Searching for Shakespeare

Past exhibition archive
2 March 2006 - 29 May 2007

Supported by Credit Suisse

In 1856 the first portrait presented to the newly-founded National Portrait Gallery was a compelling painting considered to be of William Shakespeare, known as the "Chandos" portrait. At this date Shakespeare's appearance had been a matter of national interest for around two centuries. Yet the identity of this picture is still considered unproven and today we have no certain lifetime portrait of England's most famous poet and playwright. On the occasion of the National Portrait Gallery's 150th anniversary in 2006, an exhibition on the biography and portraiture was staged at the Gallery.

Alongside the Chandos portrait, five other "contender" portraits purporting to represent Shakespeare were displayed together for the first time. The exhibition presented the results of new technical analysis and research on several of these pictures casting new light on the search for Shakespeare's authentic appearance. Shakespeare's life can only be partially reconstructed, but this exhibition also attempted to search for the Shakespeare his contemporaries knew by looking closely at his own circle. The exhibition brought together original documents relating to Shakespeare's life and portraits of his contemporaries including actors, patrons and other playwrights, in order to place the poet not in our historical imagination, but within his own time.

Exhibition catalogue

Shakespeare and his contemporaries

    William Shakespeare,    associated with John Taylor,    circa 1610,    NPG 1,    © National Portrait Gallery, London William Shakespeare, associated with John Taylor, circa 1610