Sunday, March 10, 2013

Is This Portrait of England's King John Actually William Shakespeare?

Above: NPG King John (left, c.1620) and the Davenant bust (right). 
Kept at London's Garrick Club, the Davenant bust is considered to be one of the most authentic likenesses of William Shakespeare.

Compare our faces and be judge yourself.--Shakespeare's King John, I.I 
It was suggested that the [Hunt] painting had been obscured in Puritanical times, as many portraits had been, to conceal it, as players then were in ill odour.-- John Rabone, an early Shakespeare collector, in 1883 lecture

Were Shakespeare's portraits disguised as his characters hundreds of years ago in order to protect them from fire-happy iconoclasts?  It's a fact that all the historical portraits of William Shakespeare have been grossly overpainted, attacked, and otherwise manipulated.  Most of this chicanery took place during the Jacobean era when such portraits as the Cobbe, Janssen, and Hunt (etc) were purposely disguised.  The blog does not concern itself with why these portraits were disguised (political reasons, protection from iconoclasts, the authorship mystery, etc), but instead attempts to discover lost portraits of William Shakespeare.

Note: the 1623 Droeshout engraving from the First Folio is considered our most authentic image of Shakespeare.  His contemporary friend/rival Ben Jonson vouched for the engraving.  The NPG King John dates to the same time as the Droeshout.

This particular post will be another essay in captions. 

Above: NPG King John (left) and the 1750 Pervis copy of the NPG Chandos portrait (right, Folger Library).  Due to centuries of heavily manipulation marring the original portrait, the early copies of the Chandos, such as the above Pervis copy, are considered by experts to be more accurate likenesses of Shakespeare.

Above detail: note the disparity between the shape of the two eyes.  King John was not blind nor marred in this fashion.  Why would the unknown artist have chosen to make King John appear blind in his left eye?  Also note that scholars have been pointing out the oddness of the eyes in the Droeshout engraving for centuries. 

Note: eye color is misleading.  Bitumen turns pigment brown.  Aging varnish also turns pigment brown.  Eye color migrates toward brown. Pay attention to eye shape, not color.

Above: portrait NPG's King John NPG 4805(5).  
Note exquisite details of facial features contrasted with cartoon-like clothing.  Was the portrait overpainted so that only the original face remained intact?  Note the contrast between crown and face, too.  Same painter?

Above comparison: NPG King John (left) and the NPG Chandos Shakespeare (right).  The shapes of both eyes are identical.  See above note on why eye color doesn't matter.

Above detail: the remnants of a peaked beard, mirroring that of the Chandos portraits, that has been rubbed out (and side peaks added).  Is it possible Shakespeare's portraits were disguised to resembled his characters to save them from Cromwellian iconoclasts?

Above: the 1623 Droeshout engraving (left) and the NPG King John (right).  What's with the eyes?

This post was inspired by Hank Whittemore's excellent blog post on the source play for King John.  Whittemore, an Oxfordian, argues that the play King John provides strong evidence that Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, wrote Shakespeare. 

Above: NPG King John (left) and c. 1734 drawing by antiquarian George Vertue of the Trinity bust at Stratford (right, Folger Library).  Vertue twice drew the Stratford bust as resembling not its present incarnation but as the twin for the Chandos portrait.  Since Spielmann defended Vertue's work as impeccable, this gives rise to suspicions of bust swapping in Stratford.  Note the similarities in features: eye, nose, forehead, brow, ear, etc.  Also note the under-hanging septum of nose in both portraits.

Additional comparison of interest:

Above: early copies of the Chandos portrait (Folger Library). Because the NPG Chandos portrait has been so heavily manipulated, its early copies--especially the drawings and engravings--are considered more authentic likenesses of Shakespeare than the original portrait.

Read earlier post on the Davenant bust and the new 3D Shakespeare. 

Related Post: Does This Mysterious 1601 Portrait Depict Shakespeare and the Earl of Southampton?

Click here to go to the NPG webpage for this portrait.
Click here to visit Folger Shakespeare Library's Drawing of the Stratford Bust by George Vertue. 


