Canadian Shakespeare News

Sanders Portrait of Shakespeare: Reception History

The flow of new scientific and genealogical information related to the Sanders Portrait of Shakespeare escalated dramatically in the period dating from 2001-2011. Along with major exhibits at the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in London as part of the Gallery’s 150th anniversary in 2006, the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), Yale University (Yale Center for British Art), and the Macdonald Stewart Art Gallery at the University of Guelph (which featured a six-month Shakespeare Made in Canada exhibit with the Sanders Portrait as its centrepiece), the new information surrounding the Sanders portrait’s contexts has also prompted an increasing number of major theatrical figures and scholars to comment on it.

Below is a short listing of some of these comments drawn from a wide range of published sources (that include Vanity Fair, the New York Times, the Globe & Mail, the London Sunday Times), the acclaimed Anne Henderson 2008 film “Battle of Wills” (which has had major TV airplay on Bravo and in French Canada), scholarly conferences and journals, blogs, and gallery-goer comments written into guestbooks at major art galleries.

Actor and star of Academy Award winning film Shakespeare in Love, Joseph Fiennes, on the Sanders Portrait (excerpt from Anne Henderson’s documentary Battle of Wills).

The range of national and international media coverage of the Sanders Portrait of Shakespeare’s claims, along with the  investigative journalism and critical opinion pieces, that have emerged over the last 3 years, is exceptional. Some of the most eminent publications globally have taken a sustained and active interest in the Sanders and, it should be underlined, not one has found a whit of evidence to the contrary regarding the claims it has to authenticity, neither in terms of provenance nor in terms of the science performed on the actual object nor in terms of the internal evidence found in the portrait itself.

The comments cited below, aside from their pertinence to debates on authenticity, point to the Sanders Portrait as having a major ongoing place in the legacy of portraiture associated with Shakespeare. No future discussion of Shakespeare’s image painted in his own historical moment will be complete without reference to the Sanders Portrait of Shakespeare.

Moreover, over and above its survival for over 400 years in one family’s possession, and its astonishing journey into its current context, its remarkably accomplished aesthetics make it a stand-alone and utterly unique example of Elizabethan/Jacobean portaiture with significant cultural and historical value. This is especially so in its Canadian context, where the Sanders Portrait of Shakespeare stands as an exceptional, sui generis, artefact associated with Canada’s distinct cultural heritage and Canada’s historic relations to its colonial contexts.

1. Comments by well-known actors concerning the Sanders Portrait of Shakespeare

• Two well-known actors, Canadian star Gordon Pinsent and Academy Award winner Kevin Spacey, had just finished filming the movie “The Shipping News” in Newfoundland when they heard about the Sanders painting on display at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO). Pinsent and Spacey changed their flight plans, and instead of returning to  Hollywood flew directly to Toronto to view the Sanders portrait.

The following are their comments written in the Art Gallery of Ontario’s (AGO) guestbook on June 22, 2001:

• Gordon Pinsent:

“Very convincing. That does it for me. Thank you!  Thank you!  Thank you!”

• Kevin Spacey:

“We simply want it to be him. He looks as one would expect. Bemused and mischievous.”

2. Newspaper and Magazine Quotes

• “This is what we want Shakespeare to look like. The man who wrote these plays had a staggering imagination. This portrait makes Shakespeare look like a bohemian, an artist and not a prosperous businessman. We see somebody full of life, someone who is roguish, with a twinkle in his eye.”

––Richard Monette, former Artistic Director of the Stratford Festival. Quoted in “Is This a Picture of Shakespeare We See Before Us?” New York Times, May 28, 2001.

•“The combination of family provenance and lore, the actual scientific testing on all components of the physical aspects of the portrait are consistent,” [Daniel] Fischlin said.

“And now, remarkably,” he continued, “the direct line of Sanders back through Lloyd Sullivan’s maternal ancestry takes us directly into the heart of Shakespeare country with multiple family connections between the Sanders and Shakespeare’s immediate cultural milieu. No other portrait even comes close to this array of evidence, however circumstantial.” Exploring the origins of the portrait, he added, is important because it helps bring more clarity to Shakespeare’s life — his personal interactions and the historical context in which he lived and worked.“The Sanders portrait and its genealogy gets deep into these contexts and reveals an array of interactions and local histories that matter because they shed so much light on some of the key aspects of the early modern period that gave shape to our own historical contexts,” he said.

It is clear that the portrait is worth a great deal of money, but that detail is not as important as “knowing that no future discussion of Shakespeare’s image and history will be complete without reference to the Sanders portrait and its history,” he said.

“I’m very much hoping that a Canadian collector or institution will have the foresight to acquire the portrait and make it accessible in a proper public and pedagogical environment,” said Fischlin, who has been involved in the investigation for about eight years.

