Thursday, September 19, 2019

A Curious Portrait of a Man Who Resembles Shakespeare Holding a Falcon

Called Sir Thomas Monson, artist unknown, c. 1610, source photo Bonham's (privately own, image via wikicommons)
One of the purposes of this blog is to search for misidentified portraits of Will Shakespeare. Along those lines this excellent portrait of a very stylish courtier hawk-in-hand caught my eye recently because of the costume's similarities to the famous Droeshout engraving of Shakespeare. Then I started noticing other curious details, most notably that the sitter seems to have been originally painted as bald--or at least the bald outline of his head is visible beneath the red hair.  (Obviously this could be an illusion caused by pigment damage). Anyway I decided to spend some time pondering this portrait.

I was interested in the skin discoloration on the face (another Shakespeare telltale), the near lack of any eyebrows (which was just odd), and the two-tone beard. These anomalies, I should add, are not visible in the one known copy of the portrait (see the below comparison).

It's also curious that at some point the original portrait was overpainted to misidentify the sitter as, "Sr L'Estrange/Mordaunt Bart/ June 26th 1611." Everyone seems to agree now that this inscription is incorrect. (Never trust inscriptions or heraldry on old portraits.) The costume could fit the time frame of 1610 as advertised, although the costume could also be dated as early as c. 1600.

The portrait is now identified as Sir Thomas Monson, the Master Falconer to King James I. Monson was involved in the 1613 murder of Thomas Overbury, a scandal which ruined Monson (and Overbury) both financially and politically. Another possible portrait of Monson, identified as such in its auction catalogue at Philip Mold Historical Portraits, depicts a man who does not much resemble the sitter in the hawk portrait. One of these two men is not Tom Monson. 
Above: called Sir Thomas Monson c. 1620 (left, photo source Philip Mold Historical Portraits) and the Hawk portrait of so-called Monson c. 1610 (via wikicommons). Bear in mind that as varnish ages it can alter pigment color so it's usually a good rule to disregard eye color. Do these portrait depict the same sitter?
The 1620 portrait of so-called Tom Monson (above left) gets an entire chapter of discussion in my upcoming book STALKING SHAKESPEARE (Scribner, 2021) so I won't go into details here, but this other Monson, the long-faced man fond of hawks, I also find intriguing. With that in mind, let's have a closer look at that scalpline. Am I imagining the bald dome visible beneath the red hair? Or is the hair simply highlighted blond? Or is this effect caused by water damage? Again, the copy does not show this two-tone effect evident in both the hair and the strangely blurred and discolored beard. 
Thomas Monson (image via wikicommons). Note what appears to be the outline of his head's bald dome visible through the red hair. Also of interest is the curious multi-colored beard and near lack of eyebrows.
As to the known copy, here is a side-by-side comparison of the two.
Left, the original portrait called Sir Thomas Monson, and, right, the copy. (Both of these images are from Wkicommons) The tabbed, overlapped skirt of the doublet is fairly unique and might be used to better date the portrait. Note how the doublet conforms to the natural shape of the body without any bombast padding, a style which indicates c. 1595 or later.
 Naturally my interest in the portrait was its relationship, if any (costume aside) to Shakespeare. For the sake of fun here are two comparisons, the first with the dubiously debunked Flower portrait and the second with the 1623 First Folio's Droeshout engraving.
Above: left, the Flower portrait (Royal Shakespeare Company, image via wikicommons) and, right, called Thomas Monson (via wikicommons). Though hardly twins, there are some similarities, including the circular path of the sitter's left eyebrow that seems to curve back into the outside corner of the eye.
Above: the Droeshout engraving (Folger Shakespeare Library, DC) and Sir Thomas Monson (wikicmmons, privately owned). Note similarity of collar and guarded doublet (image via Wikicommons).
I'm adding a comparison below with a portrait sent to me by Mark Anderson, author of the excellent "Shakespeare" By Another Name, who noticed a resemblance between the sitter (below left) and "Shakespeare" (by which Mr. Anderson means Edward de Vere). This unidentified Italian portrait was owned by the Nazi Herman Goring, who was a huge Shakespeare fan. The sitter is officially unidentified. (Click here for more details on the Goring portrait and its relationship, if any, to Shakespeare.)
Getty Museum's Unknown Gentleman by Veronese (left) and Tom Monson (via wikicommons, right)
And below is the scamped inscription that is now understood to be incorrect. Never trust inscriptions.
(image via wikicommons)
And, finally, here is a brief write up of on the portrait, written by a fellow falconer, I discovered online. The author is Fergus Beeley.
One of the premises of my upcoming book STALKING SHAKESPEARE is my conviction that Shakespeare's portraits were mass-produced while he was alive and that many these portraits have been lost, overpainted, and/or misidentified. Anyone familiar with the canon understands Shakespeare intimacy with hawking, a sport he knew inside-out even though it was restricted to nobility by the law. As to the Oxfordians who read this blog, I'm sure they've already noticed the sitter's auburn hair. I wonder if the staff of office would be appropriate in any way to the Edward de Vere, England's Lord Great Chamberlain? Any help in the comments section would be appreciated.


