in many of his works, and in the long verse inscribed on the Ditchley Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I c.1592 (National Portrait Gallery). Just as the end of the lines in the Ditchley poem are missing when the portrait was reduced in size, so the crucial section on our portrait, giving the age and the year of our sitter, has disappeared; the panels to either side have become detached, as so often happens . All we can be sure of, from the portrait’s style and his apparent dress and age, is that it is a man who sat to Gheeraerts in early 16-something when he was in his late thirties.

This gives rise to a tantalising possibility, even as a mere speculation. I had wondered whether the sitter might be a courtier poet like Sir John Harington, but there is an oddity in the representation; the sitter appears to be looking up at the painter. This would be surprising in the portrait of an aristocrat, which tends to establish the social elevation of the sitter literally, by placing him at least on a level with the viewer, if not slightly above them.

The sitter is shown smiling – extremely rare in sixteenth century portraiture, but not unknown in Gheeraerts’s work; the Tate Unknown Lady in silver 1595, a pregnancy portrait, is smiling, as is the portrait of Lord Downe (Private Collection). It is still a highly unusual presentation, and must have been chosen to reflect some specific aspect of our sitter’s character. Gheeraerts is the first painter of the period to give a vivid sense of the sitter’s personality, and this in combination with the smile makes our sitter an engaging presence beyond the usual portraits of the time. He looks as though he is about to speak – the supreme achievement of portraiture – but he also looks lively and likeable. You want to hear what he might say.

In conservation it was discovered that the sitter’s hair had been overpainted, and its true length was revealed, down to the collar if not beyond. It is a poetic style that was being worn at this date by comparatively few other men; the only contemporary example I can think of is the Earl of Southampton, whose features are different.

Within Gheeraerts’s face-pattern, the likeness conforms broadly with the accepted portraits of Shakespeare and the eye colour is the same as the Chandos portrait and the colour originally painted on the Stratford funerary bust and rediscovered when the eighteenth century whitewash was removed in the nineteenth century.

So, not an aristocrat, more like a poet, and painted c.1600. It is an irresistible speculation, especially on this day. And there are two lines which make me think that Shakespeare did have his portrait painted this early; one is the often-quoted speech of Gullio, the student Shakespeare-fan in ‘The Return from Parnassus, or the Scourge of Simony’, performed at St John’s College, Cambridge in 1600 or 1601.

‘O sweet Master Shakespeare, I’ll have his picture in my study in the Court.’

This suggests that Shakespeare’s portrait could well have been known at this date. It was clearly plausible to Parnassus’s audience. It also confirms the popularity of ‘library portraits’ – small portraits of literary idols that we tend to date to around 1600. ‘Court’ here is the Cambridge word for Quad, rather than the Royal Court, and a student market adds an interesting angle to the sense of mass-production that surviving small-scale images of other literary figures suggest.

The second is a line in Hamlet Act II scene i, written c.1601, where Ophelia is telling Polonius how horrible Hamlet has just been to her:

‘He falls to such perusal of my face

As he would draw it.’

You have to guard against assuming that Shakespeare had personal knowledge of every circumstance he writes about, but – like comparing a round beard to a glover’s paring knife in the Merry Wives of Windsor – it is a specific observation; I know from my own experience that there is something very remarkable in the gaze of someone painting your portrait. It is so intent, so emotionless; it changes their face completely. It sticks in your mind very powerfully and it is so focussed it can only include the one being painted.

In 1596 Shakespeare had finally secured the grant of arms that his father had begun in thirty years before. In 1599 he had even applied to impale his father’s arms with the arms of the Arden, for his mother Mary. A date of c.1600 would be about the right time for Shakespeare to sit to a fashionable painter who worked in the circle of his hero the Earl of Essex, and be portrayed as a gentlemanly poet at the height of success.


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