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Much Ado?

David Dean looks at an Ontario exhibition presenting a new image of the Bard.

Visitors entering the Art Gallery of Ontario’s Leonard Rotunda immediately encounter the small portrait of an auburn-haired, blue-eyed and somewhat mischievous-looking young man that stands alone in the middle of the room. Above, but actually on the wall behind, is the simple question – ‘Shakespeare?’ – thus compelling the viewer to join in the controversy unleashed by the first public showing of the Sanders Portrait, alleged to be of the poet-playwright himself.

The story, which the private owner is hoping will be accepted by potential buyers, goes something like this. In 1603 John Sanders, a former actor now returned to his native Worcester, finished the portrait of a young man. His face is turned a little to the left; his blue eyes are sharp with a hint of amusement. He has a downy moustache, a firm mouth that seems to be on the verge of a smile or smirk, and the hint of whiskers. Yet his hairline is already receding, though a tuft of fluffy hair above the centre of his forehead resists. He is wearing a dark, simply embroidered tunic, with a firm, decorated collar edged in white. In the upper right corner Sanders decided to paint in the date and perhaps added his signature to the bottom (now eaten away). At some point he thought it sensible to attach a label to the back of the picture, announcing the subject to be ‘Shakspere’. It also provided the dates of his subject's birth and death, when the portrait was made, and the accompanying years of age.

Here we apparently have, then, the only painting of Shakespeare done in his lifetime. It passed through twelve generations of the Sanders family, and its current owner has decided to put the painting through rigorous tests before considering its sale. Generously lending it to the Art Gallery of Ontario, he has brought immense publicity and public attention to the picture and, needless to say, to Shakespeare himself.

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