Sunday, May 22, 2022

A Curious Portrait of a Man Stabbed 57 Times That Might Actually Be A Famous Lost Painting Of William Shakespeare

Left: portrait known as David Rizzio (Royal Collection, artist unknown, image from Wikicommons). Right: the Droeshout engraving from Shakespeare's 1623 First Folio (artist unknown, image from Folger Shakespeare Library). The Droeshout engraving is our only authenticated portrait of the poet. For centuries now scholars have been searching for the presumed ad vivum painted portrait used to create this famous engraving.

Note 1: there is an intriguing update at the bottom of this post.

Note 2: all images in this post are being used under fair-use laws. This is an argument regarding the possible mis-identification of a historical portrait that might be connected to William Shakespeare.

If I were allowed to choose one portrait from the Royal Collection to be probed with spectral technologies this would be the one. Unfortunately I had to cut the chapter about this portrait from my forthcoming book STALKING SHAKESPEARE (Scribner, April 2023) because any worthwhile discussion of the picture would require a great many side-by-side comparisons. (Some portrait discussions are better suited to blogs than books.) That said, I do suspect this portrait might depict Shakespeare painted from life. I'm also curious about its relationship, if any, to the famous Droeshout engraving from Shakespeare's 1623 First Folio.  

Over a decade ago I became interested in a portrait kept in London's Royal Collection said to depict the murdered musician David Rizzio. Four things about the portrait caught my eye: (1) the sitter's resemblance to the famous Droeshout engraving of Shakespeare as well as to another portrait of Shakespeare by Laurence Hilliard, (2) the way the portrait's background contained telltales of having been scrubbed and scamped, (3) the sitter's familiar looking signet ring, (4) the Shakespearean pate clearly visible inside the head of hair that hinted the sitter had originally been painted as bald.

Above: portrait of a man known as David Rizzio (Royal Collection, image via wikicommons) Inscribed " 'Dad Rizzo MDLXV.' (1565)". Note the opened pocket on the doublet sleeve, an Elizabethan detail that disappeared from the portrait during its 1974  restoration.

The Royal Collection does not believe this is a portrait of the infamous fiddler David Rizzio. In fact, they believe the portrait to be Jacobean, not Elizabethan, largely due to its costume, and especially the fountain-fall collar. I agree it's probably not Rizzio but suspect the painting might be Elizabethan. I also suspect the picture might be an overpainted portrait of William Shakespeare.

There's intrigue here. For instance, the 1974 restoration of this portrait eliminated one distinctly Elizabethan feature of the costume: the sleeve pocket (worn open with laces or perhaps point-tied fastenings). The sleeve pocket that disappeared was not consistent with the Royal Collection's current c. 1620 dating of the portrait. I've written the Royal Collection about this disappeared pocket and will update this post when I hear back. I'm curious as to why this sleeve pocket was eliminated and find it unlikely that some later artist would in-paint an extremely rare Elizabethan-style pocket onto a portrait, especially since the blue ground of the painting appears to be exposed, perhaps even scraped, all around the sleeve pocket. Was the portrait x-rayed or IR-ed as part of this 1974 restoration? I'll try to find out. The Case of the Disappearing Pocket . . .   

Above: pocket sleeve with fasteners that are either lacing, or points, or maybe even hook-and-eye. The entire sleeve pocket vanished during the 1974 restoration of the Called Rizzio portrait (Royal Collection; image via wikicommons). Note the bluish ground of the portrait, meaning we are very close to the panel itself. Was this portrait scraped at some point, and, if so, why? There appears to be bombast padding exposed by the open pocket. Bombast would also indicate the portrait to be Elizabethan as such padding when out of style by the turn of the century.

