Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Curious Felton Portrait of Shakespeare From The Blue Boar Tavern

Detail from the Felton Portrait in its current state at the Folger Shakespeare Library.
"No. 359. A curious portrait of Shakespeare, painted in 1597."
                                    Sale Contract European Museum,St. James Square, 1792

The Felton Portrait, once famous, is now all but forgotten; yet for decades it was held by scholars to be the template portrait used in creating the authentic Droeshout Engraving from the 1623 First Folio.  

On May 31, 1792 a Mr. Felton purchased the picture from a Mr. J. Wilson, the owner of a museum in King Street.  The picture had "Gul. Shakspear" written on the back along with the initials "R.B."   (JP Norris, The Portraits of Shakespeare.)

In that same year, Mr. Wilson wrote a letter to Mr. Felton in which he explained, "The head of Shakespeare was purchased out of an old house, known by the sign of the Boar, in Eastcheap, where Shakespeare and his friends used to resort, and, report says, was painted by a player of the time, but whose name I have not been able to learn."
                 From The Portraits of Shakespeare by Joseph Parker Norris.

The Felton Portrait (left, source unknown) and the controversial Flower Portrait (right).  The Flower Portrait, like the Felton, was once believed to be the template portrait to the authentic Droeshout Engraving of 1623.
Two years later Mr. Wilson deepened the mystery with this update in another letter, "that this portrait [Felton] was found between four and five years ago at a broker's shop in the Minories, by a man of fashion, whose name must be concealed; that it afterward came (attended by the Eastcheap story, etc) with a part of that gentleman's collection of paintings, to be sold at the European Museum, and was exhibited there for about three months, during which time it was seen by Lord Leicester and Lord Orford, who both allowed it to be a genuine picture of Shakespeare."
                Above quote from The Portraits of Shakespeare by Joseph Parker Norris.
The Controversial  Ashbourne Portrait of Shakespeare/Edward de Vere/Hugh Hamersley (left) and the Felton portrait of Shakespeare (as photographed in 1885, right) . Both portraits are kept at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington DC.
Mr. Felton bought the picture for five guineas.  Although the portrait was both mutilated and severely cropped, the sitter's face remained largely undamaged.

Oxfordians reading the blog might recall some scholarship connecting both Edward de Vere to the same tavern in Eastcheap.  Apparently the Earl of Oxford's Men had once performed "a lewd play" called "A Sackful of News" at the Blue Boar, and the scholar Gweneth Bowen makes the argument that Edward de Vere might have owned the Blue Boar Tavern.   

Charles Winser Barrell, the man who originally x-rayed the Ashbourne Portrait and published his findings in Scientific American, believed that all of the portraits of Shakespeare thought to be authentic were actually pictures of Edward de Vere.  Mr. Barrell also believed that many of these portraits had been attacked and snakedoctored, just like the Ashbourne had, in order to hide the sitter's true identity. 

With that in mind, there are two ways to approach the deliberate attack on the Felton Portrait.  Stratfordians would say it was attacked by conmen in an attempt to mirror the Droeshout Engraving.  Oxfordians might argue it was attacked, and cropped, in order to prevent the sitter from being identified as the infamous 17th Earl of Oxford.

It's unfortunate the Felton Portrait has never been x-rayed by its keepers at the Folger Shakespeare Library (home of the Ashbourne Portrait).  But at least the portrait has been photographed beautifully.  Click here to visit the Felton Portrait at the Folger Shakespeare Library Digital Gallery.  

~And here is a good starting place for anyone interested in the Ashbourne Portrait's extremely odd history.  

~And here is another good article by Barbara Burris on the Ashbourne.


  1. I am an Oxfordian and I've seen enough evidence that the Ashborne portrait is indeed an altered (although now somewhat restored) portrait of Edward de Vere. I very much believe that the Felton portrait that you have here is a version of a Edward de Vere portrait as well--hence Shakespeare. I say version because it seems that everyone was modifying portraits to look more like the Droeshout--even though that engraving was more symbolic than actual.

    Just want to say I really enjoy your site and I look forward to you updates. Joanne (putting my name because it looks like anonymous is the only option I can pick below to post)

  2. Hi Joanee,
    What fascinates me is portraits that have been modified NOT to resemble the Droeshout. It tend to agree with you about the Ashbourne (and the Felton), but the Ashbourne seems almost a lost cause anyway--too many layers, too many alterations, too many outright lies. Burris has done a great job exploring the portrait, but the layers of history are too overwhelming for it ever to convince the public of anything (and isn't that what Oxfordians are trying to do?). Sorry to sound pessimistic.
    Anyway, glad you like the site, though I am currently taking a vacation from it.