––Rob O’Flanagan, “Authenticity claim grows for Bard portrait,” The Guelph Mercury, March 18, 2011

• “This image allows us to relate the man to the humor, comedy and mischief in his work. He’s actually wearing a bit of a smirk, all of which makes the portrait very tempting.”

––Professor Alexander Leggatt, University of Toronto, quoted in “Is This a Picture of Shakespeare We See Before Us?” New York Times, May 28, 2001.

• “The London art dealer Angus Neill represents the Sanders portrait in Britain. In the film, he makes his argument against the Chandos, a portrait that is fast losing ground. He describes the Cobbe as “a highly polished and accomplished portrait of a nobleman, but completely lacking the ‘spiritual power’ of the Sanders, which I can only describe as the Mona Lisa of Elizabethan portraiture”. Neill’s love affair with the Sanders began when he saw the image as he flicked through a magazine while waiting for a train: “I nearly fainted. When I went to the NPG show, the Sanders knocked everything else off the wall.”

––Quoted from Christine Finn, “Desperately Seeking Shakespeare,” The Sunday Times, March 22, 2009

•  “But as Daniel Fischlin observes: ‘Not one claim about the Sanders portrait has been reasonably rebutted by experts. The only thing I’ve heard in direct rebuttal is [Tarnya] Cooper’s … naive and impressionistic claim [made in 2002 and again in 2006] that the Sanders isn’t Shakespeare because the sitter does not appear to be 39. … No other Shakespeare image has had this level of scrutiny and evidence that has been tested very publicly in all sorts of ways with still no argument worthy of mention to knock it down.’”

––Quoted from James Adams, “Ottawa portrait owner is the Bard’s kin,” The Globe & Mail, April 11, 2009

• “He is mischievous, keen-eyed, and almost flirtatious. Half twinkle, half smirk, he looks out from his portrait with a tolerant, world-weary air. This is Shakespeare. Perhaps you thought you knew him: bald pate, thin brows, stiff white ruff. You thought wrong.”

––Stephanie Nolen, Globe & Mail, “Portrait piques world interest,” May 12, 2001

• “It’s a wonderfully romantic portrait. He looks amused and amusing and intelligent, just the way we’d rather like Shakespeare to look.”

––Professor Anne Lancashire, University of Toronto

• “The Sanders portrait puts a human face on English literature.”

––Professor Alexander Leggatt, University of Toronto

• “The very breeziness with which (the Sanders) tucked (the portrait) under beds and in closets argues profound certainty. That rather perfunctory label hints at a mind which accepted the sitter’s identity because it had already become a tradition, a given, something understood.”

––Murrough O’Brien, The Independent, March 23, 2003

• “It’s a quite persuasive painting. It’s a quite different Shakespeare from what we’re used to … and there’s nothing wrong with that.”

––Quote in a Reuters News story, Thursday, May 24, 2001 by Stephen Orgel, Professor in Humanities at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California

• The Sanders portrait, dating from Shakespeare’s lifetime, is the most unconventional and emotionally appealing of the contenders for his true likeness: it shows somebody akin to the character played by Joseph Fiennes in the film Shakespeare in Love. The hair and eye color match a description of Shakespeare that has been attributed to Christopher Marlowe.”

–– Report by Christopher Hudson, Scotland’s Sunday Times, Feb. 5, 2006

• In a piece on Shakespearean portraiture, Adam Gopnik, an art critic with The New Yorker, opines that the Sanders Portrait is  “even better-credentialled” than the Cobbe but “never got what the political writers like to call ‘traction’ … its [the Sanders’] wood [is] securely dated to the early seventeenth century, [and it] also shows a good-looking rock-star Shakespeare—though the Sanders looks less like George in ’67 and more like Dylan on the cover of “New Morning,” a shaggy guy with a wry smile—and has every bit as good a provenance as the new one, and a better direct claim: there’s a slip of paper, securely dated to the period, on the back of the thing that once read, in part, ‘Shakespere…this likeness taken 1603’ … And the Canadian portrait shows a guy who, though not yet bald, is unmistakably going bald.

So the real takeaway ought to be that, if this [the Cobbe] is a new portrait of Shakespeare, it would probably have to date earlier than the date they’re giving. Or else, as Ben Jonson said, that we ought to look “not on his picture, but his book.” Or, best of all, just trust Canada.

–– Article by Adam Gopnik, The New Yorker, March 12, 2009

• “What strikes us most about it is the face itself, the emotional content, the character in it. He’s half smiling. He’s looking at you, but not looking at you. He has a very alluring, sly, perhaps mischievous kind of appearance. The actor’s virtue is in his face … the real prop in this painting isn’t a prop at all. It’s the face. I think this is an actor’s face. I think in painting this, that’s what the painter was trying to tell us. This is not the face of anybody else but an actor. Who else would want to look like that?”

