“Could this be a young William Shakespeare?”, by Melanie V. Taylor

Editor’s Note: Browsers are incouraged to follow the bold purple links to view the portraits and engravings Mell references in her fascinating and comprehensive analysis.


The Wadlow Portrait
Is this William Shakespeare?


Could this be a young William Shakespeare?

by Melanie V. Taylor


Recently I have had the pleasure of examining a Tudor portrait that has been in the Wadlow family since the 1960s and never before exhibited.  Dr Bendor Grosvenor’s recent find of an original Rubens long thought to be a copy because it was hidden under overpainting, demonstrates just how many paintings might be hanging on walls, or up in the attic and covered in layers of overpaint so disregarded as copies of lost masterpieces.  These may also be of famous people who have hitherto remained unidentified and wrongly accredited to that extremely famous artist – Anon.

Why is this called The Wadlow portrait? What does this portrait tell us?  Who is the artist?  How did the Wadlow’s acquire it?

The first and last questions are easily solved. I understand that the painting was acquired in the 1960s from a firm of London art restorers and dealers who were undertaking restoration work and selling items for the owners of a large house.

The ownership of the portrait by the Wadlow family is not in question and the painting has been registered with the Art Loss Register.

Unfortunately, that is where the certainty ends.  There is a long list of fascinating imponderables behind the questions of who the sitter may be, who painted the portrait and where it originally hung?

It has been suggested that it is a portrait of William Shakespeare painted when he was 31, but the academics are not going to commit themselves to this without some considerable convincing evidence.  The portrait has been subject to both X-Ray and reflectographic analysis by the company, Lumiéres, based in Paris.[i]  From this, we learn that areas of the face and certain areas of the background have been overpainted.

Finding the house where it was hung is likewise as difficult and will be like looking for a needle in a haystack since many great houses were demolished after WW2 and their contents sold off. It has been suggested that it came from a house known as Great Tew.[ii] During the late 16th and early 17th centuries, Great Tew was owned by Edward Rainsford who sold it to Sir Lawrence Tanfield, Lord Chief Baron of the Exchequer in 1611.  It is certainly the type of house that would have housed an art collection and cannot be ruled out. After Major Robb inherited Great Tew in 1962 he undertook a major refurbishment and some of the paintings were sold to fund this. Perhaps the painting was from there. The sale ties in with when a new owner was seeking funds to make repairs to the house and estate, but this is purely circumstantial evidence and ideally we need to verify this from examining any surviving documents.  The house and estate are now owned by the Johnston family.[iii] If we can identify which estate this painting came from, we would be more than half way to identifying the sitter.

The solid evidence is that we have a portrait of a young man aged 31 years of age painted on wooden panel by an unknown artist and the painting has had subsequent over-painting in certain areas. The size of the panel is 430 x 580mm.  Two experts have both agreed that this painting dates from the last decade of the 16th century, but have not seen the actual painting. One of whom, who is familiar with the early modern collection at Tate Britain, suggested that it was similar in style to the work of  William Segar, portrait painting, and Garter King of Arms to James I of England.

A dendrochonological analysis would provide us with the date the tree was felled and determine the type of wood.  This would give us an earliest possible date and, depending on the type of wood, help identify whether or not it was painted in England or Europe.  Baltic oak was the preferred wood for panel paintings having a straighter grain than English oak, so was less prone to warping.

Pigment analysis may reveal that the background was not originally a dirty brown, but was originally blue.  There are certain cheap blue pigments that discolour over time.  The portrait of a Man in a Black Cap – John Bettes the Elder (1530-1570) has just such a background.  Today that background is a nondescript brown, but originally it was painted using a cheap blue pigment. The Bettes portrait has been the subject of considerable analysis and as Ellis Waterhouse discusses in her book Painting in Britain 1530 – 1790, the inclusion of Bette’s signature, “Faict Johan Bettes Anglois” (‘made by John Bettes Englishman’) suggests this portrait may have been executed abroad.  This concept is further supported by the use of Johan, the Germanic version of the English form of John. In England, it was more traditionally shown in the medieval Latin form of Johannes as in Johannes Corvus, a Flemish painter of the early 16th century.[iv]  This painting comes from earlier in the 16th century.  Perhaps the sitter was from one of the German principalities, or even a member of the Hanseatic League, hence the use of the German form of Bette’s forename.  There are other ways of suggesting the nationality of either the sitter or the perhaps the artist, as we will discuss later.

An analysis of the layers of paint to the base gesso layer might help identify a possible workshop.  In an essay on the painting techniques of the Flemish artist, Marcus Gheerhaerts the Younger, Rica Jones shows how this artist built up his painting surface from the base gesso in a series of layers of various glazes sometimes using a pinkish base containing white lead and vermillion.[v]  In other instances, Gheerhaerts has used a grey primer which has given a luminous quality to the complexion of his female sitters.  Tate Britain has four Gheeraerts portraits, all painted on panel, and a detailed analysis has been undertaken of the layers of pigment and the panels providing us with an insight into this innovative artist’s methods.  As a means of identifying a possible artist for our work, comparing these analyses with any future analysis of our painting could be useful in determining whether or not this painting came from the Gheerhaerts’ workshop.

To demonstrate the importance of scientific analysis, let us look at a recently restored panel that used to be in the Metropolitan Museum, New York and originally showed The Marriage of Henry VII to Elizabeth of York.  This panel first underwent X-ray analysis which revealed that there was something hidden beneath the surface.  Careful removal of the overpainting revealed a 15th-century altarpiece by a Flemish master. The astonishing discovery was the surviving under-drawing of the missing figures of The Virgin and Child with Saints Thomas, John the Baptist, Jerome and Louis. Revealing under-drawing to this extent is exceedingly rare and gives an insight into the mind of the original artist.

The panel had been widened by the addition of an additional board. The central scene painted to show an idealised view of Westminster Abbey. The figures of Elizabeth of York and King Henry VII had been painted over the images of two of the saints.  The 20th-century restorers were able to date the earlier “restoration” to the 18th century when the panel was owned by Henrietta Louisa, Countess of Pomfret who had bought it from the estate of the late Horace Walpole in 1754. The panel then passed to the Dent family where it hung in Sudeley Castle before it was acquired by a private collector who loaned it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

After a ten-year restoration programme, the art historian Claus Grimm identified the panel as being by the Flemish master, Hugo van der Goes (1430/40-1482).  The director of the Suermondt Ludwig Museum, Peter van den Brink, endorsed this attribution and dated the panel to the 1470s.[vi], [vii]

What is a mystery is why the overpainting and panel addition was ever made.  It was very likely done to hide a Catholic work of art from view.

To continue the analysis of what we have before us.

Our man’s face is not lined, nor are there are crinkles around the eyes.  He appears distracted, or perhaps deep in thought.  His lower face is quite ruddy, suggesting he has spent a considerable time out of doors. In a portrait miniature of 1581 Nicholas Hilliard painted the features of Sir Frances Drake (Sir Francis Drake NPG 4851).  Hilliard’s portrait of Drake shows a man with a complexion acquired by his years at sea.  We know from Hilliard’s draft treatise of 1598 that he painted ‘ad vivum’ in order to capture the essential essence of his sitters: Drake’s ruddy complexion must have been considered an essential element of his character. Our young man has a clearly defined difference in the colour of skin from just below his eyes upwards to his hairline, which is quite pale, whereas his lower face is quite pink.  The similarity in the way Hilliard and our artist have portrayed their sitters suggests that these men regularly wore a hat to shade their eyes, leaving their lower face exposed to the elements. By contrast, portraits of those we know did not pursue an outdoor life such as Queen Elizabeth I, Sir William Cecil and Sir Francis Walsingham, have uniformly pale faces.  In our portrait, the flesh tones are smooth, unlike Hilliard’s technique for portrait miniatures, which resembles that of the Flemish illuminators who built up their flesh tones using tiny flecks of paint similar to hatching.  The Pelican and Phoenix portraits of the queen are not painted in this fashion, but are masklike and have little modeling.

Perhaps our portrait was painted to celebrate our unknown youth’s return from abroad?

The reflectographic analysis shows the left eye of our man has been altered by some overpainting, as has the hairline by the addition of the quiff.

Perhaps the coat of arms, seen top right, might give us a further clue?

This coat of arms is very unclear and what, at first glance, appears to be white writing is, on closer examination – gibberish.  Is it even an English coat of arms?  It may be of European origin, or it may be something someone has painted to suggest the sitter is of aristocratic lineage.   There appears to be something hidden under the layers of paint immediately above this shield, but it is very indistinct.

The actual emblem is similar to that of Flanders seen in the shields surrounding the head of Archduchess Marguerite of Austria (1480-1530), daughter of Emperor Maximillian I and Mary of Burgundy.  Marguerite of Austria was Regent of the Hapsburg Netherlands from 1506 until her death and her portrait (Margaret of Austria) shows the coats of arms of all territories that belonged to the House of Hapsburg. If the coat of arms in our portrait is identified as one of those seen in this portrait after the white bar sinister overpaint is removed, we have to consider whether it has been painted to show the country of origin of the sitter i.e. the Low Countries, or to show their loyalty to a specific noble family. It could be that the inclusion of this shield is the more subtle way of linking the sitter with the artist, as in the way Johan instead of Johannes is used on Bette’s portrait of The Man in a Black Cap and a way of saying either the sitter or the artist is Flemish

We are told the age of our man.  The number 31 and the word ‘Anno’ are painted in red and are not as beautifully defined as in portraits from earlier in the century where the ages of sitters and the year their portraits was created were rendered in gold.[viii] On the other hand, this painting underwent some surface cleaning when it first came into the Wadlow family’s possession so it is possible the top layer of gold was removed during this process.

However, knowing our man is of ‘31 years’ does give us a starting point to determine when this young man was probably born. Taking the 1590s as the decade the two experts have agreed is when this portrait was probably painted, establishes that our sitter was born in the 1560s.

His clothes are not as expensive as those worn by those of the social elite, but they are of good quality, which suggests he is a man of means.  His collar is trimmed with lace and on one corner the four-pointed star of the repeating pattern has been painted as a six-pointed star.  Perhaps this has meaning, or it may be the lacemaker made a mistake.  It is also possible the artist got carried away with his brush and added an extra couple of arms to the star by mistake.

The elaborate lace collar worn by the sitter of The Cobbe Portrait also shows a carefully defined repeating pattern, but, as far as I can see, no similar discrepancy in the woven lace pattern has been detected or commented upon.[ix] This man wears his collar high up under the chin, whereas the neck of the Wadlow man is exposed.  Does he have an exceptionally long neck or is it a mistake by the artist?  At least he does not look as if his head is being served up on a platter, which is a feature consistent with other portraits of the period.

To address the suggestion of a possible meaning, it has been argued that a six-pointed star may point to our sitter being Catholic.  The Religion Act of 1580 had made it high treason for anyone in England to be primarily obedient to a foreign authority, i.e. obedient to the pope (as required of all good Catholics) as opposed to the queen.  This affiliation was punishable at worst, by death.  Lesser punishments included imprisonment or exile, with all goods and chattels confiscate.  If you did not attend church regularly you could be fined £20 per month for being absent, and/or be thrown into prison until you conformed.  These are pretty harsh punishments and therefore perhaps this six-pointed star is an incredibly subtle way of showing those of a similar religious persuasion that you are also a Catholic. The symbolism of a six-pointed star is explained in the Jewish Kaballah. Kaballah texts became included in Christian theology during the early Renaissance and without going into a detailed explanation, suffice it to say that its inclusion may well be a reference to this young man’s religion and his belief in the Catholic doctrine.  The Protestant Reformation had torn Europe apart and by the 1590s, England was firmly Protestant with the Anglican church having the monarch as its head.  The more pragmatic members of society would conform to whichever religion the ruler of that country espoused. I have not discounted the theory that our man may also be Jewish and the six-pointed star is a reference to this.  The Jews had been expelled from England at the end of the 13th century, but there were some in England.  The bar was not lifted until Cromwell needed to raise money in 1657 when once again, they were allowed to live openly in England. It is therefore quite possible that our man was hinting at his core beliefs by using such an oblique symbol.

Another oddity in our portrait is the way the ties of the collar are hidden behind the top fastening of the doublet.  It has been suggested this is another sign that the sitter is privately a Catholic.  When the ties re-emerge from the doublet, why are they rendered so unrealistically?  The strings, which are clearly each made up of two strands joined into a tassel, appear unnaturally stiff.

The bow could be described as being tied in the shape of the wings of a butterfly or dragonfly.  In illuminated manuscripts of the late 15th and early 16th centuries, butterflies, mayflies and dragonflies often appear in the naturalistic marginalia of illuminated devotional texts. Apart from being exquisitely beautiful observations of nature, the contents of these margins were carefully composed meditation aids for the reader.[x] In the lectionaries commissioned by Cardinal Wolsey (and now the treasures of Magdalen College and Christ Church colleges, Oxford), we see both caterpillars and butterflies.[xi] An educated person of the early 16th century would immediately recognise butterflies as a symbol of the Resurrection. Painted dragonflies and mayflies carry the same message.

The use of the butterfly/dragonfly motif is not limited to Christian symbolism. In many pagan societies, they occur as symbols of personal revelation. A dragonfly and/or butterfly is used to represent the soul or perhaps a stage of personal revelation.  By the end of the 16th century, with the danger of revealing one’s personal beliefs very evident, subtle emblems and symbols were used to tell other like-minded people that you were in sympathy with their cause be it religious or even political. But it may be that religion is not the prime message here.

The “butterfly/dragonfly” tie might be an allusion to the sitter’s elegance and lightmindedness! Or perhaps this man has come to a personal realisation, which may have been religious or perhaps it is a sexual awakening and this tie is a coded reference to his preference of sexual partners.

The slashes in our hero’s doublet show a red undershirt.  It is tempting to compare these slashes to wounds and therefore consider them being symbols of the persecution of English Catholics or even the wounds of Christ, but it is also possible that this was just the fashion.  Like the red in the numbers and letters painted above our man’s head, is this an undercoat and the gold layer was removed in the cleaning done in the 1960s?

What about the earring with a pearl worn in the left ear?  Since we cannot see the other ear, are we to assume he wears a single earring? Other portraits of this period show men wearing a single earring.  Sir Walter Raleigh is shown wearing two pearls hanging from his right ear in this large portrait painted in1588 of Sir Walter Raleigh.  However, in the Hilliard miniature of Raleigh painted c1585, our famous sea captain does not have a pierced ear,  NPG4106 Hilliard Miniature of Sir Walter Raleigh c 1585 ; nor is he wearing one in the double portrait with his son painted in 1602, NPG 3924 Sir Walter Raleigh and his son Walter 1602 Anon.  There is another famous portrait in the National Portrait Gallery of a man wearing an earring in his left ear usually referred to as the Chandos portrait.  This portrait is generally accepted as being the ‘true’ face of The Bard.

This was a time of European wide political and religious turmoil so it may be that the wearing of an earring was a symbol of loyalty for a specific religious or political faction, or perhaps it was merely a fashion item?   I am sure there is an expert who will be able to answer these questions.

The romanticising of the Bard’s work during the 19th century has clouded our vision when it comes to understanding some of the more lewd content of Shakespeare’s works.  Dr Pauline Kierman is an eminent Shakespeare scholar and in her book Filthy Shakespeare she reveals a bawdiness that has been either lost through time or ignored. Kiernan’s book throws new light on how Tudor society enjoyed puns and jokes of a highly sexual nature.   She points out that Shakespeare’s very name is a sexual pun. To ‘shake one’s spear’ being slang for masturbation and a shortened form of William is still understood as a not so veiled reference to male genitalia.[xii]

Considering that so few personal details are known of the Bard, it is not surprising the amount of speculation there has been over the centuries about what he looked like and his religious and sexual preferences.

Shakespeare’s masterly punning and use of double entendre of both a sexual and non-sexual nature demonstrates how the Elizabethans loved word games and puzzles and were not hide-bound by any censorship of sexual content. By the end of the 16th century, many large portraits and portrait miniatures contained many oblique visual emblems coded in such a way to tease the casual viewer.  Indeed, a couple of Hilliard’s miniature portrait have mottos that still puzzle scholars to this day.  Other visual codes or mottoes are more obvious, such as Hilliard’s Man Amongst Flames, who is clearly burning up with love, or the young man who holds a pansy.  The recipient of this portrait miniature was being asked to think of him.

When it comes to Shakespeare’s sonnets, which are declarations of love of some sort or another and the verbal equivalent of those Hilliard miniatures that refer visually to love, speculation regarding the focus of these verses would fill a library. The object of the poet’s desire remains ambiguous and I believe this was deliberate.   However, the Bard clearly understands the power of the portrait, because he refers to the genre in two sonnets and in The Merchant of Venice – all thought to have been penned in the 1590s.

In the case of sonnets 24 and 47 references to portraiture is used to convey the poet’s depth of affection.  Sonnet 24 specifically refers to miniature portrait painting. It is apparent that Shakespeare understands the process of painting with his use of the word ‘steel’d’.  This sonnet has been dismissed as pure twaddle and that word, steel’d, has puzzled those who study only Shakespeare.  As an art historian, it is very clear to me he is referring to what is used to sketch.  Metalpoint was used as a sketching tool and by the use of the word steel’d the Bard clearly understands this.[xiii]  In Sonnet 47 the separated lover is able to look on the subject of their love because they have a ‘picture’ (line 5).[xiv]  Whether that is a miniature portrait, or something bigger, we are not told.

In Act Three, scene 2 of The Merchant of Venice, Basannio (who is in love with Portia and wishes to marry her) is invited to choose one casket of the three in front of him being of gold, silver or lead.  Portia’s hand will go to the man who chooses the casket containing her portrait miniature – referred to as a counterfeit.[xv]  Of course, Basannio chooses the correct casket – the lead one.  (Sorry if this revelation a plot spoiler!)

What these three examples to portraiture demonstrate is how Shakespeare was aware of the popularity of the painted facsimile of the great and the good of your family and having it seen hanging on your wall, and how portrait miniatures were used as love tokens or displays of affection and loyalty. Miniature portraits are intimate objects and easily hidden in a pocket, or a drawer, but a portrait such as ours would have been on public display even though the audience would have been limited if it were hung in a private house.

The reflectography and x-ray analysis have identified various areas of overpainting.  One area has changed the shape of the man’s eyes and this could hide a similar defect to that seen in the engraving of the Bard used in the First Folio of Shakespeare’s works. Engraving of 1623 by Martin Dreoshout [xvi]

There is a blogger in Mississippi who is convinced our portrait is of the young  2nd Earl of Southampton.[xvii]  Simon Andrew Stirling has also studied this painting and is convinced that the Wadlow sitter’s left eye shows the same deformity as the Droeshout engraving.[xviii]  His book, Who Killed William Shakespeare is an interesting read.

It is possible that these later alterations may have been made in order to ‘protect’ the identity of the sitter and thus the portrait from being confiscated and destroyed by Oliver Cromwell’s soldiers during the Commonwealth (1649 – 1660) because of the things this sitter may have done during his lifetime. The recent discovery of the original Rubens that had been overpainted during the Commonwealth suggests this was done because the artist was a known Catholic.  Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) was both court artist and diplomat to Archduke Albrect VII of Austria (1559-1621) and his wife, Isabella (1566-1633), the daughter of Phillp II of Spain who had inherited the Spanish territories in the Low Countries from her father.  Rubens had decorated the ceiling of the Banqueting House for Charles I, so it is not surprising that an earlier owner might have wished to disguise the work of Rubens and so protect it from Oliver Cromwell’s soldiers.  The newly discovered Rubens portrait is of the Duke of Buckingham – a controversial figure during the reigns of both James I of England and Charles I until Buckingham was assassinated in a public house in Portsmouth in 1628.

It is possible that as a result of a similar ‘protection’, the identity of our young man has been forgotten. In the absence of any documentary evidence, only the removal of the later layers of paint will reveal the original features allowing a comparison to be made with the only reliable images of the Bard – the Droeshout engraving of 1623 created from a lost original and the Chandos the National Portrait Gallery.[xix]

Perhaps we will have better luck in identifying the artist.

It may be our sitter was friends of one the circle of artists patronised by the queen’s favourite, Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex.  As such he would have known how the great and the good (particularly Essex) used portraiture to record their advancement in the queen’s favour. Nicholas Hilliard, Marcus Gheerhaerts the Younger and Isaac Oliver are all artists associated with the 2nd Earl of Essex.  Also painting the Tudor elite were Robert Peake the Elder, William Segar and John de Critz.  All of these artistic candidates were to be later employed by King James I and other members of the Stuarts.

The name Zuccaro appears written in a flowing script on the reverse of the painting.  The Zuccaro brothers, Taddeo (1529-1566) and Federico (1540/1-1609), were extremely successful.  Federico was the younger by twelve years and together they ran an extremely successful artistic practice based in Rome until Taddeo’s death in 1566.  Federico traveled widely in Europe and was commissioned by the great and the good in the Netherlands, Spain, the Vatican and elsewhere in Italy. In 1575 he visited England and during that visit, he was commissioned by Robert Dudley to paint his portrait and, it is thought also one of Elizabeth I. So great was Federico’s talent that after the great Venetian artist Titian died in 1576, Federico was considered to be the most famous artist in Europe.  Despite incurring the wrath of the pope in 1583 with his satirical portrayal of certain artistic detractors, the workshop continued to flourish under his leadership. A decade later, Federico founded the Academia di San Luca and in 1598 became its director.  Like many other artists during the 16th century, Federico published a treatise on art theory in 1598.[xx]

It is a mystery as to why the Zuccaro name appears on the Wadlow portrait.  Perhaps it was written by a later owner as a speculative suggestion as to the artist.  On the other hand, could it be that this portrait was painted in Europe?  The identification of the wood may help determine whether or not this portrait is of continental authorship.  Determining whether or not the Wadlow is by Zuccaro or a member of the Zuccaro workshop, would require a great deal more research into documents held in the archive of the Zuccaro family that have survived the passage of time and these are in Rome.  The hand that has written the name is from much later than the 16th century.  However, we should not dismiss this name as a red herring because it may be that writer had access to now lost documentary evidence.

As to other candidates for authorship, we should consider those previously listed.  England’s own Nicholas Hilliard (1547-1619) painter of miniature portraits and also attributed to the painter of the larger Pelican and Phoenix portraits of Elizabeth I. Hilliard’s apprentice, Rowland Lockey (c1565-1616) who is best known for his 1598 reproduction of Hans Holbein’s The Family of Sir Thomas More. Then there is the Flemish Marcus Gheerhaerts the Younger (1561/2-1636) whose half-sister Sarah married Isaac Oliver (c1565-1617) – another of Hilliard’s apprentices.  Isaac Oliver (born in Rouen) became the favourite painter of Queen Anne, wife of James I of England and is a candidate for the brush behind the Rainbow Portrait of Elizabeth I that hangs on the staircase at Hatfield House. Englishmen William Segar (1554-1633) and Robert Peake the Elder (1551-1619) as well as John de Critz (c1550-1642 also Flemish), are also possible candidates.

Even if we discount the Zuccaro name as a red herring written by a later hand, the remaining plethora of artists in London capable of painting a portrait of this caliber suggests the sitter may be English and possibly moved in artistic circles dominated by foreign talent – mainly Flemish.  All candidates require further in-depth consideration and comparison of style with our portrait.

There are other portraits claimed as being the only known portrait of the Bard.  The National Portrait Gallery’s Chandos portrait heads this list and is thought by some to be the portrait that Droeshout used as the basis for his engraving.  Certainly, there is a similarity, but the Chandos portrait has a much fatter face.  It would be good if we could compare our face once it is cleaned to its original features, with the Chandos and the Droeshout, especially concerning the region around the eyes.

The collars in the Chandos, the Cobbe and the Wadlow are dissimilar.  The different way our man wears his collar lower so we can see his neck is very obvious.   The hairline is very different, but if this is the young Bard, then the passage of time between the 1590s and the time the Chandos was painted could explain this hair loss.  It is also an area of later overpainting. The only likeness we can consider as authentic is the engraving by Martin Droeshout of 1623, but even that is a copy of a lost original.

The doublet of the Droeshout engraving looks weird and the engraving as a whole is the subject of an interesting article suggesting it was a deliberate commission with a hidden message regarding the mendacity of Shakespeare’s works.[xxi]  This theory has parallels to Stirling’s theory that Shakespeare was a victim of a Puritan plot with the engraved frontispiece of the First Folio being part of the visual propaganda discrediting Shakespeare’s reputation.[xxii]

Then there is the Cobbe portrait – so completely different from the Droeshout engraving.[xxiii]  The portrait hangs in Hatchlands Park, Surrey, which is a National Trust property.  The attribution to this being a portrait of Shakespeare as a young man was made in 2009. There was a copy of the Cobbe portrait made in the 19th century which is attributed to Cornelis Janssen.  This copy belongs to the Folger Shakespeare Library and when the Folger acquired it, had been overpainted to resemble the Droeshout engraving of Shakespeare’s First Folio fame.  In 1988 the overpainting making the sitter less hirsute, was removed and clearly the sitter is not as bald as he first appeared when purchased in the 1930s.  Needless to say, the identity of the sitter of these two portraits is hotly debated.

Clearly, the Cobbe portrait was of sufficient status that artists wished to copy it. Many upwardly mobile 19th century industrialists wished to own copies of portraits of the Tudor movers and shakers. Clearly, the Janssen is one of these and it was then doctored to resemble the Chandos or the Droeshout engraving. I know of an extremely good miniature of Sir William Cecil complete with the initials of Isaac Oliver and initially, I thought it was an original, but Philip Mould’s gallery disabused me of this notion and said it was probably a copy by the 19th-century artist, Robert ‘Perfect’ Peake. Today we would call this type of artifact a forgery, but these ‘copies’ were very popular in Victorian times.[xxiv]

The Philip Mould gallery saw our Wadlow portrait and felt that it was definitely from c1600, but there was an insufficient likeness to the Droeshout engraving.  However, this opinion was given before any reflectography or x-ray analysis was undertaken. Dr Bendor Grosvenor wrote that it was not a contender for being an early painting of the Bard in his blog, ArtHistoryNews.  It would be interesting to see what these experts have to say in the light of the technical examination already undertaken and, should this painting be restored to its original state, what they might have to say about who lies beneath the layers of overpaint.

When it comes to identification of sitters of any portrait that are claimed to be that of the Bard, you will appreciate that these are going to hotly debated.  Various Shakespeare scholars, the Director of the Royal Shakspeare Company and certain art historians support the attribution that both the Cobbe portrait (and therefore the Janssen copy) are of the Bard.  However, Dr Tarnya Cooper, head of the Tudor Section of the National Portrait Gallery and Shakespeare scholar, David Scott Kastan (plus others) have refuted this attribution.   There are many differences between the accepted image of Shakespeare (the Droeshout engraving) and these two portraits and it has been suggested that the Cobbe and the Janssen portraits are of Sir Thomas Overbury.

The “Flower” portrait is another interesting claimant.  It has been subjected to x-ray, which has shown that this portrait is painted over an earlier Virgin and Child. The National Portrait Gallery scientists have done pigment analysis that has identified various pigments that were not available until the 19th century. Hildegard Hammerschmidt-Hummel is convinced that the Flower’s portrait is genuine and her arguments are very interesting.  The NPG remain unconvinced and have not amended their website entry to support Dr Hammerschmidt-Hummel’s attribution.

There are other various statues, sculptures, death masks, none of which can be proved 100% to being a lifelike representation of William Shakespeare.

As you now appreciate, identifying the artist is as difficult as the identification of the sitter, but at least we have several possibilities, all of whom knew each other.  Not only that, they were patronised by politicians and individuals at the centre of the Elizabethan court.  I have my own ideas as to the identity of both sitter and artist, but until we are able to undertake further research and the layers of overpaint are removed, this will have to remain private.

