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William Shakespeare

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William Shakespeare

associated with John Taylor
oil on canvas, feigned oval, circa 1610
21 3/4 in. x 17 1/4 in. (552 mm x 438 mm) overall
Given by Francis Egerton, 1st Earl of Ellesmere, 1856
This portrait has been adopted thanks to a generous donation from Michael Silver and Stephanie Thomas
Primary Collection

On display in Room 3 on Floor 3 at the National Portrait Gallery


This tortoiseshell frame was made for the pic…

Sitterback to top

Artistback to top

  • John Taylor (died 1651), Painter. Artist or producer associated with 13 portraits.

This portraitback to top

This is the only portrait of Shakespeare that has a good claim to have been painted from life. It may be by a painter called John Taylor who was an important member of the Painter-Stainers' Company. The portrait is known as the 'Chandos portrait', after a previous owner, and was the first portrait to be acquired by the National Portrait Gallery, when it was founded in 1856.

Related worksback to top

Linked publicationsback to top

  • I-Spy National Portrait Gallery, 2010, p. 16
  • Tudor Portraits Resource Pack, p. 38
  • 100 Portraits, p. 9
  • Smartify image discovery app
  • 100 Writers, p. 25
  • Audio Guide
  • Bolland, Charlotte, Tudor & Jacobean Portraits, 2018, p. 118 Read entry

    Poet and playwright William Shakespeare was described by his contemporary Ben Jonson as the 'soul of the age'. He was born in Stratford-upon- Avon, the son of a glover, and attended the local grammar school, the King's New School. He married Anne Hathaway in 1582 and in the later 1580s joined a company of actors. He spent most of his working life in London, first as an actor and then as a playwright, providing plays for the immensely popular public theatres and the court. The posthumous publication of Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies ('the First Folio') in 1623 was a milestone in the recognition of plays as lasting, influential works of literature, as they were commonly considered to be ephemeral texts that belonged to the theatre by which they were commissioned. This is the only painted portrait of Shakespeare that has a good claim to have been painted from the life. The notebooks of the eighteenth-century antiquarian George Vertue record that the portrait was at one point owned by Shakespeare's godson William Davenant, and that it was painted by 'one Taylor, a Player and painter', who was a contemporary of Shakespeare; this is believed to be a reference to John Taylor, who was a member of the Painter–Stainers' Company. The painting could have been displayed in a theatre in the mid-seventeenth century, as Davenant lived at the Fortune Theatre in London.

  • Charles Nicholl, Shakespeare and his Contemporaries, 2015, p. 39
  • Clare Gittings, The National Portrait Gallery Book of Elizabeth I, 2006, p. 29
  • Cooper, John, A Guide to the National Portrait Gallery, 2009, p. 18 Read entry

    The first portrait acquired by the Gallery on its foundation in 1856; a modest portrait, with a strong claim to authenticity, of the most celebrated writer of the English language.

  • Cooper, John, Visitor's Guide, 2000, p. 26
  • Cooper, John, Great Britons: The Great Debate, 2002, p. 49 Read entry

    The gold earring in The Chandos Portrait surprises many people. Men wore them extensively in the sixteenth century, the most fashionable sporting elaborate dangling confections of pearls and jewels. This potrait was the first acquired by the National Portrait Gallery, in 1856. Its provenance gives it a reasonable claim to authenticity and the likely artist was a contemporary of Shakespeare. It is of workmanlike quality, and since the eighteenth century has vied with the Droeshout engraving as the most reproduced and adapted.