–– Prof. Robert Tittler quoted in a Concordia University Report, on March 28, 2002 

• “The Sanders portrait by contrast, brims with life. The sitter is 39 years old … certainly he looks it; his hairline is receding, with a pronounced widow’s peak, though he is not yet fully bald in front as in the Droeshout engraving and the tomb effigy. There are soft hints of laugh lines around the blue-grey eyes, which twinkle with subtle merriment. The small mouth turns up in a gentle smile, as though he were just about to share a cracking good tale (and probably quite a bawdy one) with the viewer … (The) Sanders (Portrait), by resisting it, has succeeded in giving us what the others could not: a fully human image of Shakespeare the man. What All the other portraits of Shakespeare have in common, besides their reliance on the basic template of the Droeshout engraving, is a preternatural solemnity that attempts to romanticize Shakespeare, but succeeds only in rendering him dreadfully gloomy and ultimately banal. I think it really is him. The clothes, the hair, the face, the expression—they all tally with his biographical details and the milieus he moved in.”

––Poet Sabina Becker, June 24, 2006

• “His hair is soft and lively, receding, unconcerned…lips touching skin drooping slightly under quick, mirthful eyes – the effect as a whole is captivating.”

––Kate Foster, The Antigonish Review, Issue 135

• In an interesting presentation at the Toronto Reference Library on Feb. 09, 2010 entitled CSI: Shakespeare: Investigating the Portraits of William Shakespeare, Dr. Jane Freeman put thumbs down on almost all of the portraits of Shakespeare except one. The only one she thinks has a real chance of being Shakespeare is the Sanders portrait which she says “has passed all the tests so far, and is Canadian too boot!”

––Professor Jane Freeman, Director of English Language Writing Support, School of Graduate Studies, University of Toronto, and member of the Board of Governors, Stratford ’s Shakespeare Festival

• An international conference entitled “Wartime Shakespeare in a Global Context” was organized and hosted by the University of Ottawa, September 18-20, 2009. The opening of the conference was held at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa with the unveiling of the Sanders portrait which was featured in a month long exhibition at the Museum.

Professor Dr. Irena Makaryk, University of Ottawa, Vice Dean at the Faculty of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies chaired the organizing committee and hosted the conference.

Mark O’Neill, Director-General, Canadian War Museum and Vice-President, Canadian Museum of Civilization Corporation, opened the conference with the President of the University of Ottawa, Allan Rock, unveiling the Sanders portrait of Shakespeare, which went on exhibition for a month at the museum.

 Both Dr. Irena Makaryk and Mark O’Neill support the Sanders portrait.

• David Loch, owner and president of Loch Galleries (Toronto, Winnipeg, Calgary), is a strong supporter of the Sanders portrait and firmly believes in its authenticity. “I have held the Chandos portrait of Shakespeare in my hands and it left me stone cold. On the other hand, I have held the Sanders portrait in my hands and I had emotions and feelings coming out all over.”

––David Loch, documentary film, “Battle of Wills” about the the Sanders portrait saga.

3. Vanity Fair Feature

In 2001, when the Sanders portrait first attracted international attention, the American magazine “Vanity Fair” ran a full-page color photo of the painting in its December 2001 issue (pp. 282-83). The photo appeared opposite a corresponding one-page essay by the literary critic and Shakespeare scholar Harold Bloom, Sterling Professor of Humanites at Yale University.

Referring specifically to the Sanders portrait, Harold Bloom remarks on its “splendour” and states: “Why do we care what Shakespeare looked like? The traditional portraits of him have no particular authority, I prefer this one, since it is livelier.”

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4. Costume and Hairstyle

Jenny Tiramani, Director of Theatre Design at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London, England analyzed the clothing and hairstyle of the sitter in the Sanders portrait. After exhaustive study and research, a team of experts led by Tiramani, confirmed that the sitter’s clothing and hairstyle in the portrait are wholly consistent with the 1603 date of the Sanders portrait as well as for for someone of William Shakespeare’s rank and social status in that historical moment.

It is important to recognize that, in addition to the scientific and genealogical evidence that strongly favour the Sanders Portrait, the internal evidence associated with the image itself is wholly consistent, and recognized as such by one of the leading contemporary experts in Elizabethan and Jacobean costume and clothing with a vast experience in the area.

From close study of the internal evidence that the Sanders Portrait presents, Tiramani concludes, “The Sanders Portrait certainly shows a man appearing exactly as Shakespeare might have chosen to be painted to mark the occasion of becoming a royal servant [to James I in 1603]” (52).