Antonia Graser's 1994 book Mary, Queen of Scots described David Rizzio as ugly, short, and hunchbacked, so it's fair to wonder if this handsome jack is Rizzio. Misleading inscriptions are fairly common. That said, it's worth remembering that Rizzio was hideously murdered--stabbed 57 times--when his rumored lover, Mary, Queen of Scots, was six-month's pregnant. Mary's husband Lord Darnley believed, or claimed to believe, that his wife had been impregnated by Rizzio. Mary's subsequent son, possibly the bastard love-child of a rank fiddler, would grow up to become Great Britain's King James I, so the stakes are high on this portrait, and Rizzio's possible intersections with the Stewart clan have been largely repressed. Having fiddler blood instead of royal blood makes for an impressive dynastic scandal.

Above: Called David Rizzio (Royal Collection; image via wikicommons) & stipple engraving of Rizzio (NPG; image via wikicommons). The original print of the engraving states it was copied from a portrait of Rizzio painted in 1562 by an unknown artist "in the possession of H. C. Jennings, Esq." Click here to view the recently restored version of the Called Rizzio portrait currently on the Royal Collection website.
Above: the Called Rizzio sitter's eyes before the restoration (left) and after (right).

The Royal Collection website makes no mention of the sitter's signet ring when discussing the costume, but it's odd for a musician to wear such a ring (hardly part of the job description). If this is a portrait of Rizzio, perhaps the ring can be explained by Rizzio's quick rise from being a bass singer in Mary's court to being installed as her Secretary to France. The matrix or face of the ring appears off-center to me. I'll return to the signet ring later.

Another enigma about this portrait is that its sitter appears to have originally been painted as bald. Obviously no artist would paint a sitter bald and add hair later; yet we can see clear evidence of the sitter's pate lurking behind the hair. I find that curious. 

Above: detail reveals what appears to be a bald pate that was later overpainted with hair (Royal Collection, image via wikicommons). The black hair resembling a dyed comb-over is especially odd since the darker hair is depicted on the lighter side of the portrait in regard to the change of color along the background.
Above: the Marshall portrait of Shakespeare (left, Folger Shakespeare Library), Called David Rizzio (center, Royal Collection, image from Wikicommons) and the Droeshout engraving (right, Folger Shakespeare Library).

Above: side by side comparison between the Droeshout engraving (reversed) from First Folio show shows eerily similar bald pates. The eyes also match up well. Note that engraving were often reversed images of painted portraits; therefore we don't know if the Droeshout engraving is reversed or not.

As to this fountain-style fall collar, it also shows up in the history of bard portraits in the miniature of Shakespeare attributed to Laurence Hilliard. Once again we see a strong physical resemblance between the two sitters. Whoever this jack is, he greatly resembles Laurence Hilliard's William Shakespeare.

Left: copy of the Laurence Hilliard (c. 1620) miniature of Shakespeare by TW Harland  (left, National Portrait Gallery, London). Right: portrait called David Rizzio (Royal Collection). See any resemblance?  

Finally, for the benefit of Oxfordian readers, here is a comparison of the Rizzio portrait with Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, who was considered an excellent musician and played multiple instruments. Many authorship skeptics believe de Vere to be the true author of Shakespeare's plays. To this I will add that the violin originated in the early to mid 16th century in Italy and migrated from Italy to England.

Above left: the Welbeck portrait of Edward de Vere (Welbeck Abbey, image from wikicommons). Above center: Called David Rizzio (Royal Collection, image from wikicommons). Above right: c. 1987 post-cleaning photo of the controversial Ashbourne portrait (Folger Shakespeare Library, right).
Above: hand with signet ring from the Ashbourne portrait (left, Folger Shakespeare Library) & hand with signet ring from Called Rizzio (Royal Collection).

Oxfordians are convinced the Ashbourne portrait had its Elizabethan collar overpainted in order to misidentify Edward de Vere as a haberdasher named Hamersley. Could this inscribed Rizzio portrait actually depict the young Edward de Vere with his violin? Or is it instead Jacobean, which would mean it's neither de Vere or Rizzio?

