A new portrait of Shakespeare puts pay to many people's preconception that he sported thinning locks, as Chris Upton finds out.
You wait years for a famous picture to turn up, and then three come along at once. Not only is there a new Da Vinci painting to consider (or such is the claim), there’s a freshly uncovered portrait of Jane Austen too. And on top of that, the greatest writer of them all has been in the Tudor equivalent of the photo booth and revealed a new image.
We can now look at William Shakespeare, not in some posthumous picture, but at the height of his powers. That, at least, is what we’re urged to believe.
It’s appropriate to be sceptical about all this. So much do we want and need – in our acutely visual age – a portrait of the artist as a young man, and to be able to see the plays in his eyes, that we’re inclined to grasp at anything. Nevertheless, the evidence is strong, if not exactly clinching.
For the past couple of centuries we have had to make do with just two authentic images of Mr Shakespeare. There’s is the engraving of him in the 1623 Folio of his works, and the funerary bust overlooking his grave in Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-on-Avon. The latter makes him look like some comfortable accountant checking his household expenditure (which in some ways, once Shakespeare was back home in Stratford, he probably was.)
Both these images have contributed the bald pate to William Shakespeare’s legacy. No picture could have any claim to authenticity that did not show the light bouncing off that hairless scalp. Indeed, it was discovered some years ago that a painting claimed to be of Shakespeare and now in the Folger Library in Washington had been deliberately touched up to remove his hair and increase his bald forehead.
Many men make every effort to conceal the fact that they are going bald; with Shakespeare it’s just the opposite.
Portraits of Shakespeare, then, are all assumed to be from his receding years.
There is, however, a new kid on the block, the portrait of an anonymous man now at Newbridge House in Ireland. The picture has recently been on display at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust at Stratford, and they tell me that they hope to get it back for another exhibition in the near future.
The painting is that of a young man, with a more than decent head of auburn hair, gazing intelligently back at the viewer with the flicker of a smile and a sparkle in the eye. (You might expect this of an Irish picture.) Above the sitter is the inscription (in Latin) which reads: “Principum amicitias !”