A Portrait of Young Will

We all know what Shakespeare looked like, don’t we? Balding, middle-aged dude whose most racy affectation was an earring dangling from his left earlobe. That’s the image we get from the picture above, the so-called Chandos portrait (which recently visited Canberra as part of an exhibition at the Portrait Gallery).

Donated to the National Portrait Gallery by the Duke of Chandos in 1856, it was probably painted in the early 1600s by one John (or Joseph) Taylor. But is it actually a portrait of Shakespeare? Well, it could be. It was painted while Shakespeare was still alive, so the timing is right. And it is thought that it may once have belonged to William Davenant, a playwright and poet who was rumoured to be Shakespeare’s natural son. But other than that rather intriguing connection, there is nothing else that might confirm with any certainty that this is in fact a painting of Shakespeare.

In fact, the only image that we have which is certainly Shakespeare is this one, the illustration that appeared in the frontispiece of the First Folio, the compilation of Shakespeare’s plays made by John Heminges and William Condell, his colleagues in his acting company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. The picture, a woodcut by Martin Droeshout, is hardly great art, and it was made some seven years after its subject’s demise. But presumably the publishers accepted it as a reasonably true representation of the playwright; Ben Johnson certainly thought it was, declaring it to be ‘a fair likeness’ of his old friend.

There are some clear similarities between the Droeshout and Chandos pictures: the shape of the face, the long hair flowing from a balding crown, and the long straight nose. One is bearded and one has just a suggestion of a moustache, but that means little – men grow and shave facial hair with great ease, and the two pictures could represent Shakespeare at different ages. Both faces are rather kindly, and gaze out at us with a certain worldliness. It could just be me, but I also detect the merest hint of a smile on both, as if they know a joke or two that they aren’t ready to share with us just yet.

But intriguing though both pictures are, neither was of much use to me when I started researching my novels about Shakespeare’s early life, since they are clearly pictures of a man of at least early middle age or older, whereas I was trying to visualise a man in his early or mid twenties.

So I had to cast the net a little wider. Fortunately there are a couple of possible candidates.

This one is known as the Sanders portrait. It has no proven connection with Shakespeare at all, other than the fact that it has been attributed to one John (or Thomas) Sanders, who may (or may not) have been a scene painter in the Chamberlain’s Men, Shakespeare’s acting company. Shakespeare, at least in is youth, would not have been a wealthy man, and getting your picture painted was an expensive exercise, so the idea of a scenery painter who dabbles in portraits on the side has a certain plausibility. Still, the connection is pretty tenuous.

Leaving the tricky question of provenance aside, it is still an interesting image. The hair hasn’t gone yet, though it is clearly beginning its long march back, and the other physical features could at a pinch be said to resemble the Droeshut and Chandos pictures that purport to give us an older Shakespeare. So this fairly good looking rosy-cheeked young fellow with the hint of a cheeky grin just might be the young bard.

And finally this is the Grafton Portrait. Again, there is no actual connection to Shakespeare – except for that suggestive date at the top which seems to imply that the sitter was 24 years old in 1588 – exactly Will’s age in that year. That said, there is a certain similarity with the Chandos picture in the shape of his face and nose. He’s a serious-looking young man, handsome and well dressed (too well dressed, some argue, for a man who would have probably been penniless at the time), and whether or not it is in fact a picture of the young Shakespeare, it could certainly pass for him.

All in all, this is the one I like best, and it is the one I have on my study wall.

Of course there is one other representation of the young Shakespeare that, having once been seen, is pretty hard to put out of your mind. Certainly not contemporary. I’ll leave it with you.

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