Exhibition aims to present the true face of Shakespeare

More than three years' research for the biggest ever exhibition on Shakespeare in his own time has concluded we cannot know for certain what the great playwright looked like, but we can make the most educated guess yet.

Tarnya Cooper, who has curated the new show at the National Portrait Gallery, London, believes that the first painting to have been given to the institution when it was founded 150 years ago is almost certainly the best likeness we have.

The Chandos portrait dates from Shakespeare's lifetime and many scholars have long believed it was a true depiction of the Bard. Forensic examination of its paintwork has proved that distinctive details associated with artists at the time - the ear-ring and loose ties at his neck - are original.

This adds weight to the journal of an 18th century antiquarian, George Vertue, who traces the work back to Shakespeare via William Davenant, a theatre manager who was Shakespeare's godson, and John Taylor, the artist to whom the painting is attributed.

"There is no other surviving work by John Taylor, who was a talented but not great artist. If Davenant was making up claims, you would expect him to say it was by someone more famous," Dr Cooper said.

"I'm sure Vertue's evidence is absolutely accurate but we're relying on a chain of Chinese whispers. What is clear is that it was assumed to be Shakespeare within 50 years of his death. It's a pretty close link."

She added: "What is touching in a democratic way is that the founding portrait of this institution was not a monarch or a man of the nobility but a man of achievement." It was presented in 1856 by the Earl of Ellesmere.

The exhibition, Searching for Shakespeare, which opens today, brings together all the principal portraits purporting to represent him - showing they could not all have been the same man.

Dr Cooper argues that at least two, the Grafton and the Sanders, show other men of Shakespeare's time, the Soest and the Flower portraits date from after his death, and the Janssen was re-painted in the 18th century to look more like him.

The display includes early editions of the plays, 17th century clothes like those worn on stage and rare items relating to Shakespeare's life. These include the parish register from the Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon in which details of his family life are recorded, a document objecting to the granting of a coat of arms to Shakespeare in which it is implied that a "player" was not worthy of such an honour, and a drawing of the Swan Theatre.

Shakespeare's famous will, in which he left his wife Anne Hathaway his "second-best bed", has been lent by the National Archives for the first time.

There is also a series of talks and events involving Professor Stanley Wells and actor Mark Rylance, as well as Bill Bryson and Peter Ackroyd. It runs until 29 May with an £8 admission charge.

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