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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
Sir David Attenborough
people
Life and Style
Young girl and bowl of cereal
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
News
news
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: English Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: This post arises as a result of the need to...

Tradewind Recruitment: Class Teacher Required ASAP In Uminster

£120 - £150 per annum: Tradewind Recruitment: I am recruiting on instruction o...

Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Director - London - £70,000

£70000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Controller - Fina...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Executive - Wimbledon, SW London

£24000 - £28000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Executive - Wim...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

Magnetic north

The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness
Homeless Veterans appeal: Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story

Homeless Veterans appeal

Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story
Front National family feud? Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks

Front National family feud?

Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks
Pot of gold: tasting the world’s most expensive tea

Pot of gold

Tasting the world’s most expensive tea
10 best wildlife-watching experiences: From hen harriers to porpoises

From hen harriers to porpoises: 10 best wildlife-watching experiences

While many of Britain's birds have flown south for the winter, it's still a great time to get outside for a spot of twitching
Nick Easter: 'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

Nick Easter targeting World Cup place after England recall
DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

The inside track on France's trial of the year

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel: