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Searching for Shakespeare

William Shakespeare
associated with John Taylor
circa 1600-1610

Issue 16
Taken from the Face to Face newsletter

2 March - 29 May 2006

Surprisingly, the founding portrait of the National Portrait Gallery, known as NPG number 1, was not of a monarch or a member of the nobility but a portrait long considered to represent England’s greatest poet and playwright, William Shakespeare (1564–1616). It was offered to the nation in 1856 by Lord Ellesmere in an exemplary act of benefaction. As the most important candidate for consideration as a contemporary portrait of Shakespeare from the life, the painting, known as the ‘Chandos’ portrait, has graced the covers of several shelves of books on the playwright and has become an icon in its own right.

The identity of the sitter in the Chandos portrait is difficult to prove with absolute certainty. However, the portrait has a long history as an acclaimed image of Shakespeare and was once owned by Shakespeare’s godson, Sir William Davenant. Other evidence, particularly on the emergence of author portraiture in the late 1590s and the 1600s, is suggestive, but the identity is likely to remain unproven. Shakespeare’s image is instantly recognisable and readily appropriated throughout the world, from books and banknotes to pub signs, but do we know what he really looked like? The answer to that question is reasonably straightforward, because two images produced shortly after his death must have been seen and approved by friends and family. The Stratfordupon-Avon memorial bust was installed after 1620 and the 1623 engraving of Shakespeare by Martin Droeshout was almost certainly based on an earlier portrait, indicating that Shakespeare would have had his portrait painted during his lifetime.

William Shakespeare
by Martin Droeshout
1632 or 1663-1664
NPG 185

The starting point for the exhibition Searching for Shakespeare was the history of the Gallery’s first portrait, but the exhibition also explored the twin themes of portraiture and biography with reference to one very remarkable individual. The exhibition both presented new research on the complex subject of Shakespeare portraiture and explored the existing material evidence about the playwright’s life from his early years in Stratford-upon-Avon to his arrival in London and eventual career as a celebrated playwright.

At the centre of the exhibition alongside the Chandos portrait, we brought together five key portraits previously thought to derive from the seventeenth century. These portraits were all regarded at different times as being a contender as a life time portrait of Shakespeare. In preparation for the exhibition, several of these portraits have been subject to exhaustive technical analysis to confirm the date and authenticity, and the results of this groundbreaking research are published in the accompanying catalogue.

We have been very fortunate in securing some wonderful loans, including paintings, rarely lent manuscripts, early books and items of seventeenthcentury costume from museums and private collections in Britain and America. As the Gallery holds the largest public collection of sixteenthand seventeenth-century British portraits, we are particularly well placed to explore the surviving material evidence from Shakespeare’s own time. The exhibition therefore focused upon the period of his life and explores the world he and his contemporaries knew, rather than the many later mythologies that grew up around our national poet in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Benjamin ('Ben') Jonson
by Abraham van Blyenberch
circa 1617
NPG 2752

The show offered an unprecedented opportunity to see much of the surviving sixteenth- and seventeenthcentury documentary evidence on Shakespeare’s life. It includes rarely seen historical documents such as a parish register (recording his birth and death) and his original will. These ordinary traces of an extraordinary life that began well over 400 years ago are very moving, and the body of evidence found in both the exhibition and the accompanying catalogue provides new insights into his life. The exhibition also includes brilliant portraits of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, his fellow actors and playwrights, and poets such as Ben Jonson and John Donne, together with courtiers such as Henry Wriothesley, the young and glamorous Earl of Southampton, who became his patron.

The preparations for this show were painstakingly undertaken over three years. The Gallery has collaborated with more than twenty scholars in various specialisms: historians, literature scholars, manuscript specialists and experts on costume and the decorative arts. The exhibition opened at the Gallery in London on 2 March 2006 and run until the end of May; it then travelled to the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven between June and September 2006. An illustrated book accompanied the exhibition, with essays from Stanley Wells, James Shapiro, Tarnya Cooper and Marcia Pointon.

Dr Tarnya Cooper
16th Century Curator

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