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Jack White
03-12-2009, 04:49 AM
From The Times
March 10, 2009
William Shakespeare portrait in Irish home painted from life, say experts

Ben Hoyle, Arts Correspondent
The only surviving portrait of William Shakespeare painted from life has been discovered hanging in an Irish country house, experts claimed yesterday.

For perhaps three hundred years the exquisite oil painting has been passed down through the Cobbe family, aristocrats who can trace their heritage back to Shakespeare's only known literary patron, Henry Wriothesley, the 3rd Earl of Southampton.

The sitter's identity was always a mystery although there was a family suspicion that it might have been Sir Walter Raleigh. Now Stanley Wells, one of the world's foremost Shakespearean authorities, is “90 per cent” convinced that the debonair figure with a glint in his eyes is actually Shakespeare, captured in 1610 when he was 46.

He would have been at the height of his powers, fresh from the gorgeous romance of Antony and Cleopatra and about to plunge into the fairytale worlds of The Winter's Tale, Cymbeline and The Tempest.

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Most previous candidates for a likeness, including the familiar balding man engraved by Martin Droeshout for the front of the First Folio, were inferior corruptions and copies of the Cobbe portrait, Professor Wells believes. All were either made posthumously or leave greater room for doubt about their authenticity.

The Cobbe portrait was “executed with panache, as you would expect from a painting made with a sitter”. That much was clear yesterday when the painting was unveiled in an imposing mahogany panelled room at the English Speaking Union's headquarters in Mayfair.

A barrage of scientific evidence supports the claim, including tree-ring dating of the oak panel on which the portrait is painted, X-ray analysis and infra-red photography. Several of the copies made of it were identified as Shakespeare within living memory of his death, Professor Wells said. With the plausible provenance linking the Cobbe portrait to the Earl of Southampton it amounts to a compelling circumstantial case.

If the identification is correct it alters what we know about Shakespeare in a number of ways. It depicts him as a man of wealth and high social status, undermining the conspiracy theorists' claims that he lacked the refinement to write the works attributed to him.

Intriguingly, it also suggests that he had a longer-lasting bond than previously thought with the Earl, one of the most flamboyant noblemen of the era and a known bisexual who, some scholars believe, had an affair with Shakespeare.

Alec Cobbe, the art restorer who inherited the painting, has an enviable knack of unearthing significant artefacts among his family's possessions.

In 2007 he found Chopin's grand piano in his collection of pianos. The year before that he discovered sketches that proved that Newbridge, his family home in Co Dublin, was the first significant building in Ireland to be designed by a leading British architect.

His latest discovery was spurred by a visit to the Searching for Shakespeare exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London in 2006. One of the works on display, which usually hangs in the Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, caught his eye.

This painting had for centuries been regarded as a bona fide portrait of Shakespeare, but was discredited in the 1940s when X-rays showed that the sitter's hair had been painted over to correspond with the bald head in the Droeshout engraving, presumably with intent to deceive. Mr Cobbe saw the cleaned-up version, with the hair restored, and realised that it was a copy of his mystery painting at home. He called Professor Wells, with whom he was working on a book about Shakespeare and the Earl of Southampton. The professor, general editor of the Oxford Shakespeare and chairman of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, originally had doubts.

“I am a scholar and a sceptic. I thought it's dear old Alec off on one of his hobby horses again,” he said. “But over the years my excitement has mounted. I am willing to go 90 per cent of the way to declaring my confidence [in the identification].”

David Guyatt
03-12-2009, 12:33 PM
Bearing in mind the inherent inaccuracies of portraits, are these two paintings of the same man separated by 10 years or so?

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