Canadian Shakespeare News

Sanders Portrait of Shakespeare: A Summary of the Latest Arguments In Support of Its Authenticity

Sanders Portrait of Shakespeare: A Summary of the Latest Arguments In Support of Its Authenticity

In ongoing correspondence (dating back to January 2011) with Sanders portrait owner Lloyd Sullivan, CASP Director and University Research Chair Daniel Fischlin prepared the following summary of the current situation with regard to the Sanders portrait laying claim to being the only authentic portrait of Shakespeare painted during his lifetime.

At the present time, there are only three portraits that claim to be true-life images of Shakespeare, namely the Chandos, the Cobbe, and the Sanders. Of these, only the Sanders portrait has overwhelming evidence in favor of its authenticity. The evidence of the authenticity in favor of the Sanders portrait far outweighs the evidence of the other two portraits.

The following points need iteration:

1. The owners of the Chandos portrait, the National Portrait Gallery (NPG), have an abundant amount of funds and contacts to promote their portrait and have been doing so for hundreds of years with no evidence (not a single document associating it with Shakespeare) and no competition until now. Their sponsored exhibition “Searching for Shakespeare” in 2006 gave them a golden opportunity to produce evidence to support their claim of authenticity. This they did by claiming that the date of execution of the Chandos portrait was really 1600 not the historical date more traditionally associated with the Chandos of 1610. In 1610, Shakespeare was 46 yrs. old yet the image in the Chandos does not look this old but rather looks like a man in his late twenties or early thirties. For years this was the main criticism against the Chandos portrait.

But they now claim that the Chandos was really painted in 1600 when Shakespeare was 36, thereby making the image more acceptable.

Also, the NPG now claim that the historical painter of the Chandos was really Joseph Taylor, the well-known actor in Shakespeare’s company of actors and not the historic little known painter-stainer John Taylor. When questioned about these new claims, Tarnya Cooper, NPG curator could not and did not provide any new evidence to support these claims and instead said on the BBC TWO’s TV show that it was their  “best guess” that the Chandos portrait is a true-life image of William Shakespeare. It is evident that the NPG’s new claims were made to cause the art world to believe that there is new evidence in support of the authenticity for the Chandos portrait, when in reality there isn’t. This whole story needs to be examined in relation to the status of the NPG and its promotion of an image with a dubious provenance, an imagwe that has been overpainted, and an image that is stylistically not Elizabethan but more late Jacobean or later (i.e. very probably executed after Shakespeare’s death but not of Shakespeare).

2. Similarly, the Cobbe portrait is really the Janssen portrait and is not a portrait of Shakespeare at all but rather a portrait of Thomas Overbury. A study conducted by the Folgers Library in the mid 1940s, I believe, proved this beyond a doubt. Also, the NPG confirmed this and dismissed the Janssen (Cobbe) portrait in their research for the “Searching for Shakespeare” exhibition held at the NPG in London, England in 2006. The owners of the Cobbe portrait led by Stanley Wells are well funded and have the necessary contacts through Mr. Wells and his chairmanship of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust to promote their deception throughout the world of art. The greatest living expert on Elizabethan portraiture, Sir Roy Strong, the former Director of the NPG, has publicly called (and  this is very uncharacteristic of Strong, who is a discrete and sober individual) Wells’s claims about the Cobbe “codswallop.”

3. The Sanders portrait is Canadian-owned and as best can be determined is associated with Lloyd Sullivan’s tenth great grandfather, John Sanders (Senior or JS1) who, as best evidence seems to suggest, was closely tied to Shakespeare and his inner circle of friends, affiliates, and business associates (a relation that extends beyond his generation and into his son’s). It is the only painting of the three that is directly labeled as a portrait of Shakespeare (with a label, ink and glue all consistent with the portrait’s date of 1603). Both the Chandos and the Cobbe portraits are not dated and not signed and their images are not identified on the portraits––the Sanders portrait has both a date and Shakespeare’s name spelled as “Shakspere, the way he signed most of his personal documents.

The Sanders portrait has had 13 arms-length scientific tests successfully carried out on it including forensic tests on the ink on the label on the back of the portrait, which dates it to the 17th century and the period after Shakespeare’s death (from 1616 to about 1650). These tests were independent and conducted by some of the most prominent and respected labs and researchers in their respective fields of expertise including the Canadian Conservation Institute. Moreover, recent genealogical research has discovered that the Sanders family is related to Shakespeare’s relatives including––the Ardens, Throckmortons, and the Catesbys––and to the playwright’s friends and intimates, especially the Heminges and Wintors.

The Sanders portrait is unfairly being held by so-called art and academic experts in the world (mostly British) to a much higher standard of proof than the British portraits. The Sanders portrait has been funded privately on a modest budget and is in serious need of an appropriate level of ongoing support commensurate with the support being provided to the other two portraits, both of which have enormous institutional backing even though their claims are weak and extremely suspect.

The 2013 trip I undertook to London and the Midlands to retrace and double-check all of the family relations, and also to explore the actual urban topography associated with Shakespeare’s social network (research that only a small handful of people have actually undertaken) confirmed that the Sanders family is entirely implicated in the Shakespeare story with significant overlaps evident both in the Midlands and in London proper.

Moreover, as a result of the conference I organized in November 2013 at he Munk Centre, it appears that we have struck on another new line of research that has significant implications for identifying the actual painter and the workshop from which the painting emerged. This research will require more effort but essentially we have the name of the painter or painters, place of the workshop and print-shop where it may have been painted, multiple portraits associated with the workshop, a clear linkage between the owner of the workshop and James I and the court revels (and thus with Shakespeare and his affiliates), and even an apprentice in the workshop married into the Sanders family––all of which appear to point to the probable source of the portrait. Even more astonishing is that the location of this workshop is exactly in the area of early modern London where the Sanders family and Shakespeare and his closest associates lived (all within blocks of each other).

Again, further research is required on this aspect of the portrait’s provenance and how it connects to John Sanders, along with other aspects of the research that will need to unfold in the next while. That said, no other portrait has not only this level of proof but also this level of potential, viable new leads. These will provide us with valuable information about the portrait and with a wholly new set of parallel histories that reveal more about Shakespeare and his time in ways that more conventional research focused on the texts themselves simply cannot.

My main point, then, is that with both the empirical evidence (both scientific and genealogical) that has come forward, there is simply no other contender portrait of Shakespeare with this level of scrutiny and evidence in its favour. As a result the research, legacy, and custodial issues round what happens to the Sanders Portrait next are paramount in the sense that they are literally making history around an object that is extraordinarily unique.

I believe that many, many people would like to see the Sanders portrait remain in Canada in order to preserve its educational and historic (let alone its aesthetic) value as part of a unique legacy bequeathed not only to us but also to our descendants.

The portrait provides a tangible expression of the deep British roots in our collective Canadian history and of the arts and humanities and their importance to Canada generally.

Daniel Fischlin



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