Canadian Shakespeare News

Conference Explores Origins of Shakespeare Portrait

More than 400 years old, portrait still inspires interest

By Andrew Vowles
Thursday, January 16, 2014

The Sanders portrait of Shakespeare

The Sanders portrait

Daniel Fischlin was hunkered down by the phone in mid-December “waiting for the media feeding frenzy to begin.” News had broken that day of a tentative agreement to buy a Canadian-owned portrait believed to depict William Shakespeare during his lifetime, and the University of Guelph English professor expected to find himself in the middle of the story again.

Under the deal reached in early December, an anonymous Canadian family has agreed to buy the 410-year-old Sanders portrait from its longtime Ottawa owner, according to a Globe and Mail story published Dec. 15.

Some two decades after Lloyd Sullivan began researching the portrait – passed through his family from a distant maternal ancestor contemporary with Shakespeare — evidence continues to mount that the work is the only likeness of the Bard done from life.

Speaking of the tentative sale, Fischlin says, “It’s a very complicated negotiation.”

He says the deal will likely be completed in early 2014; the new owners are expected to donate the portrait to an unnamed public art institution in Canada.

Referring to Sullivan, he says “the owner is very happy, because these buyers understand that this is really a legacy issue and are gearing up to do the right thing.”

That means “bringing the portrait into a public space, ramping up the information about the portrait. Growing that bandwidth is really important. It’s the beginning of a whole other sequence of events that are probably going to be more involved than the work so far.”

Much of that work, including recent research connecting Shakespeare with the Sanders family and other associates from Elizabethan and Jacobean England, has been led by Fischlin and other scholars on both sides of the Atlantic.

Those findings and the earlier detective work into the portrait’s provenance were discussed by experts during a one-day symposium in Toronto last month. Negotiations for the portrait’s sale were still occurring during the event.

The Sanders portrait is believed to depict William Shakespeare at age 39. The painting belongs to Sullivan, an Ottawa engineer. His family has passed it down from John Sanders. Family lore says Sanders was a painter and actor with Shakespeare’s theatre company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (later called the King’s Men).

Sullivan inherited the piece from his mother in 1972. Since retiring some 20 years ago, he has researched the painting.

At the Toronto conference, scientists, costume experts, historians, writers and museum curators discussed everything from the doublet worn by the sitter to tests validating the age of the paint, the wood panel and the label affixed to the back of the portrait.

Fischlin’s recent work has involved genealogy and geography in the British Midlands and London and between Canada and England. He is a University Research Chair and founding director of the Canadian Adaptations of Shakespeare Project (CASP), the world’s most comprehensive website about the Bard’s cultural influence.

He and other researchers – notably British genealogist Pam Hinks — have traced Sullivan’s family through 13 unbroken generations and 10 great-grandfathers back to Shakespeare’s lifetime.

They have visited gravesites, uncovered and transcribed historical documents, examined major historical archives in the United Kingdom and interviewed Sullivan’s relatives.

That path has led to a small group of villages in the Midlands and to the part of London where Shakespeare and his acquaintances are known to have lived.

Before moving to London, Shakespeare and Sanders lived in towns about eight miles apart in and around Stratford. So did John Heminges, another company actor and eventually co-editor of the 1623 First Folio of Shakespeare’s works.

By 1603, all three were residents in the capital, living only minutes from each other in adjoining parishes.

Heminges and John Sanders’s son – also John and an early ancestor to Lloyd Sullivan – were both active members of the Grocers’ guild during the early 1600s.

Those connections strengthen the argument that Sanders was close enough to have painted Shakespeare, says Fischlin.

“It would have been impossible for the two men not to have been intimately acquainted with each other, not only because their families came from neighbouring villages in the Midlands, but also because they would have had significantly overlapped business interests.”

Fischlin plans to continue this work, including investigating leads about where artist and sitter met in London.

“We’re very close to identifying the workshop where the painting was painted. We seem to have a member of the Sanders family married into an apprentice from this workshop,” he says.

He adds that “the workshop was well known to the theatre scene in London in that period and also was close physically to where the Sanders and Heminges families and Shakespeare were all living at the time.

“It’s not definitive but it’s very, very promising.”

The Sanders portrait was exhibited at the University of Guelph’s Macdonald Stewart Art Centre for six months in 2007. That year, U of G teamed up with some 30 local arts and culture organizations in more than 50 community programs and activities centred on Shakespeare and the painting.

The portrait is the signature image of CASP. It also appears on new copies of The Tempest and Romeo and Juliet, the first editions of Shakespeare’s works to feature the Sanders likeness on their cover.

Those volumes were published by the Canadian arm of Oxford University Press. Acquisitions editor Jen Rubio credits her late father, Gerald Rubio, an English professor at U of G, for instilling some of Shakespeare’s words during her childhood.

He often borrowed lines from the Bard to suit a particular situation, even if listeners failed to pick up on the reference. Once quoting Hamlet after a restaurant meal, she says, “He later said, ‘The funeral baked meats did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables.’”

Rubio says the genealogical research and information about the Grocers’ guild uncovered by Fischlin and other scholars was new to her. “It’s amazing what research you can do from back in 1603.”

She is convinced that the Sanders portrait is an authentic likeness of Shakespeare. “I don’t see how anybody can read the evidence and think otherwise. I haven’t actually heard a good argument why we should not believe it.”

“It is such a compelling image,” says U of G president Alastair Summerlee. He attended the Toronto symposium and was involved in seeking a buyer for the Sanders portrait, which has been held for more than a year at U of G.

Commenting on the debate over a 410-year-old likeness, Summerlee says, “It matters because we all know Shakespeare. We all know him because we are all imbued in his work. As a scientist I know we have a craving to associate faces with people.”

Recent Media Stories on the Sanders Portrait Symposium and Sale

Following upon the November 28, 2013 Symposium “Look Here Upon this Picture: A Symposium on the Sanders Portrait of Shakespeare”, held at the Munk Centre, University of Toronto, a number of media outlets have released stories or done full-length radio shows about the Sanders Portrait:

Canadian family to buy portrait at centre of Shakespeare art mystery (Globe & Mail)

Faces of Our Ancestors a Reflection of Ourselves (Guelph Mercury)

The Sanders Portrait of Shakespeare: Interviews and Discussion (CFRU Radio featuring Andrew Bretz, Daniel Fischlin, John Kissick, and Diane Nalini)

CBC: The Morning Edition (December, 2013 with Craig Norris)

Social Media on Storify (December 2013)

As It Happens (CBC December 16, 2013)

SANDERS PORTRAIT Duration: 00:06:53
Members of the Sullivan family were sure they were living with William Shakespeare. The problem was convincing anyone else.The Sullivans were the owners of what they believed to be the one and only true portrait of Shakespeare, painted by an ancient relative. But it was tough to know what exactly to do with the treasure.Lloyd Sullivan has been fighting for decades to prove to the world his painting is indeed an authentic likeness of the great writer. Many experts now agree that the Sanders Portrait is indeed Shakespeare — but either way, it’s a battle Lloyd will no longer have to fight: a deal is being brokered for the sale of the painting to an unknown Canadian buyer.We reached Lloyd Sullivan at his home in Ottawa.

Canadian-owned painting purported to be only life-likeness of Shakespeare changing hands  (Steve Mertl, Yahoo News Canada)

Shakespeare portrait sale has major U of G connection (Guelph Mercury, December 16, 2013)

Canadian man said to own only portrait of Shakespeare (The Ontarian, December 5, 2013)

Conference Explores Origins of Shakespeare Portrait (Andrew Vowles, January 16, 2014)

The Many Faces of Shakespeare By PETER MONAGHAN
From the issue dated July 14, 2006

The Many Faces of Shakespeare By PETER MONAGHAN

Somewhere in Canada, the country’s 501st adaptation of Shakespeare awaits discovery by Daniel Fischlin and his colleagues at the University of Guelph. As the guardian of the Canadian Adaptations of Shakespeare Project (, Mr. Fischlin intends to identify and catalog the country’s endless number of variants on the works of the Bard of Avon. Among his finds so far: an adaptation of Henry V in which the Toronto Maple Leafs lock ice-hockey sticks with the Montreal Canadiens; Peter Skagen’s 1999 Rodeo and Julie-Ed, whose title tells its tale; and ‘Speare: The Literacy Arcade Game, an Internet-based three-dimensional adventure in which players in search of Shakespearean facts and wisdom ride spaceships around a Prosperian galaxy. “It’s a daunting task,” says Mr. Fischlin, a professor of English and theater. In the five years since he began the project, 60 researchers have worked on the collection, which has hard-copy and online components and which takes in not only plays, but any other work that contains direct uses or echoes of Shakespeare. “Adaptations are interesting things to do because it’s taking the cultural capital of Shakespeare and attaching it to your own name,” Mr. Fischlin notes. “There’s a double payoff.” Anything that borrows from the Bard goes into the database. The result has been that a project that he thought would be quickly over has ballooned, and seems nowhere near complete. “We started digging around, and we’ve come up so far with close to 500 plays from pre-Confederation in 1867 to the present,” he says. Mr. Fischlin began the project out of frustration. “As a young professor, I invariably got stuck with large Shakespeare classes,” he says. “You get 300 students looking for some way to make contact with the plays who don’t have any context.” So he looked to Canadian adaptations as a way to engage Canadians. Of 500 plays, songs, films, and other works, a third are by French Canadians, often in local patois, and many are by and about indigenous Canadians. Of the latter, says Mr. Fischlin, “many take place in the context of aboriginal theater as a place where healing occurs, as part of a deep sense of what some of the necessary rituals of healing are.” For example, Hamlet le Malécite, written in French by Yves Sioui Durand, is about the extinction of the Maliseet tribe of New Brunswick and environs. One part of the project is an online compendium of rare adaptations. To date, 40 texts have been stored there, and Mr. Fischlin and his colleagues plan to add another 40.

