Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The NPG Chandos Portrait of Shakespeare: Should We Trust This Portrait?

Throughout the 400 year search for Shakespeare ad vivum (painted from life) no candidate portrait however celebrated in its day has withstood the test of time.  For the most part, Shakespeare ad vivum has been a history of forged poets, artistically inclined conmen, and starry-eyed scholars.

In the grifter world of Shakespeare’s painted portraits the boss of bosses is still the Chandos portrait.  In 1856 this signature Shakespeare was the first painting acquired by London’s National Portrait Gallery (NPG).  Like the bust of Shakespeare kept at London’s Garrick Club, the Chandos was once owned by Sir William Davenant, an early collector who claimed to be Shakespeare’s bastard son by the tavern keeper immortalized as Mistress Quickly.  In 1710 the antiquarian George Vertue recorded the Chandos to have been painted by Shakespeare’s “intimate friend” John Taylor, a man now lost to history.  That may be true, but, as the portrait’s current caretakers admit, the Chandos provenance is too reliant on "hearsay and half-forgotten facts" for it to be considered ad vivum.


The Chandos has not been a popular champion.  In spite of its Bohemian jewelry--that pirate earring!--the British public has been slow to embrace the Chandos.  This perhaps should not surprise anybody since the Chandos doesn't look particularly British.  As JH Friswell, an early expert on Shakespeare’s portraits, noted with some disgust in 1864:

One cannot readily imagine our essentially English Shakespeare to have been a dark, heavy man, with a foreign expression, of decidedly Jewish physiognomy, thin curly hair, a somewhat lubricious mouth, red-edged eyes, wanton lips, with a coarse expression and his ears tricked out with earrings.
In 1824 James Boaden assured us the Chandos was perhaps the most touched-up portrait in history.  Some 60 years later the scholar CM Ingleby claimed that the picture had been so often restored that, “ . . . “it cannot be relied upon . . . the existing picture no longer represents the man—whosoever he may have been—from whom it was painted.” 

The portrait, however, is redeemed by its early copies, and many of these copies are quite old, one dating back to 1670.  Many experts consider these early copies to be more reliable than the NPG’s portrait.  Ingleby, the greatest debunker of Shakespearian frauds during his day, touted a 1783 drawing made by Ozias Humphrey to be the most reliable Chandos copy.  Paintings, Ingleby knew, get embellished too easily whereas drawings and engravings are less prone to mischief.

Link: The Folger Library's Collection of Early Chandos Copies

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

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