There is much known about the methods of the various suggested workshops so at least it should be comparatively easy to narrow the list of artists. If the expensive restoration is undertaken not only will we be able to analyse the pigments and perhaps correlate these to those favoured by a certain workshop, we might also be able to throw this portrait into the ring of controversey surrounding the various possible contenders of portraits of the world’s greatest playwright. The cleaning and subsequent sale of the rare Hugo van der Goes panel demonstrates just what may lie under the layers of overpainting, but this type of restoration takes both time and a considerable amount of money.

If the scientific analysis of the panel reveals the wood to be of that popular with Continental artists of the period it could suggest that this young man commissioned this portrait while he was in Europe.   And what if, after the removal of the overpainting, the sitter did bear an uncanny resemblance to the only definitely known portrait of the Bard? Could we dare consider this as evidence that those missing years of the life of the world’s greatest playwright were spent abroad – perhaps Italy?

Perhaps restoration will reveal sufficient evidence for comparison to the 1623 Droehsut engraving and perhaps it won’t.  However, if it does, the Wadlow could be the earliest ad vivum portrait of the world’s greatest playwright.


[i] https://www.isthiswilliamshakespeare.co.uk/technical.html has a video showing the areas of overpaint and the results of the X-ray analysis.

[ii] http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/oxon/vol11/pp223-247#fnn47 Entry for Great Tew.

[iii] The Daily Mail newspaper ran an article on the house in 2014. Daily Mail article on Great Tew 2014.

[iv] Johannes Corvus: painter of Princess Mary Tudor and Richard Foxe, Bishop of Winchester and founder of Corpus Christi College, Oxford in 1517.

[v] See essay at the back of  Karen Hearn’s book on Marcus Gheerhaerts II; Tate Publishing; Tate Enterprises Ltd., Millbank, London SW1P 4RG; 2002.

[vi] The panel was recently put up for sale in Christie’s New York sale rooms and sold for US$8,983,500; well exceeding the guide price of US$3,000,000-5,000,000

[vii] Christie’s online Magazine. 13th April 2017.

[viii] A red undercoat is sometimes used under gold paint therefore it is possible this lettering never received its final layer of gold paint.

[ix] Image source: Wikipedia

[x] In a recent television programme David Attenborough said that before The Age of Enlightenment it was thought that butterflies appeared as if by a miracle.  Evidently, at that time no one had recorded their lifecycle from egg to caterpillar, to chrysalis and finally butterfly. The first to observe and record the life cycle of moths and butterflies was Maria Sybilla Merian, who took her daughter to Surinam in 1699 where they recorded the flora and fauna of the country. Maria Sybilla Merian published her works in Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium in 1705 in German, rather than Latin. As a result it was ridiculed as not having scientific rigour.  However, it was a best seller.  Both she and her daughter returned to Amsterdam after two years, after they contracted malaria.

[xi] This link will allow you to see these two fabulous illuminated documents for yourself. http://www.wolseymanuscripts.ac.uk/manuscripts

[xii] Filthy Shakespeare; Dr Pauline Kiernan, Quercus, 2006 p9.

[xiii] I discuss Sonnet 24 in art history terms on my website. https://melanievtaylor.co.uk/2017/09/18/mine-eye-hath-playd-the-painter-2/

[xiv] Here is a link to both sonnets: sonnet/24 and  Sonnet/47 including some interpretations of the original English.

[xv] The modern understanding of the word counterfeit is ‘forgery’ or fake.  This was not always the case and in this instance, it means a ‘copy’ specifically as a portrait, the original being the living Portia.

[xvi] Source: Wikipedia.

[xvii] Source: Wikipedia – artist Anon.

[xviii] The Faces of Shakespeare – Revealing Shakespeares Life and Death Through Portraits and Other Objects

[xix] Source Wikipedia.  Attributed to John Taylor.

[xx] There was a Book on Limming published anonymously in 1573 and Hilliard’s draft treatise of 1598 still survives in Edinburgh University. A treatise of 1584 by Paolo Lomazzo was translated and printed in English in the 1590s.  This treatise extols the virtues of Raphael, clearly an easy name to remember as it is the same in any language.  However, this English translator virtually dismisses the work of one Leonard Vincent. If you have not guessed already, the translator is referring to Leonardo da Vinci.

[xxi] http://shakespeareoxfordfellowship.org/wp-content/uploads/Rollett.Doublet.pdf

[xxii] Who Killed William Shakespeare; The Murderer, The Motive, The Means; Simon Andrew Stirling ; The History Press; 2013.  Well worth a read.

[xxiii] Source: Wikipedia

[xxiv] I would like to see this miniature subjected to non-invasive pigment analysis to see what pigments were used and if there are any that are more modern than those used by late 16th century and early 17th century artists, such as Isaac Oliver.  The opinion was given after a very short examination of the portrait.