  1. Nope, nowt like the Bard of Avon. Our search for the elusive will always be benchmarked by the 2 known verifiable likenesse - Droeshout and the Bust. Good name for a play :-). However much we may want to sideline these representations with comments such as "amateurish" or "altered", we have to accept that although Elizabethans liked to emphasise certain features, they did not ravage a basic likeness: they may have been mild caricaturists; they weren't idiots.
    So the search continues. Mine too. I came close to owning a documented "from life" oil on copper of Will, but failed. Almost certainly a 19thC Zinke or Holder forgery, but still interesting.
    Love the blog, very informed, excellent research, envy your diligence. Looking forward to the book too, hopefully available in the UK. But please don't be an Oxfordian Mr Durkee; you are better than that !

  2. Hi Michael very glad you like the blog. We agree on the Droeshout but not so much on the Stratford bust. To me the bust is tied into the Hunt portrait and the unanswered question of which came first, the bust or the portrait? The SBT needs to test their Hunt portrait to see if it's ad vivum. How can they not have tested it already? I think the Hunt is a very valid image of Shakespeare. I am also a fan of the Hampton Court portrait.
    As to the authorship debate, to me Shakespeare is Protean. Currently I am trying to identify a portrait of Mary Sidney kept in North Carolina so for this week I 100% believe the Countess wrote Shakespeare. Last week it was Tom Nashe. I am only an Oxfordian three days of the week tops. I like mysteries and I do believe there is some monkey business going on in regard to Shakespeare portraits so yes I have an unfortunate tendency to evaluate every new portrait I meet as a possible lost Shakespeare. It's my albatross. Just skip those posts.

  3. Hi Lee

    Your wilful honesty made me laugh. It reminds me of me. I get excited about portraits in provincial English auctions and think they are the missing pot of gold. I have bought a few cheaply, and some are Shakespeare, but mostly 18c or 19c. One is older, and is a very bug eyed version. I convinced myself it was ad-vivum, or shortly after but I know it isn't really. It's just an amateur chandos esque version with strange facial proportions. Somewhere the limning that was used for the Droeshout may be hiding.

    I like mysteries, but I am an avid anti-conspiracy voice - albeit everyone I know seems to believe in them.
    For me the Shakespeare hunt has always been about finding something in his hand. Some "fowle" papers, manuscript or similar. I have a pile of leads to follow up but am not as diligent as you. And I have become sidetracked by looking for portraits.

    The Hunt portrait was discovered by the monument restorer, "under" another painting and he "re-modelled" it. The SBT are tourist driven and have nothing to gain by dating it, and much to lose.
    The Folger on the other hand are academic driven yet won't explore the Felton (and others) further. I find that irritating. I've never been to the Folger - I live in South East England - but on a trip to NY was prepared to come to DC if I could have access to some. But alas they were not accommodating.

    The whole portrait issue is not covered very well. The few books tend to focus only on the main suspects, with no mention even of some of the more obscure ones. I have seen the "Ogden" and almost bought it. It's almost certainly a Holder forgery (containing a small painting of the Globe in the corner to add credibility) but try even finding an image of it in a book and it's a struggle.
    For me the last good critique of the known portraits is by Marion Spielmann, and that was back in 1911. He had an amusing use of words, but he was very objective.

    The search continues. And perhaps your travels through existing catalogued Elizabethan portraits is a more likely source of success.

    Maybe one day a contemporary detailed description of his portrait will be found. Then we will all be nearer to knowing what we are searching for.

    For now I think none of them are the one. If I had to choose one it would be the Felton - but even that has had additions. The Chandos? No. It is just too dissimilar to Droeshout. Even Tanya Cooper (NPG) doesn't really believe it's the one.

    I'll pop by these pages now and again to see your search unfold further.


  4. Hi Michael,
    Yes we seem to be kindred spirits, and I have to say it's a joy to get such learned comments. Thanks for reading the blog. It's comments like yours that make the blog worthwhile. Otherwise it's just a disease of the brain.