A big clue as to the identity of sitter might lie in the signet rings, and it would be interesting to probe this ring with spectral technologies. After all, the whole purpose of signet rings is to identify . . .

So, lots of red flags here. And lots of reason to x-ray, or infra-red, or use whatever occult sciences they have cooked up of late to get under paint. Expect some updates to this posts.

I have now received a number of emails from the Royal Collection about the called-Rizzio portrait. The most important reveal is that all the conservation notes from the portrait's 1974 restoration (its only restoration of note) have been, well, lost. The sleeve pocket was presumably removed because it had been added to the portrait, but there's no mention in the email of how that was determined or if x-rays or IRs were employed. One email implied the sleeve might have been added to make the portrait appear Elizabethan, though it's unclear why anyone would want to forge a portrait to depict David Rizzio. 

Also the emails makes it clear that I was correct about the background of the portrait being overpainted. The Rizzio inscription was also added to the portrait at a later date. Apparently the doublet is not leather, though it certainly looks like leather. A letter in the portrait's file once described the portrait as a "problem picture." I would agree.  

Below are the emails I received from the Royal Collection. I've highlighted certain passages in bold print.

As you read these email, ask yourself why the Royal Collection has not explored this "problem portrait" with x-rays or infrared light. After all, they admit it's extensively overpainted. Obviously somebody went a lot of trouble to make misidentify the sitter. Why not learn the portrait's history? I just don't understand the lack of curiosity. 

Dear Mr Durkee,

Thank you for your e-mail regarding the Portrait of a Man known as David Rizzio in the Royal Collection (RCIN 401172). The image that you saw on our website (now no longer visible) dates from 1971. It was taken prior to conservation, which I understand took place in 1974 and appears to have been overseen by the Scottish National Portrait Gallery (SNPG). According to a letter of 1988, in our files, correspondence with the conservator who worked on the painting and the SNPG are missing. I suspect that it was during the conservation that the pocket sleeve and lacing were removed presumably because they were identified as later overpainting. 

The painting is due to be published in a revision of Oliver Millar’s Tudor, Stuart and Early Georgian Pictures, 1963 (although it was not included in the first edition). It is thought that the background of the painting has been extensively overpainted. The inscription (which gives the date of the portrait as 1565) is not original and was presumably added a number of years after the portrait was painted. The costume of the sitter can be dated to c. 1620 on the basis of the falling ruff which is far too large for a portrait of the mid-16th century as well as the shape of the doublet, particularly in terms of the manner in which the shoulder wings project beyond the arms. The style of beard and hair are also much more like the fashions of the 1620s.

Perhaps the overpainted ‘pocket’ in the doublet was an attempt to make it appear more Elizabethan. It may also have been a misinterpretation of the fashion for paned (slit) sleeves on doublets, which were common around 1620. Pockets were never found in this sleeve location. The way in which the fabric of the garment has been painted seems more indicative of wool or silk rather than leather and it would have been known as a doublet not a jerkin as jerkins were sleeveless. 

In a letter from Dr Duncan Thomson, then Assistant Keeper of Art, SNPG, to Robert Snowden, the conservator, he describes it as a ‘problem picture’ and felt it was wrong to call it a picture of Rizzio.

You may be interested to know that there is a mark impressed on the stretcher of the painting from the firm of liners, John Peel (c.1785-1858).

I hope this information is of interest.

My reply to the Royal Collection (below):

Thank you for the helpful reply. I still have a few questions and am sorry to hear the notes on the conservation have been lost. Were any spectral tests done on the portrait prior to its restoration? I'm curious as to how it was decided the pocket was added, especially since it was so unique. And thanks also for confirming the sleeve pocket used lacing--I wasn't positive--and yes that would certainly make it Elizabethan.