Websites: accessed March 2017.












www.christies.com/features/the-hugo-van-der-goes-painting-revealed-after-centuries/ dated 13th April, 2017 : accessed 5th May 2017.

https://phys.org/news/2017-04-large-area-chemical-imaging-reveals-layers.html  accessed 3rd April 2017.

Anecdotes of painting in England: with some account of the principal artists; and incidental notes on other arts; collected by the late Mr. George Vertue; and now digested and published from his original MSS. by Mr. Horace Walpole. The second edit… by Walpole, Horace, 1717-1797. at http://ota.ox.ac.uk/id/4405 via http://writersinspire.org/content/anecdotes-painting-england-some-account-principal-artists-incidental-notes-other-arts. Accessed on Monday, June 19, 2017.



The photograph of the Unknown Man (known as the Wadlow Portrait) is copyright of the Hamilton Kerr Institute, Cambridge, UK.

Marguerite of Austria, Regent of the Netherlands 1506-1530: Peter van Coninxloo.  Original National Gallery, London. Not on display.

The Cobbe portrait – Anon : Hatchlands; National Trust, Surrey.

National Portrait Gallery portraits referred to within the text by link:

Sir Francis Drake 1581 (portrait miniature) – Nicholas Hilliard

Sir Walter Raleigh 1585 (portrait miniature) – Nicholas Hilliard

Sir Walter Raleigh 1588 – Anon

Sir Walter Raleigh & Son 1602 – Anon

The Chandos portrat  – attr. to John Taylor



Cenni, Cennino d’Andrea (1360-before 1427): The Craftsman’s Handbook; translated by Daniel V Thomson Jr. 1933; original publishers of 1933 translation Yale University Press; available today through www.doverpublications.com

Hearn, Karen; Marcus Gheerhaerts II; Tate Publishing; Tate Enterprises Ltd., Millbank, London SW1P 4RG; 2002.

Dynasties: Painting in Tudor & Jacobean England 1530 – 1630; ed. Karen Hearn; Tate Publishing; Tate Enterprises Ltd., Millbank, London SW1P 4RG; 1995.

Hammerschmidt-Hummelm Hildegard; And the Flower Portrait of William Shakespeare is Genuine After All; Georg Olms Verlag AG; Hildesheim, Zurich, New York, 2010.

Hilliard, Nicholas; A Treatise Concerning the Art of Limning; together with A More Compendious Discourse Concerning Ye Art of Liming by Edward Norgate; eds. R. K. R. Thornton & T. G. S. Cain; Mid Northumberland Arts Group, Northumberland in association with Carcanet New Press, Manchester; 1981

Keirnan, Pauline; Filthy Shakespeare; Quercus, 2006.

Stirling, Simon Andrew: Who Killed William Shakespeare; The Murderer, The Motive, The Means; The History Press; 2013.

Waterhouse, Ellis: Painting in England 1530-1790: Penguin, London 1978


TV Documentary

Shakespeare’s Tomb: Dr Helen Castor investigates.  First Screened 26th March 2016 & available OnDemand All4.



Melanie V. Taylor
Melanie V. Taylor

Having studied the History of Art, Architecture & Design at Kingston University, Surrey (UK), in 2005 I embarked on a full-time Master of Arts degree in Medieval & Early Modern Studies at the University of Kent, graduating in the summer of 2007.

Now I live in Surrey with my terrier and lecture on both art history and history. The various courses I have taught in art history are Art & Architecture in Renaissance 1350-1500; The Exchange of Ideas between Southern & Northern Europe 1400-1600; The Italian High Renaissance & Mannerism; The Stranger Painters of the Tudor Court (stranger is a way of describing foreigners); The Marketing of Monarchy;  Elizabeth I – the Age of Gloriana; The Golden Age of Dutch Art.  My medieval history courses include The Normans in Europe; The Reconquest of Spain; The Rise of the Venetian Republic; The Albigensian Crusade; France 1450 – 1500; I also run study days on the Life and Works of Hans Holbein the YoungerThe History of the Tudor Miniature; Nicholas Hilliard – Elizabeth I’s Miniature Portraitist.  In addition, I give talks to art clubs on all various art movements, which tend to be technical as opposed to lots of the history of the period and the artists.

In November 2007 I started Ashtead Art Lovers, which meets on the last Friday of the month. You can see what we have looked at over the past ten years on the What we have looked at before page. Art is a very much a matter of opinion, which is why I steer away from the artists of the latter part of the 20th century and concentrate on earlier periods.

In the past, I have written articles for the Tudor Society. Now I am able to continue my research into the creators and imagery of illuminated manuscripts of the late 15th and 16th century. Why not visit Melanie V. Taylor – Art Historian with an Interest in Visual Messages occasionally to see what I am up to.



Beth von Staats

is the owner and administrator of QueenAnneBoleyn.com. Blogger of "The Tudor Thomases", Beth specializes in writing magazine articles, online historical articles, short stories, and flash fiction.

Leave a Reply