  • Cooper, Tarnya, Searching for Shakespeare, 2006 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 2 March - 29 May 2006), p. 53
  • Cooper, Tarnya, Searching for Shakespeare (hardback), 2006 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 2 March - 29 May 2006), p. 53
  • Cooper, Tarnya, Elizabeth I & Her People, 2013 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 10 October 2013 - 5 January 2014), p. 212
  • Edited by Rab MacGibbon and Tanya Bentley, Icons and Identities, 2021, p. 24
  • Edited by Rab MacGibbon and Tanya Bentley, Icons and Identities, 2021, p. 6
  • Gittings, Clare, The National Portrait Gallery Book of The Tudors, 2006, p. 26
  • Hulme, Graham; Buchanan, Brian; Powell, Kenneth, The National Portrait Gallery: An Architectural History, 2000, p. 24
  • John Cooper, National Portrait Gallery Visitor's Guide, 2006, p. 26
  • Lucinda Hawksley, Moustaches, Whiskers and Beards, 2014, p. 28
  • MacLeod, Catharine, Tudor Portraits in the National Portrait Gallery Collection, 1996, p. 38
  • Motion, Andrew (edited), Interrupted Lives: In Literature, 2004, p. 16
  • Nicholl, Charles, Character Sketches: Elizabethan Writers, 1997, p. 12
  • Nicholl, Charles, Insights: Shakespeare and His Contemporaries, 2005, p. 32
  • Parris, Matthew, Heroes and Villains: Scarfe at the National Portrait Gallery, 2003 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 30 September 2003 to 4 April 2004), p. 120
  • Piper, David, The English Face, 1992, p. 58
  • Pointon, Marcia, Hanging the head : portraiture and social formation in eighteenth-¿century England, 1993, p. 230 number 271
  • Rab MacGibbon, National Portrait Gallery: The Collection, p. 27
  • Saumarez Smith, Charles, The National Portrait Gallery: An Illustrated Guide, 2000, p. 51
  • Saumarez Smith, Charles, The National Portrait Gallery, 1997, p. 50 Read entry

    This was the first portrait to be acquired by the Gallery and remains one of its most important, since it is the only reaonsably authentic contemporary likeness of Shakespeare. It was said by George Vertue, the eighteenth-century antiquary, to have been painted 'by one Taylor a Player and painter contemporary with Shakespeare and his intimate friend' and to have been left by John Taylor to Sir William Davenant, the poet laureate, who claimed to be Shakespeare's godson. On Davenant's death, it was acquired by the actor Thomas Betterton and, while owned by him, was copied by Kneller. When Betterton died, it was acquired for 40 guineas by a barrister, Robert Keck, who provided information about it to Vertue. So its early history is fairly well documented. But who John Taylor might have been has never been definitively established. There was an actor called Joseph Taylor mentioned in the First Folio; and a John Taylor is recorded in the minute books of the Company of Painter-Stainers in the 1620s; but there is only one person in Shakespeare's life who was well regarded as a painter and as an actor and he was Richard Burbage. Whoever it is by, the portrait is fascinating as a document of Shakespeare's appearance, with an earring in his left ear and a look of ruffian intelligence.

  • Saywell, David; Simon, Jacob, Complete Illustrated Catalogue, 2004, p. 558
  • Schama, Simon, The Face of Britain: The Nation Through its Portraits, 2015-09-15, p. 324
  • Simon, Jacob, The Art of the Picture Frame: Artists, Patrons and the Framing of Portraits in Britain, 1997 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 8 November 1996 - 9 February 1997), p. 28, 179 Read entry

    Tortoiseshell veneer on pine(?), mitred and pinned, applied fruitwood sight and top mouldings. 4 inches wide.

    Like some other celebrated pictures, the so-called 'Chandos Portrait' of Shakespeare has been reframed several times in its history. By chance, the National Portrait Gallery owns two of the previous frames, dating to the early 1800s and the 1860s; what we lack is the original frame, which was presumably a modest plain black moulding perhaps with a gilt sight edge.

    It was the very modesty of the original frame which would have made it seem inappropriate to a later owner wanting something more conspicuous. The earliest recorded frame was a Maratta type, which may have been fitted to the picture when it came to Stowe from the Chandos collection sometime in the early nineteenth century. The frame was probably made in the 1760s for a portrait measuring thirty by twenty-five inches, and was subsequently cut down (hence the off-centre reversal of the top edge ribbon-and-stick) and enriched with compo shells at the corners to suit an early nineteenth-century taste.

