Monday, December 23, 2019

Definitely Not Shakespeare: the Famous Hampton Court Portrait Debunked & Crowned King of Sweden

Above: Gustav II Adolf by unknown artist date unknown (left, Gripsholm Castle) & the Hampton Court portrait (Royal Collection, right).

I've always rooted for the Hampton Court portrait of Shakespeare to be legit because I like how boisterous and affable the sitter appears. A decade ago I even talked the Royal Collection into (re)x-raying their picture. But the truth is always a step forward, and I feel confident now in stating that the Hampton Court portrait does not depict William Shakespeare. 

Acquired in 1834 as a portrait of Shakespeare from Penshurst Palace by the "sailor king" William IV, the Hampton Court picture was tested in 1937 with both x-ray and infra-red light by the photographic expert Charles Wisner Barrell, who later reported in the pages of Scientific American magazine that his IR reflectogram had detected a second collar, likely Elizabethan, hidden beneath the Jacobean fall collar visible on the portrait. (These spectral results disappeared after Barrell's death.) Barrell cited the hidden collar alongside a theory about an obscured sword as evidence that the portrait had originally depicted Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. 

Barrell was wrong. That this portrait does not depict de Vere, or Shakespeare, or both, should be self-evident to anyone who studies these side-by-side comparisons with Gustav II Adolf, the king of Sweden from 1611 to 1632. In almost all his portraits, Gustav "the Great" proudly displays his royally protruding belly. Gustav's portraits typically show him belted above the belly, or directly over the belly, thereby making portraits of him a bit easier to identify.
Above: Gustav II Adolf, c.1630 by Jacob Heinrich Elbfas (Skokloster Castle, left) & the Hampton Court Portrait of Shakespeare (Royal Collection, London, right). Note how the belt buckles, though of different sizes, are identical in shape.
Even if you disagree about Gustav II being the sitter of the Hampton Court picture, the many portraits of Gustav supply strong evidence that the Hampton Court costume is neither Elizabethan nor Jacobean. The costume isn't even English. The displayed belly of the Hampton Court lends the illusion of a mid 1590s English-style portrait when bombast stuffing was exposed via an unbuttoned peascod-bellied doublet. But this is not a peascod doublet in the Hampton Court picture; instead the sitter is likely wearing is a farthingale-type padding that lends the illusion almost of pregnancy.
Above: Gustav II flaunting the same style vented sleeves present in the Hampton Court Portrait. These sleeves could be unbuttoned to hang behind the back. (Gustav II Adolf, 1594-1632, kung av Sverige - Nationalmuseum - 39108, photo via Wikicommons). Also compare the rapier pommel to that on the Hampton Court portrait.
In the a 1590s English sitters liked to strike a pose of melancholy by unbuttoning their doublets or unlacing their collars, but, again, this is not such a portrait. Therefore in my opinion we have to say goodbye to the affable Hampton Court Shakespeare after all these centuries of controversy.

Above: Henry Percy, the "Wizard earl," with bombast bared in pose meant to convey melancholy. Painted by Nicholas Hilliard. Image via wikicommons.
Above: the bombastic satirist Thomas Nashe shackled by bilboes with doublet undone and bombast displayed c. 1595. Image via wikicommons.
I've written to Sweden's National Armory to see if they can identify either the dagger or rapier depicted in the Hampton Court portrait, but even without that confirmation I feel confident in debunking the Hampton Court as a picture of Shakespeare.
Above: Gustavus II by Jacob Hoefnagel 1624 (Google Arts Project, left) & the Hampton Court (RC, London, right)

Above: Awesome portrait of Gustav II by Matthaeus Merian the Elder 1631-02 (Google Arts Project, left) & Hampton Court (Royal Collection, right). The portrait on the left was likely painted about four years after the Hampton Court portrait (if we accept the inscribed age of 34 as valid). Note the similar sword hilts and pommels.

Above: Gustav II Adolph date artist and date unknown (Gripsholm Castle, National Museum Sweden) & the Hampton Court portrait (Royal Collection, right)
Above: Gustav II Adolph date and artist unknown (Nationalmuseum, Gripsholm Castle) & the Hampton Court portrait (Royal Collection, right). 
Anyone needing more evidence should follow this link to a wikipedia collection of still-existing costumes once owned by Gustav II, almost all of which reveal the same style jerkin or doublet with longish tapering skirts that come together to form an arrowhead pointing directly to where, decades earlier, you would have found a codpiece. Gustav was also frequently portraited wearing vented sleeves of the type known as hanging sleeves (not to be confused with sham sleeves); this is the same style sleeve found in the Hampton Court picture.

 Below: Costumes of Gustav II displayed in the National Armory in Stockholm. The doublet immediately below is displayed one of the king's rapiers very much resembling the rapier in the Hampton Court picture.
Above: The Hampton Court portrait (Royal Collection, London) displayed beside still existing costumes of Gustav II
Anyone interested in Gustav the Great can follow this link to a page featuring an illustrated description of his life. A king who inherited three wars, all of which he fought brilliantly (he's considered one of the greatest military leaders of all time), Gustav is also credited with bringing Sweden into the modern age. He died on the battlefield while leading a charge uphill in the Thirty Days War. If the inscribed age of 34 is correct on the Hampton Court portrait, then it depicts Gustav c. 1628

So here's to Sweden's Gustav the Great. Though we have lost a poet, we have gained a monarch.

All photographs in this post are used for educational purposes

Below: my favorite portrait of the proudly big-bellied Gustav II Adolf by unknown artist date unknown (Gripsholm Castle)


  1. Truth is, indeed, preferable to fantasies, no matter how comforting, comfortable, venerable, or profitable.

    1. Agreed. As I've had a print of this portrait in my living room for decades, I'm at least glad that my old friend has turned out to be a person worthy of great admiration.

  2. Fascinating page, very insightful and a vast source of inspiration!

    However, as a stage combat instructor and European Martial Arts aficionado, I have to disagree with the assessment that the three sword hilts are somewhat similar. These sword hilts and pommels could not be more different. The sword in the Hampton Court portrait looks very much like a typical English basket hilted sword of the time, especially with that big (probably hollow) pommel. The sword in the Gustav portrait has pierced quillons and pierced shell guards, and the sword in the photograph looks like a simple two-ring hilt with diagonally bent quillons (which offers a bit more hand protection. Nothing such can be found on the basket hilt, which, curiously enough, even appears to sit the wrong way round in its scabbard.