Tuesday, January 8, 2013


The Berger Collection in Denver, Colorado, has recently completed a round of spectral tests upon a 400-year-old portrait painted by Cornelis Ketel that might show us, for the first time, Shakespeare ad vivum (painted from life). This blog will attempt to make an argument that the sitter of this portrait might be Shakespeare, or Edward de Vere, or both, or neither, but that it is almost certainly not the clerk Tom Pead as has long been believed.

In order to persuade the Berger Collection to x-ray their portrait, I first had to convince them (see below email) that their portrait's Latin inscription had been altered in eight places at some point after 1854.  Eventually I was able to establish that the original Latin inscription, buried beneath the paint, was taken directly from Virgil's Aeneid, a passage regarding the fame that accompanies immortal deeds.  The inscription, like the sitter's clothing, hardly seems suitable for clerk. 

I also had questions about his signet ring.  How, I wondered, did this clerk with kingly airs display his family's coat-of-arms on his ring some 50 years before the Pead heraldry was even acquired?  Convinced that the ring had been manipulated, as had other details in the portrait, I convinced the Berger Collection to x-ray their portrait.  To which I will add, gratefully, that the Berger Collection and Denver Museum were helpful and wonderfully curious throughout the years it took to get the portrait tested.
Above: one of the earliest copy of the Chandos portrait (1690, left, Folger Shakespeare Library) and called Tom Pead (right, Berger Collection)
So, is this haughty man dressed in melancholy black and posing with skull, pen, paper, signet ring, and sealing wax--in short every prop Hamlet required to kill his annoying childhood friends Rozencrantz and Guildenstern--a mere clerk or is he William Shakespeare or some other nobleman?  And is it possible the inscription's references to suicide tell us how Shakespeare died?  

I had to wait many years for the x-rays and follow up infrareds that might answer these questions.  And, along those lines, I'm afraid you will have to await another blog post or two (this being the first of six-post series on the Ketel portrait).
Above: called Tom Pead (center) surrounded by early copies of the NPG's Chandos portrait (Folger Shakespeare Library). Because of the retouching and overpaint applied over the centuries to the Chandos portrait, its early copies are considered to be more accurate likenesses of Shakespeare than the original picture.

Note: all images can be enlarged by clicking upon them.

Below: September 2011 email from Berger Curator sent to the Gates Foundation Curator of Painting and Sculpture at the Denver Art Museum. 

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