I disagree that sleeve pockets were never located in that general area and am attaching a portrait to support my case. I have to say it's awfully strange for somebody to in-paint such a specific and uniquely laced open pocket onto a portrait--I've never once seen a laced pocket depicted as open, so it's hard to believe they copied it there from another portrait. And that appears to be bombast that's exposed by the opened pocket, too, and of course bombast disappeared by the end of the century as the human figure returned to men's fashion following Elizabeth's death. To my mind, the argument that somebody wanted the portrait to depict Rizzio so badly they painted an Elizabethan pocket onto the portrait is as strange as an argument stating a fall collar was overpainted onto the portrait to make it look Jacobean. Neither argument has much logic behind it and with the conservation notes lost--you'd be surprised how often this is the case--I guess we will never know now, which is a shame.

Please do let me know if any x-rays or IRs were taken. Or if there are any alternative routes to learning more about this portrait's conservation--might records exist elsewhere?
Thank you again for the reply and this information,
Above: portrait of Horace Vere, 1594 (image from Wikicommons). Note the pocket sleeve clearly visible in the exact location of the portrait known as David Rizzio. The pocket sleeve was therefore an Elizabethan detail and might well date the portrait known as David Rizzio to c. 1594.

Email reply from the Royal Collection in which my evidence the side pocket was an Elizabethan style goes oddly un-noted as does my argument no painter would have forged this obscure costume detail onto a portrait:

Dear Mr Durkee 

Thank you for your e-mail and apologies for the delay in replying. I have now traced the correspondence and reports on the painting from its time at Stenhouse

Conservation Centre during the 1970s and I am afraid that there are no references to any X rays or technical analysis of the painting. There is also no discussion of the removal of the laced pocket sleeve. There is, however, reference to removal of areas of ‘inpainting’ (later overpainting) in ‘oil colours’ which I presume relates to the pocket.

I can only re-iterate that Dr Duncan Thomson, Assistant Keeper of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, (who oversaw the conservation) believed that it was wrong to go on calling it a portrait of Rizzio.  He felt the costume of the sitter can be dated to c. 1620 and the style of the portrait are of about the same date.  I am sure you are aware of the almost-half-length engraving by Charles Wilkin (c. 1759-1814), of Rizzio, in a ruff and cap, and playing the lute. The engraving is presumably after a portrait of Rizzio which is now not known, and was published by Robert Triphook in 1814 (British Museum). We believe the violin in our portrait could possibly date from the early eighteenth century, however it appears to be an inauthentic rendering of an instrument of the period.  

Finally, I attach a detail of the pocket sleeve from a photograph taken in 1971, prior to the conservation, and we would welcome any further thoughts that you have.

With kind regards [. . .]


  1. Interesting article.

    The curious fact that they lost the records is telling to say the least. The SBT and the Stratford town council have been doing things like this since the early 19th century so that tourist dollars can still roll in (it has been pegged at around $500 million annually, so I can see their reluctance to see reason). Now we can add the National Portrait Gallery to the list of those who never want to understand that they may not have gotten things right with regard to the "hard bard".

    In relation to the Marshall portrait, I posted a series of graphics on the ShakesVere Facebook group which show that it is really a puzzle portrait that has clues to the authorship of the poems inside the John Benson published book. If you are interested I could send them to you.

    Thanks for doing such good work.

    1. 500 million! Yikes. I think the NPG is at times guilty of institutional bias--especially in their debunking of the Flower portrait, but I've also found their staff to be incredibly helpful. Their boy is always going to be the Chandos portrait. So be it. I have nothing against the Chandos except it's a bad painting that doesn't interest me. The Marshall portrait I love--unlike the Chandos it has character--but I don't have the kind of mind that delves too deeply into Elizabethan conceits, because even if you solve the conceit correctly so few people will care. Once it gets complicated the battle is lost. (I'm too cynical.) But I would still love to read the graphics you mentioned on the Marshall if you can leave me the link. The Marshall reminds me of the Hampton Court (my fav Shakespeare). Many thanks.