In the documentary film, “Battle of Wills,” Ms. Tiramini states that there is very good reason to believe that the sitter in the Sanders portrait is, indeed, William Shakespeare.

––Tiramani’s findings are published in the Journal of the Costume Society of London, (2005, Number 39). Click on the gallery below to view the full article with images.

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5. Blog Interview and Commentary

Respected Canadian documentarian filmmaker Anne Henderson, in an online blog interview, notes how in making her film “Battle of Wills” she encountered resistance from the Shakespeare establishment:

“The resistance I encountered was not from the film financing agencies, but from the Shakespeare establishment centered in Stratford and the National Portrait Gallery in London. There is a huge amount of money generated by licensing images of Shakespeare; in addition, I think there is a desire to control interpretations and some scholars are guarding their academic turf. I suspect that if the Sanders portrait emerged from Earl So-and-so’s collection (as opposed to a Canadian family’s), it would have been taken more seriously! Which of course brings us to the newly-discovered Cobbe portrait, owned by an aristocratic Anglo-Irish family. I was aware of the research being done on this image for some time. The Cobbe is backed by the same Stratford scholars mentioned above. There are many problems with the image, not the least of which is that it is supposed to show Shakespeare at 46, and yet the sitter has a full head of hair! I’m hoping to deal with the Cobbe in a longer film in the future.”

For the full interview with Anne Henderson click here.

For a recent magazine feature from Point of View on Battle of Wills in which Henderson discusses key aspects of the academic struggle over Shakespeare’s image, click below:

For a short extract from “Battle of Wills” featuring Joseph Fiennes click here.

Note that pre-eminent British art historian Sir Roy Strong (former Director of the Victoria and Albert Museum and the National Portrait Gallery in London) branded the claims made by chairman of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and editor of the Oxford Shakespeare Stanley Wells and art collector and restorer Alec Cobbe about the Cobbe to be “codswallop” in The Observer (London April 19, 2009, p. 10).

For further information on the Cobbe’s debunking click here.

As reported in The Guardian “revered Oxford Shakespeare expert [and biographer] Katherine Duncan-Jones, remains bemused by Wells’s view. ‘It is so irrational, I don’t know how to describe it,’ she said. ‘He and Cobbe are evoking some long-held tradition of ascribing these portraits as Shakespeare without saying how or why'” (Vanessa Thorpe, “A portrait of William Shakespeare? ‘Codswallop’ says expert” Sunday 19 April 2009 The Guardian). Duncan-Jones has made it clear that the so-called Cobbe is likely an image of Sir Thomas Overbury. Writing in the Sunday Times she states,

An authentic portrait of Sir Thomas Overbury (1581–1613) was bequeathed to the Bodleian Library in Oxford in 1740. This picture bears a startling resemblance to the “Cobbe” painting (and its companions). Features such as a distinctive bushy hairline, and a slightly malformed left ear that may once have borne the weight of a jewelled earring, appear identical. Even the man’s beautifully intricate lace collar, though not identical in pattern, shares overall design with “Cobbe”, having square rather than rounded corners.

The way in which the Cobbe has been shamelessly promoted as Shakespeare flies in the face of all the extant scholarship on the image conducted in the 1960s by Sir David Piper, and the strong probablity that it is an image of Overbury. Between 1964 and 1985, Piper directed three of Britain’s finest museums, the National Portrait Gallery in London, the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, and the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. He served an 18-year apprenticeship at the National Portrait Gallery before becoming its Director. His expertise and scholarship in the portraiture of this period remain unimpugned and completely unchallenged by any evidence-based argument.

The sumptuary coding alone of the Cobbe’s sitter’s dress is aristocratic and virtually assures that the sitter is not and could never have been Shakespeare––so in contravention would a portrait of him in this sort of dress have been with acceptable practice. For the Shakespearean elitists who hope for a Shakespeare as an exemplary personification of upper class values (and thus in concert with their own bourgeois, elite values) this is the perfect image: a “class” fantasy or elite consensual hallucination.

Arbitrary assignation of Shakespeare’s identity to the Cobbe portrait––without appropriate provenance, without appropriate close reading of the semiotics of the actual image (in terms of its key signifiers), and with nary a single connection to Shakespeare except the most circumstantial, the most arbitrary and roundabout––suggest that the Cobbe is more about self-promotion and the economic benefits of ownership of Shakespeare’s iconic capital than about historical verity.

Recent displays of the Cobbe in any relation to Shakespeare, and perhaps captializing on the dictum that “any publicity is good publicity,” severely undermine the curatorial integrity of the institutions associated with these displays.

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