March 11, 2009

…False Face Must Hide what the False Heart Doth Know

It was one of those coincidences. I had been visiting the utterly compelling Gilbert Stuart blog in which Beth Ahrens-Kley tries to prove that a family painting of her 5X Great Uncle was in fact painted by George Washington’s portraitist Gilbert Stuart.

The painting got me thinking about the Sanders portrait of Shakespeare which was exhibited at the Art Gallery of Ontario in 2001. I thought I would write a quick article on the Sander’s portrait when lo and behold, today (March 10) a new painting of Shakespeare was revealed to the public in London.

In May 2001 Globe & Mail contributor Stephanie Nolen met with Lloyd Sullivan near Ottawa to discuss a painting in his possession that might have been a portrait of Shakespeare. The traditional family story was that a dozen generations into the past an ancestor of Sullivan’s called John Sanders painted a portrait of Shakespeare. Sullivan inherited this enigmatic painting from his mother in 1972 and had since been keeping it in a cupboard in his upstairs hall.

Born 1576 in Worcester, England, John Sanders left home to make his fortune in London, where he became a bit player with Shakespeare's company, the Lord Chamberlain's Men. Apparently Sanders tried his hand at portraiture too. Sometime in 1603, he prepared a thick oak panel, some oil paints and painted the likeness of his colleague William Shakespeare. He, or one of his offspring, labeled the picture:
Born April 23 – 1564
Died April 23 – 1616
Aged 52
This Likeness taken 1603
Age at that time 39 ys.”
The portrait was handed down through the generations, passing from John Sanders to his son, and so on through the family until it ended up in Lloyd Sullivan’s hands.

Stephanie Nolen was convinced that this tale would make a great subject for a book. At first she wrote about the Sanders Potrait at length for
the Globe& Mail and then she urged Sullivan to have the portrait authenticated. If it was Shakespeare, it would be the only surviving painting executed during the playwright’s life.

Nolen did an admirable job investigating this story. It’s the kind of scoop I imagine most writers dream of. With the help of experts she compiled her work into a book entitled Shakespeare's Face.

The Sanders Portrait was subjected to 15 scientific tests conducted by the Canadian Conservation Institute. All the tests were positive including the carbon dating of the paper label on the reverse of the painting and the dendrochronological (tree-ring dating) tests performed on the portrait’s two wooden panels. In addition to the scientific tests carried out on the John Sanders portrait, genealogical evidence and a number of documents and letters pointed the way to prove that the portrait was painted in 1603 as a true image of Shakespeare.

That being said, five of the seven experts Nolen consulted in the preparation of her book, do not believe that the picture is of Shakespeare. They argued that the figure in the Sanders Portrait looks much younger than the age of 39 that Shakespeare would have been in 1603 and that the label on the reverse of the painting is inauthentic.

I saw the Sanders Shakespeare on exhibit in 2001. He does look slightly like some of the other famous so-called renderings of Shakespeare, including the portrait unveiled today (March 10) in London, but the man in the Sander’s image has much more personality. Essentially an oil painting on a plank that has been sawed down one side, I believe this portrait to be as old as they say it is. It’s a painting that 12 generations of a family were compelled to save for 400 years. Whether it’s Shakespeare or not, it is definitely a painting of a charming man at the cusp of the Jacobean era.

Nolen, Stephanie, et al. Shakespeare's Face. Toronto: Knopf, 2002


Poetikat said...

Very interesting post and exceedingly well related. The man in the Sanders' portrait DOES look very young for 39 years though, doesn't he?
Imagine, having such a thing in one's possession.
I'm just curious, how old is Lloyd Sullivan?

Thank you for sharing such an illuminating piece.


Margaret Gosden said...

A very interesting story. In what way is the label on the reverse side of the painting inauthentic, I wonder.
And I would imagine that Shakespeare had more personality than he has ever been portrayed as having! !

The Clever Pup said...


Regarding the label - because Shakespeare's date of death is included, it was obviously added later. Experts can't tell if it was attached by the Sanders, one of his family or just someone HOPING it was Shakespeare.

Dot-Com said...

What an inspiring post, it's great to read and learn!

John-Michael said...

A thoroughly fascinating Tale that stimulates wonderful flights of fanciful imagination. Whether 'true' or not (and I choose to believe that it smacks of Truth) i do love the Family legacy with all of its incumbent pride and traditions.

In a similar vein, I simply MUST tell you that the Image entitled "Me," that rests on your side-bar, is a constant source of a happy and joyful smile, each time that I have opportunity to enjoy it. Thus, I thank you for both the Story ... and the Image.

Appreciatively ...

willow said...

This post is right up my little alley! Very intriguing. It does look enough like other images of Shakespeare to be a younger version.

giulia said...

Illuminating, interesting, & beautifully written, as always(& previous post re: painting(s). Much better than was in the WPost. Thanks, CP

Beth Ahrens-Kley said...

lovely blog and lovely post, right up my alley as well. I'm thrilled!

sallymandy said...

Fascinating, Hazel! That guy could be 39; he has a slightly receding hairline, it looks like.