    The portrait was the National Portrait Gallery's first recorded acquisition, and was given by the Earl of Ellesmere in 1856, the year of the Gallery's foundation. Its Maratta frame was regilded in 1858, only to be removed in 1864 at the wish of the Trustees who considered the portrait was 'seen to disadvantage in its present frame'. George Scharf, the Gallery's Director, records Mr Dickinson of Foord & Dickinson calling to discuss a new frame on 2 February 1864. It was intended that the cost of £4.10s should be partly offset by sale of the old frame, but in the event it was kept and fitted to a portrait of William Whiston.1 A further eighteen shillings was spent in April 1864 altering and recolouring the new frame.2 The rather horrific result echoes panel frames of the late seventeenth century but the dark background gives the frame a rather earlier feel.

    In the 1950s or 1960s the portrait was put in a shadow box, a simple glazed box, with a velvet background, a fashionable solution at the time.3 In 1983 an old mock tortoiseshell frame from store was dismantled and cut down, and the sight and back edges replaced by John Davies at a cost of £206.60.

    1 The Whiston frame still bears the pink label of the 1857 Manchester Art Treasures exhibition to which the Shakespeare was lent as no.85.

    2 Trustees Minutes 1 December 1863, 15 February 1864; Secretary's Journal (1861-65), 2 February, 26 and 30 March, 9, 19 and 23 April 1864; Duplicate of accounts vol.I, pp 18, 44.

    3 Information from Robin Gibson.

  • Various contributors, National Portrait Gallery: A Portrait of Britain, 2014, p. 61 Read entry

    The poet, actor and playwright William Shakespeare is one of the world’s most celebrated cultural figures, and it is perhaps appropriate that this painting was the first to be presented to the newly founded National Portrait Gallery in 1856. His prodigious output included poems, sonnets, history plays, tragedies and comedies. Undoubtedly the most influential playwright in history, his works include A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Romeo and Juliet (both c.1594–6), Hamlet (c.1600), Macbeth (1606) and The Tempest (1609–11).

    This portrait was identified in the mid-seventeenth century as a portrait of Shakespeare made during his lifetime, though the identity remains highly probable, rather than proven. It bears a good similarity to Shakespeare’s memorial bust and to an engraved likeness included in his published works in 1623. Documentary sources suggest that it was painted by a little-known artist who went by the name ‘Taylor’ (possibly John Taylor [d.1651]). The simple costume worn by the sitter of a black doublet and falling collar, is similar to that seen in the portrait of Ben Jonson, Shakespeare’s contemporary. The work is known today as the ‘Chandos’ portrait after a previous owner.

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Events of 1610back to top

Current affairs

Lady Arabella Stuart, cousin of James I, secretly marries William Seymour, Marquess of Hertford.
James I's chaotic finances prompts Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury to submit to Parliament the great contract which proposed increases to the king's income for James's relinquishment of his feudal rights; however, it was not implemented.

Art and science

The Alchemist, by playwright Benjamin Jonson, is first performed by the acting troupe, the King's Men. Jonson also writes Prince Henry's Barriers, in honour of Henry, Prince of Wales.
Stationers' Company agrees to give Thomas Bodley a copy of every book registered with them for his growing Bodleian Library.


Henry IV, King of France, is assassinated in Paris by Catholic fanatic, François Ravaillac. Henry, born a Calvinist, converted to Catholicism before ascending the throne to appease his future subjects. Although a popular king, much loved by his people, two earlier attempts had been made on his life.

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Andrea Campana

29 March 2019, 18:22

Please see my story recently published in The Heythrop Journal entitled "All Roads Lead to Campion: George North, William Shakespeare, and the Chandos Portrait". It can be found at this link:

The article explores the connections between the portrait and the Jesuit enclave that existed at Grafton Manor, as well as the portrait's connections to Wroxton Abbey.