  1. I think you have some intersting possibilities here; I for one certainly think it is probable that there is a lack of any surviving portraits with Shakespeares Coat of Arms or Inscriptions stating it is he, due to the "keepers" of such portraits having to protect them from "Cromwellian iconoclasts" by hiding such clues, and still keeping the portraits hanging. After all, history indicates that the Cromwellian iconoclasts didn't really like much at all; theatre, players, of which Shakespeare would have been a figure head for, especially coming under there wrath.

    Not to sure about the Oxfordian angle though, it makes a mystery even more mysterious!


  2. It was a collector named John Rabone @1850 who first suggested Shakespeare portraits had been overpainted to protect them from the Purtians. He stated that the actors of that time were held in "ill-odour."

    Also Frances Yates, my favorite Renaissance scholar, put forth the theory that James I had gone about censoring the religion of Neoplatonism from British history, meaning all the occult symbols associated with that movement, spearheaded by John Dee, would have had to be extirpated from paintings. Dame Yates believed Shakespeare was an active practitioner of the dark arts! It sounds farfetched, but bear in mind Yates is the most respected Ren. scholar in British history and was dubbed Dame Yates by the queen.

  3. Shake-Spear probably like his mother was involved in the dark arts but this wasn't the cover-up most needed. It was the fact that the first changling Edward de vere was the son of Queen Elizabeth and that they in turn had an incestuious relationship producing a child who was the changling Southhampton.

  4. I'm not sure about this particular portrait, yet the idea that some portraits had to be hidden for protection under Cromwell, or earlier, is intriguing.

    It would also perhaps provide some explanation why a possible 1585 portrait of murdered poet, playwright and spy Chr. Marlowe could have ended up used for scrap lumber at Cambridge University only to be refound accidentally in the 20th century--e.g., if someone hid it away and over time, its significance was forgotten? If does depict Marlowe, for which there is neither proof nor disproof. The aetatis is right, the location was his old college, and to me it just "looks right" for a young Marlowe, startlingly so in fact. Heavily restored, though, and I'd like to know more on that, too. I wonder if you thought of including something about the "putative Cambridge portrait" on the website, even though whoever it is, it is obviously not Wm. Shake-speare?

  5. I too like that so-called Marlowe portrait--but there really just isn't neasly enough evidence to support the identification of the sitter as Kit Marlowe. Okay it was at Cambridge and had a certain corresponding date inscribed. That's a laughable amount of evidence in terms of how portraits are traditionally identified. But I will try to look into it further. I assume that some x-rays and IR's might well have been performed, although if they haven't then hmm that's pretty damning in itself (it means the owners are afraid of finding evidence that will greatly decrease the value of their portrait). So more later, I hope. And thanks very much for reading.

  6. Anyone actually considered it is a portrait of William Shakespeare playing the role of King John in one of the plays?

  7. Ah, there WAS an eye condition passed down in the bloodline, and King John supposedly had it, and it came down in the Howard bloodline as well, blepharotosis... Check out the detail portrait of Henry Howard, Lord Surrey, as an older man, the eyes are similar to those in the King John portrait. Love this site, by the way, just discovered it today... excellent...

    1. Sorry to be so long in replying, and thank you for that insight into the portrait and King John's blepharotosis. I will have to update this post soon. Again, thanks.

  8. Curious likeness. Quite curious, indeed :-) Thanks so much for the post and the great site :-)
    It's my hope someday that likenesses or portraiture of John de Vere and Margery Golding will surface. Although much has been made recently of the Prince Tudor theory, I think it's fair to say that Southampton looked very like the portrait of Mary Brown, too like for Elizabeth to be his mother.
    But what of de Vere?
    Another hope is that comparison portraiture might be done on Henry viii, Ann Boleyn, Seymour, and Elizabeth. Seeing that Elizabeth gave nearly all de Vere's profitable estates to Dudley, it seems doubtful that she was his mother, and yet...what's in a name, anyway? It's a picture that's worth a thousand words.
    Thanks again for the site!

    1. Funny I was just writing on this subject. There are a number of reasons to question that one existing portrait of Mary Brown, which looks like a picture of a young man and might very well be an overpainted picture of Southampton himself. The inscription is suspect on Brown's portrait and there is an entirely unique tag that identifies her as property of earl of southamption, all of which seems strange. Let's not forget, also, the incredible resemblance between the Cobbe portrait or SH and the Zuccaro portrait of Elizabeth I.