Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Does This Royal Picture Portray William Shakespeare Shaking a Sword?

Above: Called Sir John Parker (Royal Gallery, London) & the Ashbourne Portrait (Folger Library)

Painted c. 1589 by a mysterious artist named Hieronimus Custodis, Sir John Parker's only known portrait shares many characteristics with the controversial Ashbourne portrait of Shakespeare. However this portrait has a deeper mystery to it: a magically orbiting signature.  

I first came across this picture in the Royal Collection's online gallery while searching for potential lost portraits of Shakespeare.  (I have spent years of my life lost inside the Royal Collection collection scavenging Shakespeare.)  As to the Ashbourne Portrait, long story short, once upon a time experts proclaimed it to be Shakespeare ad vivum (painted from life).  This went on for decades until evidence turned up indicating it quite likely depicted Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, at which point the portrait's owner, the Folger Shakespeare Library, suddenly decided it wasn't Shakespeare after all but some obscure haberdasher named Hamersley.  Entire books could be written on the Ashbourne and its layered scandals.  For anybody interested in the Ashbourne saga--and it is an odd and often inexplicable story--please follow the bottom link to Barbara Burris' excellent scholarship on that portrait. 

 above: the Ashbourne Portrait (Life Magazine, left) & the 1871 Photograph called Sir John Parker (Royal Collection London).
below: same 1871 photo (Royal Collection) & the 1623 Droeshout Engraving (Folger Library)

To return to the portrait called Sir John Parker, in its 1898 catalog description with the Royal Collection, Ernest Law noted about the painter Custodis: "Nothing is known of this bad painter."  Law’s judgment proved harsh, because Custodis was, at times, a very gifted painter.  Born Flemish and said to have lived in London from 1589-93, Custodis painted many members of the English nobility including the Queen.  Francis Mere’s 1583 artistic almanac Palladis Tamia cited Shakespeare as one of the best writers of the time and Custodis as one of the best painters.  Unlike other Elizabethan painters, Custodis's style conveys personality and eccentricity.  For instance, the shaking sword posture was unique.
Sir Roy Strong once stated that Custodis was the most easily identifiable Elizabethan painter due to his calligraphy and elaborate signature.  Custodis however didn't sign many of his portraits (three total), but he did sign this one, and furthermore he signed it with a magically orbiting signature.  

Back in 1898 Royal Curator Earnest Law described the artist's signature as residing in the portrait's upper-left hand corner.  Fair enough.  Except that today the signature resides in the lower-right-hand corner.
above: Custodis signature as it appears today in lower right hand corner

above: description of signture in 1898 Royal Gallery at Hampton Court Illustrated
The painter’s heady signature had somehow wafted down to the bottom of the portrait.  Odd.  But, wait, it gets stranger yet.  

As it turns out, the Custodis portrait was photographed in 1871I obtained a copy of this 1871 photograph by writing to the Curator of Paintings for the Royal Collection, who kindly wrote me back and began our correspondence with, “You have raised some interesting questions . . .” 

The curator then related that in 1871 the Royal Curator Richard Redgrave had done an inventory of royal paintings in which he noted Custodis’ signature to be located in the portrait’s lower-left-hand corner.  Not in the upper-left-hand corner, as Royal Curator Law would record it a decade later.  And not in the lower-right-hand corner, where it currently resides.  But lower left.  Curious.      

“I’m afraid,” the Royal Curator added, “this does not help with the confusion around the inscription since Redgrave provides a third different location . . .”

Above: Sword of Sir John Parker With Highly Visible Tide Lines
Also, interesting (especially to Oxfordians) is that Sir John’s sword, though swamped with tide lines, still somewhat resembles the Elizabethan Sword of State.  Devotees of Mr. de Vere know that the Earl of Oxford had inherited the right to bear that ceremonial sword.

The Royal Collection was kind enough to send me via email a scan of the 1871 photograph, which the curator described as “fading around the edges.”  After examining the photograph, I very much disagree with that description.  Like many portraits long kept at Hampton Court, the Custodis picture once had its catalog number painted directly onto the picture.  The number 288 painted into its lower-left-hand corner still appeared quite lucid in the 1817 photographThis proves without a doubt that the photograph was not fading around the edges and that the obfuscation should be attributed to manipulation (overpaint) on the portrait surface itself and not to a fading photograph.

Above: the inventory number painted onto the bottom-left corner. Note how the number was painted on top of a margin of thick overpaint.  The earliest description of the signature establish it as being located in this same corner. 
These painted-on catalog numbers were never removed from other Hampton Court portraits, which are still legion inside the Royal Collection.  So why was the number 288 removed from the icy-eyed picture Sir John Parker?  Did this relate in any way to the mysteriously revolving Custodis signature?  Or the scandals surrounding the Ashbourne portrait?

The coat of arms evident upper right in the portrait does belong to the Parker clan, but we have no idea when of if it was added to the picture.  Certainly the tide lines around the portrait would indicate the coat-of-arms was a later addition (as was often the case).  Is there another coat of arms below the visible one?  Should we trust the inscriptions?  We don't know, and as of now the Royal Collection has no plans to apply any spectral technology (x-rays, infrareds, etc) to test the portrait.   

Note similarities (above and below) of unnaturally extended foreheads, quite possibly a result of overpainting the sitters bald.

Below: Sir John Parker surrounded by the early copies of the NPG's Chandos portrait of Shakespeare (Folger Library).  Because the Chandos has been so manipulated over the centuries, its earlier copies are considered more accurate depictions of Shakespeare than the portrait itself.

Below: more tidelines beneath the sitter's elbow.
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