    As to your Chandos copy, the Folger has the motherload of them, so you might want to visit their digital site and compare with their hoard. I wonder sometimes why we assume the original was beautiful and the copies ugly. The Lumley, after all, is one of the oldest and ugliest of the Chandos lot. It's so ugly I'm fond of it and suspect it might be the original. But, agreed, the Chandos is not important. And it certainly doesn't resemble the Droeshout.

    Speilmann I enjoy, but Norris and Parker too (of the old school lot).

    The Folger is a lovely library and the place where Shakespeare portraits go to die. It is like the Tower of London for the portraits. Their trustee statement assures no portraits will be tested with spectral photography unless there is a public outcry to do so. They've tested three portraits total. A research library that forbids research.

    The Hunt was discovered in the old Clopton attic at Stratford overpainted with a giant beard, and the restorer cleaned the painting in front of the town vicar and others and lo and behold it emerged to be a beautiful painting, much remarked upon, but was sent to London and dumbed down. It's a remarkable story that nobody cares about. I visited it, too. Somebody should open a museum of Shakespeare portraits. I wish the Folger would, but they keep all their charges off-limits to the public. You have to have a Scholar's Pass to get inside.

    Auctions intrigued me, but I am in Mississippi. If I were in England, I would be addicted to them, I bet.

    So it goes. Maybe one day one of us find the Droshout template.

  5. Hi Lee

    I've been through the Folger Digital Luna archives many times. A veritable treasure trove of their determination.

    I totally agree with your sentiment about the ugly/beautiful conundrum and agree the original may turn out to be streetwise and gritty. The Lumley could well be it. I like the Buttery too - as do you to have it at the top of your excellent blog.
    I work away from home often, and stay regularly in a 14th Century Inn. The eccentric owner has a lot of old paintings and antiques, one of which is a copy of the Lumley. It is so good (and old) I am convinced it is one of the chromo-lithographs which Norris mentions. My "chandos type" is a bit dull/weird like the Lumley. It may even be an amateur Lumley copy. I'll email a photo of it to you sometime.

    Actually thinking of it, perhaps in his folio dedication Ben Jonson was hinting he was ugly rather than criticising the engraver or saying it wasn't him as has often been claimed :-)

    I visited the Dulwich Picture Gallery 2 weeks ago and had a look at the Richard Burbage portrait. It is often stated to be a self-portrait, but I obtained a copy of the book "Mr Cartwright's Pictures" - he donated it - and Geoffrey Ashton points out that J.L.C. Sparkes "apparently without justification decided that it was a self-portrait. By 1914 the attribution had become traditional. There is no evidence to support this" To me this is important because one of the detractors of the Felton states that it cannot be by Richard Burbage (even though I think the initials on the back are more like R.N. that R.B) because the style is too different to his self portrait.

    It probably sounds like I spend a lot of time on this, but that's not true, I have so many other things in my life that I only dip into this fascinating subject every couple of months. And even then it's only because I nip here for another look and get all excited about it again, spend a bit of time, and feel guilty that I am neglecting other things. Basically it's your fault!

    If I find anything interesting to investigate I hope you don't mind me passing the baton to you :-).

    All the Best

  6. Hi Michael, I meant to mention earlier than I'm also a big fan of the Felton, though there's not much left of it to admire. And the Buttery is a definite court favorite, and it would not surprise me if it was legit, although clearly it's been scamped and the coat of arms is a later addition. I viewed it at the Folger the one time I visited there. They keep it in a fireproof box, which hit me as sad. (I wonder if I were the first person to ever ask to see it.) They should open a museum of unloved misbegotten Shakespeares.

    I just discovered an old photograph, NPG D41645, that reveals, I strongly suspect, the Hunt as it looked right after Simon Collins had discovered it in the Hunt family attic and cleaned the portrait in front of the town vicar. It's a frizzy haired Shakespeare (no perm, like the portrait has now). I has to explain to the NPG what they had. They had no idea what it was, but they in charge of so many portrait that is understandable.

    And yes please pass on anything to me. My email is simply my name no caps or anything (one word) at Yahoo.

    To me the whole portrait/Shakespeare thing is like a junk habit. I can go cold turkey for awhile but I always come back. Today I am tackling the Shakespeare poem The Phoenix and the Turtle. (Like I'm going to solve that mystery.) The problem is those guys were too smart. They lived among conceits and puzzles and ciphers. We have almost no chance of breaking their codes and even if we do it's pointless because it's too complicated, too layered, to ever be made into a persuasive argument (at least in America).

  7. Very interesting posts about the Hunt portrait of Shakespeare. You might like the following link done very recently:

    An excellent match was found between that Hunt portrait and the Sanders painting! AS good as the observations made previously with
    the Droeshout engraving and the Sanders portrait, as well as the Sanders portrait and the Hilliard miniature of the Bard.