Where’s Shakespeare?

Rape Of Lucrece, by J. Ber (1724). The watercolor is so delicate, the exhibit displays a reproduction.  Source: Folger Shakespeare Library.

“Painting Shakespeare,” the current exhibit at the  Folger Shakespeare Library,  includes some amazing paintings of scenes from Shakespeare.  My favorite: Rape of Lucrece by the 18th century French artist, J. Ber. The smallest painting in this not-to-be-missed exhibit, J. Ber’s wonderful composition of color shines like a stained glass window.

“Painting Shakespeare” runs until February 11, 2018.

The exhibit also displays several paintings of Shakespeare himself. But there’s one problem: none of them are thought definitively to be him. According to one of the exhibit’s information plaques:

The Zuccaro Shakespeare. Source: Folger Shakespeare Library.

“Only two portraits of Shakespeare are widely accepted as genuine likenesses: the engraving on the title page of the First Folio . . . and the sculpture on his memorial in Holy Trinity Church at Stratford-upon-Avon. Both are undeniably dull, making contenders such as [the Zuccaro Shakespeare, shown here at the left] an attractive alternative . . . [W]e now know the artist was not Frederico Zuccaro (1540/41-1609), and the sitter was not Shakespeare. Someone in the 18th century painted a heavy moustache, pointy beard, and small earring, and the inscription ‘William Shakespeare’ to disguise a now-unknown man. Conservation treatment in 1988 restored the painting to its original look.”

So, no painting of Shakespeare we’re sure is him? Now, that’s curious.

We have genuine paintings of a whole slew of 16th and 17th century English poets and playwrights—such as Ben Johnson, John Fletcher, Michael Drayton, Philip Sidney, John Donne, and Christopher Marlowe—but none of the greatest of them all. Zounds! Why not? Where’s Shakespeare?

It’s a question “Painting Shakespeare” doesn’t answer. But wait! Maybe the Folger does have a true portrait of Shakespeare after all. It’s called The Ashbourne Portrait and it hangs in the Founders’ Room at the library. I once saw it on a tour.

The Ashbourne Portrait. Is it Shakespeare? It might be.

The three-quarter length portrait of an Elizabethan man in high ruff, his fingers gently clasping a book, his wrist supported by a skull, was discovered in 1847 in Ashbourne, Derbyshire and identified as Shakespeare. The Folger acquired the painting in 1931 and displayed it as a portrait of the Bard, despite analysis showing that the picture had been overpainted to look like the Droeshout engraving of Shakespeare that appears in the First Folio.

Left: Ashbourne Portrait. Right: Droeshout engraving.

Most notably, the hairline had been raised to make the Ashbourne sitter look significantly more bald. One can still see the shadow of his overpainted hair.

You decide: does the face in the Ashbourne Portrait (center) more resemble Edward de Vere (on left) or Hugh Hamersley (on right)?

In 1940, an infra-red photographic analysis of the Ashbourne Portrait confirmed that the portrait had been altered in several ways and supported a conclusion that the sitter was Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. For the Folger, this wasn’t good news: Edward de Vere is the top alternative candidate for the man who wrote Shakespeare.

Over the next thirty-nine years a series of controversial events (including a lawsuit) led to the Folger’s announcement, in 1979, that the Ashbourne Portrait was neither Shakespeare nor Edward de Vere . . . but Sir Hugh Hamersley, who was the Mayor of London in 1627!

The Ashbourne Portrait has a fascinating story behind it (and, apparently, on top of it, thanks to to the overpainting) so it’s a shame it’s not part of the current exhibit. But the Folger’s decision to keep it out of sight is understandable. The Shakespeare Authorship Question can spark contentious debate—take a look at the one Alexander Waugh and Sir Jonathan Bate just had—and I imagine the Folger, realizing this, deemed it too controversial (even risky) to place the portrait in public view.

Moreover, the Shakespeare Authorship Question is not what “Painting Shakespeare” is about. Indeed, as far as I know, the Folger has never presented a program or exhibit about the authorship issue. Perhaps it should.