Canadian Shakespeare News

Family Ties Strengthen Authenticity of Shakespeare Portrait: News Release

Below is an extended version of the University of Guelph news release, Family Ties Strengthen Authenticity of Shakespeare Portrait (17 March 2011), which summarizes the latest genealogical research undertaken by Daniel Fischlin, Pam Hinks, and Lloyd Sullivan in relation to the Sanders portrait of Shakespeare:

A University of Guelph professor has helped reveal family connections between William Shakespeare and direct ancestors of the Ottawa owner of a portrait of the Bard thought to be the only one painted while he was alive.

This latest research discovery, which unveils ongoing relations between the two families over several centuries, adds to the substantial body of evidence for the painting’s authenticity.

Known as the Sanders portrait, the painting is thought to depict the Bard at age 39 and is owned by Lloyd Sullivan, a friend and supporter of the University of Guelph. It’s thought that Shakespeare sat for an ancestor of Sullivan’s (whose mother was Kathleen Hale Sanders) and that the portrait has been passed down through his mother’s family over the past 400 years.

Thirteen previous forensic tests have already confirmed that the painting dates from around 1600 and has not been altered since. And the latest genealogical research combined with the successful scientific tests carried out on the Sanders portrait, conclusively support the Sanders’ family claim that their ancestors were related to Shakespeare through affinity and would have known him intimately.

At a time of severe persecution of Catholics by Queen Elizabeth I through her vast network of spies and informants especially in the Midlands of England (Shakespeare’s country, especially Worcestershire and Warwickshire), close family ties to Shakespeare would have been paramount in gaining his trust, confidence and consent to paint his portrait and to record personal details of his life on the label affixed to the back of the Sanders portrait.

English professor and University Research Chair Daniel Fischlin, along with Sullivan and British genealogist Pamela Hinks, have spent seven years researching the connection between Sullivan’s ancestors the Sanders family and Shakespeare’s family in order to further substantiate the story.

“The weight of evidence supporting the authenticity of this painting is now overwhelming,” said Fischlin, who was involved in researching the social, historical and cultural context required to interpret the genealogy of the two families. “We embarked on this journey to find the truth. It comes down to wanting to give accurate shape to a very rich story and respecting the historical details surrounding one of the most important figures in Western culture. All too often this sort of history gets treated as a dead artifact, when in fact living people nowhere near as famous as Shakespeare with fascinating, complex lives that were interconnected in remarkable ways are key to the real story.”

The years of research have involved visiting gravesites, uncovering and transcribing historical documents in various registries and databases, and interviewing Sullivan’s surviving ancestors.

“This new information will effectively transform our understanding of this period,” said Fischlin. “The research we have been doing has uncovered information about Shakespeare’s contexts that we never knew before. By investigating the micro-history of the Sanders family that was so intimately associated with Shakespeare’s own cultural, religious, and geographic milieu we can paint a much more detailed picture of the world in which Shakespeare lived.”

The research team found that both families lived in the same small villages in England, intermarried, and may have worked together. Shakespeare’s father and later members of the Sanders family worked as glove makers in the same area over an extended period suggesting that the two families were interlinked by class, economic, and trade considerations.

“With all these connections it’s unthinkable that the two families wouldn’t have known each other,” said Fischlin, “And that includes the personal affiliations and friendships that are no doubt behind the genesis of the Sanders portrait.”

Moreover, Fischlin points out that “the fact that we started with the current owner of the portrait, Lloyd Sullivan, and did the genealogical research backward from him and his immediate family and ended up literally in Shakespeare’s backyard is an extraordinary and compelling aspect of this story. No other portrait even comes close to having this sort of genealogical proximity to Shakespeare’s immediate cultural milieu. We could just as easily have ended up in Ireland or in any number of other places that would have made the portrait’s provenance dubious. But we didn’t.”

The research has also demonstrated that the portrait painter was likely one of two Sanders brothers: John, a painter, or William, a bit actor in Shakespeare’s plays.

The investigation, according to Fischlin, has clarified important historical contexts that affect our understanding of Shakespeare, including his family’s economic status and religion.

“There’s been an ongoing debate about whether Shakespeare came from an elite family and it’s clear from our research that he came from a financially stable family, but not an elite family.”

He has also outlined in greater detail how the famous playwright’s family members were Catholics living in a region of England where Catholicism was extremely active though banned under Elizabeth I’s reign.

“Shakespeare and his family were integrated into a Catholic area and intermarried with Catholic families,” he said. “He had family members who were persecuted for being Catholic and Shakespeare’s own daughter Susanna was named as a recusant in 1606 for not attending an Easter day church service.”

The new research findings are the most comprehensive detailing of the genealogy and origin of the Sanders portrait to date and are only available on the University of Guelph’s Canadian Adaptations of Shakespeare Project (CASP) website. Founded and directed by Fischlin, CASP is the largest and most complete website in the world dedicated to showing Shakespeare’s cultural influence.

Fischlin learned about the Sanders portrait while he and his research team were travelling across the country to uncover original Canadian adaptations of Shakespeare for the project.


Visit the Canadian Adaptations of Shakespeare Project (CASP) site at:

To view the recently published results of the genealogical research on the Sanders Portrait of Shakespeare go to:

Comments are closed.