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Lefteris Pitarakis/AP
A detail of the Cobbe portrait.

Scholars Doubt Authenticity of New Shakespeare Portrait

March 19, 2009 11:14 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
After Professor Stanley Wells claimed to discover the only portrait of Shakespeare painted in his lifetime, other scholars have voiced skepticism.

The Argument for the Cobbe Portrait

Several portraits are believed to depict playwright and poet William Shakespeare. A team led by professor Stanley Wells of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust says it has the only portrait known to be painted during Shakespeare’s lifetime. A number of scientific imaging tests were used to test the legitimacy of the portrait, which was painted in 1610.

Alec Cobbe, an art restorer who inherited the piece, realized it might be a portrait of Shakespeare after he visited the National Portrait Gallery Shakespeare exhibit. He contacted Wells, who, despite his initial doubt, arranged for the painting to undergo the rigorous scientific analysis that would determine its validity. British paper The Daily Telegraph quotes Wells as saying that he is 90 percent certain that the painting is from Shakespeare’s lifetime.
Wells told CNN that the two other confirmed portraits of Shakespeare are “very dull” and that this newest portrait is of much higher quality.

The piece had been in the Cobbe family for generations before it came into Alec Cobbe’s possession. The Irish family owned a number of pieces from the collection of the third Earl of Southampton, a patron of Shakespeare’s. That lineage offers even further support that the painting is authentic.

The Argument Against the Cobbe Portrait

In the Times of London Mar. 18, Shakespeare biographer Katherine Duncan-Jones makes the case that the Wells team's claims are tenuous. One reason she cites is the Cobbe portrait's authenticity is so dependent on its similarity to another possible Shakespeare depiction owned by the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. The Folger portrait is also suspect because it "has been altered at various times" and while its inscription matches up with Shakespare's age, the subject of the portrait appears younger in the painting.

Other sources agree, including the sixteenth-century curator of London's National Portrait Gallery. According to the Times of London, Dr. Tarnya Cooper claims to be "very skeptical," and believes the portraits might represent Sir Thomas Overbury, a courtier.

Background: Other images of Shakespeare

Other known images believed to be of Shakespeare are his engraving in the First Folio and a bust located at the Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon, where he is buried.

Scholars trust the validity of the engraving, believed to be derived from a painting or drawing, because Shakespeare’s friends supervised the publishing of the First Folio and author Ben Johnson wrote accompanying verse. The bust was placed in the church while Shakespeare’s family was still alive, strongly suggesting that it is a true likeness.

In April 2005, a portrait owned by the Royal Shakespeare Company was exposed as a fake. A painting known as the Flower Portrait was analyzed for four months and finally deemed to be a 19th-century imitation. The artist inscribed the year 1609 on the painting, but scientific analysis dates the painting somewhere in between 1818 and 1840, National Portrait Gallery curator Tarnya Cooper told the BBC. Shakespeare was enjoying renewed popularity, and the painting was most likely copied from another image.

The painting was analyzed, along with other alleged Shakespeare portraits, in anticipation of a 2006 National Portraits Gallery exhibition, Searching for Shakespeare. The National Gallery Web site displays that what at the time was the leading contender for a lifetime portrait of Shakespeare, the “Chandos” portrait. The exhibit also showed five other portraits and chronicled the tests used to determine their validity.

When Cobbe visited the exhibition, he realized that his painting strongly resembled the Janssen Portrait. The Folger Shakespeare Library, which owns the painting, explains that the Janssen Portrait is apparently a genuine 1610 portrait of another man that was later repainted to resemble Shakespeare.

Related Topic: Cobbe discovers painting of the third Earl of Southampton

This is not the first time that Alec Cobbe has apparently discovered an important portrait of the period among his family heirlooms. In 2002, after visiting an exhibition in Kenwood House, London, Cobbe saw similarities between a painting of the third Earl of Southampton on display and a portrait in his own collection that was first believed to be a woman, and then deemed to be that of an effeminate young man dressed as a woman. Some experts now believe that Cobbe's portrait depicts a young Earl of Southampton, Shakespeare's literary patron and, according to some, his lover.

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