07/31/2006 04:31 PM Print: The Chronicle: 7/14/2006: The Many Faces of Shakespeare Among Mr. Fischlin’s least favorite adaptations, which he considers profoundly racist but which he nonetheless put on the site for the sake of completeness, is Chief Shaking Spear Rides Again, or The Taming of the Sioux (1975), by Warren Graves. Accompanying each online play is an introductory essay with embedded links to other study materials. Mr. Fischlin has not been able to locate projects similar to the Canadian Adaptations of Shakespeare Project in other countries. “It’s odd,” he says, “because you could easily do one anywhere from South Africa to the United States to Australia, or even in countries where English isn’t the native language, but Shakespeare is the most produced playwright. There’s so much investment in Shakespeare.” Send ideas to Section: Short Subjects Volume 52, Issue 45, Page A6 Copyright © 2006 by The Chronicle of Higher Education

Canadian Adaptations of Shakespeare Project (CASP)

“Shakespeare is a drunken savage with some imagination whose plays please only in London and Canada.”  Voltaire

“Pourquoi Shakespeare?  Parce que ce rendez-vous avec le plus grand poète dramatique nous en revions depuis longtemps. Il nous était devenu nécessaire.” Jean Gascon

“The Québécois people really, really, really, really love Shakespeare.”  Reynald Robinson

“Shakespeare’s not a Black woman; he could not see things from my perspective.”  Djanet Sears

CASP is the first research project of its kind anywhere in the world devoted to the systematic exploration and documentation of the ways in which Shakespeare has been adapted into a national, multicultural theatrical practice. Directed by Prof. Daniel Fischlin, the CASP website features a wealth of learning, teaching, and research tools related to how Shakespeare has been adapted into (and out of) Canadian theatre.  As well as physical archives which document nearly 500 theatrical adaptations of Shakespeare in Canada from pre-Confederation to the present, the CASP website includes an online database, multimedia sections, original interviews and an online anthology of scripts that all help to enliven our research for a broader online audience.  Upcoming developments will include an RSS news feed of original and syndicated Shakespearean news, a virtual learning commons and ‘Speare: The Literacy Arcade Game.

Stratford Festival, U of G Partner on New Website

Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council supports collaborative project with $163,000 award


One year after the unveiling of U of G’s Canadian Adaptations of Shakespeare Project (CASP), the largest and most sophisticated website in the world dedicated to showing Shakespeare’s cultural influence on a nation, Guelph has signed a unique memorandum of understanding with the Stratford Festival of Canada to create a new hybrid website that combines CASP and the vast holdings of the Festival’s archives.

Adding momentum to the project is an award of $163,000 announced two weeks ago by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.

The agreement, which creates a formal partnership between Guelph and Stratford, states that together they will create the world’s most advanced site devoted to teaching Shakespeare, says Prof. Daniel Fischlin, English and Theatre Studies, who designed and manages the CASP website, located at

“The idea is to produce a site that will play to every possible audience from grade school and high school students to post-secondary and longtime learners to theatre aficionados at an international level,” he says.

Stratford’s director of information technology, Darina Griffin, approached Fischlin last September after the CASP website caught her eye.

“To function in an Internet marketplace, we need to create hubs that are intelligently partnered,” says Griffin, who notes that 85 per cent of the Festival’s patrons are university-educated and that collaborating with a university is a logical move. Making the choice even more obvious, she says, is the existence of the CASP website.

“The work that Daniel has done is so far ahead of anything currently out there on the web that it seemed like a brilliant partnership. I can’t tell you how impressed I am with his ability to envision the future. He’s really a powerful, creative mind.”

The Stratford Festival, now in its 53rd year, is currently storing countless artifacts that have been collected since the 1960s, including images, memos between staff about various production plans, costumes, props, stage plans, tapes of rehearsals and music.

The task of the website team is to go through the vast collection, sort through the archives and decide what to present online.

“Objects of major importance to Canada’s national heritage are buried in vaults that nobody has looked at for a very long time,” says Griffin. “We’re proposing the digitization of these objects for the purposes of long-term preservation, as well as to provide a curatorial component to various educational materials that will have the Internet reach. It’s very exciting.”

Fischlin’s expertise will be applied to Stratford’s archives, along with input from a group at the University, to prepare the context for teaching modules.

In return, a team from Stratford will create the framework to present the content in a format that will be useful to the target audience – teachers and students – by providing access to the Festival’s archival and performance resources. This will allow the new hybrid site to bring together analytical, historical and performance materials in an integrated teaching site and virtual learning commons.

Fischlin says there is also potential for U of G to create international distance education courses through the site, as well as educational games for students of all ages.

“People will be able to access the site and play these games and not necessarily know that they’re receiving advanced literacy skills based on Shakespearean vocabulary and contexts,” he says.

A prototype of the site is expected to be up and running by the end of May.