Thursday, November 6, 2014

Does This Curious Portrait Depict William Shakespeare As the Magician Prospero?

 In the Cambridge play "Return to Parnassus," written during Shakespeare's lifetime, a courtier named Gullio brags about his plan to hang a portrait of Sweet Master Shakespeare in his study.  The notion that Shakespeare’s picture might have been mass-produced even before his death is not a new one--nor is the notion that Shakespeare might have chosen to have himself portraited as one of his own characters; however the use of the Internet in locating any potential lost paintings of Shakespeare is a new approach to an old mystery.  
NPG 2035 Detail
Since the character of Prospero has always been approached as Shakespeare’s stand-in, I eventually decided to go in search of lost Prospero portraits and began scouring virtual galleries and plugging magician props into search engines.  Much to my surprise, late one night in the winter of 2010, I found one, a swashbuckling Prospero wearing a gaudy magician’s cap and posing before a wrecked ship with a bird-shaped storm cloud hovering above its stern.  A closer inspection even revealed the survivors from the ship wreck straggling through the waves and trying to get to ashore.  Better yet, he was holding a Masonic square. 

And this would-be magician not only looked like William Shakespeare but was also wearing the identical rabato collar that Shakespeare famously wears in the authenticated 1623 Droeshout Engraving.
Above: NPG 2035 Called Phineas Pett
NPG 2035 & the 1623 Droeshout Engraving
This curious portrait, NPG 2035, was first acquired by London’s National Portrait Gallery in 1924 and eventually identified as Phineas Pett, a Jacobean shipbuilder posing in front of his Prince Royal—then the largest ship ever constructed in England—while the ship was being repaired in dock.

But is that an accurate description of this painting?  Repaired?  Docked?  Why have no scholars mentioned the men struggling though waves alongside the starboard hull?  Why haven’t scholars noted the strange storm cloud hovering over the ship?  Is this a picture of a boat being repaired?  Or is it a shipwreck?

Illustration 2: detail of shipwreck scene with survivors struggling to shore beneath a black storm cloud.
Even if scholars are correct about the ship being under repair, we still have a very strange painting to consider.  The shipwright stares out at us grandly.  "Here I am," he seems to say, "behold my fabulously floundered ship beneath its black storm cloud."  Meanwhile all other shipwrights of that time were being portraited in front of floating ships, not mired ones.  Note below how Peter Pett, son of Phineas, stares proudly after his vessel as if to say, this is my boat, and this is what my boats do: they float.
Illustration 3: NPG 1270 Peter Pett by Lely
Now let us suppose that the portrait’s conceit presents to us not a shipwright but the magician Prospero.  The sitter’s pride becomes understandable.  "I am proud," Prospero would say, "because I have wracked havoc upon my enemies with an awesome bird-shaped storm I conjured using my Masonic square and dope wizard cap."  
 Illustration 4 (below): NPG 2035 and the Ashbourne Portrait (Folger Shakespeare Library) 

Like the Ashbourne Portrait (Folger Shakespeare Library), NPG 2035 comes to us rife with evidence of tampering.  For instance, the sitter’s two arm have obviously been painted by different artists.  And the inscribed age of 43 also seems to be have been patched onto the portrait.  When I wrote the NPG regarding these anomalies, Paul Cox, an Assistant Curator, kindly replied:
I have looked at the conservation reports for this picture [called Phineas Pett] and whilst there is no evidence of a panel being replaced, the sitter's right arm appears to be almost completely overpainted down to the cuff and hand; it is suggested that this overpainting may have taken place in the 18th century.  No conservation report mentions the difference in colour around the inscription, although it is thought that the coat of arms was painted by a different hand due to an apparent difference in technique and the use of indigo, which does not appear in the rest of the picture.
So, yes, the NPG agrees the portrait was massively overpainted, but they don’t know to what extent or when.  The NPG, which has owned the portrait for the last 85 years, also confirms that the coat-of-arms was added later.  What else might have been added or subtracted?

Regarding NPG 2035 David Piper wrote in the Catalogue of Seventeenth-Century Portraits in the National Portrait Gallery 1625-1714:
From the collection of Earl Hardwicke, sold Christie’s, 27 June 1924, lot 33; bought by the Trustees in June 1924. Its previous history is obscure.
Although at one time identified as Peter Pett, the identity as Phineas can be confidently inferred from the conjunction of the coat of arms, the age and costume of the sitter, and the ship Prince Royal (identifiable by the Prince’s initials and device wrought on the stern), built by Phineas . . .
Since Piper states that the portrait was originally dated to 1612 using inscription, costume, and ship, let's take a moment examine those three elements.  

Inscription.  The inscription appears to have been patched on to the portrait at a later date.  The NPG reports no selective cleaning of this area in its 85 year residency.   

Costume.  NPG’s 16th Century Curator Dr. Tarnya Cooper has stating the Droeshout-style collar (rabato) came into fashion as early as 1604.  And the Victoria & Albert dates a similar cap (linen, coloured silk and silver-gilt thread, with silver-gilt bobbin lace and spangles) to as early as 1600.  The peasecod doublet had gone out of fashion by 1600.  The pantaloons are consistent with portraits of courtiers from much earlier (such as this painting by Cornelis Ketel of the Martin Frobisher c. 1577 or this Ketel of Queen Elizabeth's Giant Porter from 1580).

Ship Details.  Where to begin?  Okay, first let's examine the window scene again with its depiction of a ship washed ashore largely unharmed save the loss of its mizzen mast.  Note the men staggering ashore.  Do these men appear to be dockworkers?  Meanwhile, in surreal contrast to this shipwreck scene, one tiny workman, dressed almost identically to our main sitter, is standing atop a scaffold along the stern of the ship with a paintbrush.  This scaffold itself is slapdash and nonsensical and appears to have washed-up crate beneath it.  Was this dock hand, dressed like a gentleman, part of the original portrait? 
Infrared testing performed on the portrait in 2013 revealed almost no trace of the well-dressed dockworker (above) atop his illogical scaffold and indicates the worker was likely added later to the portrait (along with the crest, right arm, etc).  If this lone worker was not part of the original conceit then there is no evidence that the painting was meant to portray a ship under repair.  Please note the trees lodged up against the hull and the men staggering through waves to shore.  Note what appears to be a washed-up crate beneath the odd scaffold.  Is this a boat under repair or a shipwreck?   
Now subtract the one dockworker from the picture and what have you left?  How has the portrait changed without the dock hand and his curious scaffold?  Well, for one thing, you no longer have any evidence of painting of a ship under repair.  Instead you have a picture of a shipwreck culled from "The Tempest." 

Let's take a closer look at the stern of the ship.  Note the sloppily painted red balconies.  Yet the stern of the Prince Royal was worked in gold and lined with statues.  In fact, this ship bears little resemblance to the grand Prince Royal.  Also note the feathery crowned crest of Henry, Prince of Wales, painted upper stern.  Compare the artistry of the crest to rest of the portrait.  Does the crest seem the work of the original painter?  Is this boat the Prince Royal?  Is the proud man fronting it Phineas Pett? 

Two other curious points.  If the date and ship details are native to the portrait, it's curious the sitter was originally identified as Peter Pett (Phineas' son--see illustration 3).  

And it's equally curious that the painting was originally attributed to the painter Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, an attribution the NPG later changed to unknown painter.  Yet the portrait is certainly painted in the style of Gheeraerts the Younger.   

The introduction to Phineas Pett's autobiography makes some interesting points concerning known portraits of Pett.
No authentic portrait of Phineas is known to  exist. He tells us that in 1612 his picture was begun to be drawn by a Dutchman working then with Mr. Rock/ one of the ship-painters, but does not say if it was ever finished (WG Perrin).
 This rumored portrait cited above by Perrin was begun 1612, the same date now attributed to the NPG portrait; however it seems unlikely the beautiful NPG portrait, painted in the Flemish style of Mr. Gheeraerts, was created by some nameless Dutchman "working then with Mr. Rock."  Gheeraerts the Younger was the most respected and sought after portrait painter in London, and there is no record of Gheeraerts ever having ever painted Mr. Phineas Pett.  It's curious.

Illustration 6: comparison HPW crest of Robert Peake (left) vs NPG 2035 (right)

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