But hi-tech investigations by experts at the National Portrait Gallery, London, have produced no evidence to support the contention that the young man was ever Stratford's Bard, it was announced yesterday.
In preparation for a new exhibition on Shakespeare next year, the gallery is painstakingly investigating the histories of half a dozen of the best-known paintings which are reputed to represent Britain's most famous playwright.
But having already dismissed the so-called "Flower" portrait as a 19th-century fake, the experts yesterday also consigned this work, known as the Grafton portrait from a tradition that it was once owned by the Duke of Grafton, to the sidelines.
Examinations of the tree rings in the wooden panel it is painted on, and other investigations by infrared, ultraviolet and X-rays, have confirmed the work is of the right period for Shakespeare, who was born in 1564. An inscription painted above the sitter's head records his age in 1588 as 24, amended from 23, which does match Shakespeare's dates. The research showed that this emendation was of the period.
But Tarnya Cooper, the gallery's curator of 16th-century paintings, said yesterday that it did not take a scholar to deduce that there would have been many young men of the same age.
And the painting had provided no clues as to why Shakespeare would have been painted at the time - or how he could have afforded such sumptuous clothes.
Dr Cooper said that it was not known where Shakespeare was in 1588. It is thought he had left his birthplace of Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, and was likely to have been working with travelling players or already in London.
"People had portraits painted at this time. It was not very expensive," Dr Cooper said. "But the key thing is the man in this painting is wearing a fantastically elaborate costume. It is a doublet of silk or satin which was ridiculously expensive material. To imagine that a young playwright with three children and probably working with a touring company could afford a costume like that is a little bit beyond [probability]."
The suggestion the portrait is of William Shakespeare appears to have developed in the 19th century. When the picture came to the attention of academics in the early 20th century, the then owners revealed their family had added the initials W and S on the back because of a belief it was of Shakespeare.
Later it was bought by a man called Thomas Kay, who was convinced of its authenticity and presented it as a gift to the John Rylands University Library in Manchester, which has lent it to the National Portrait Gallery for its investigations and exhibition.
The Shakespeare scholar Jonathan Bate, of the University of Warwick, said the new research confirmed "what most sensible scholars have known all along, namely that there has never been any evidence that the Grafton portrait is of Shakespeare. It's just wishful thinking. The same goes for many other supposed Shakespeare portraits that have turned up over the years, such as the 'Sanders' and the 'Flower'."
He said the only authentic images were the engraving that is the frontispiece to the First Folio collection of Shakespeare, the rather portly bust on a monument to Shakespeare in his home town and, "almost certainly", the so-called Chandos portrait in the National Portrait Gallery's own collection which is currently under investigation.
Dr Cooper said scholars had to be scientific in their approach, despite the disappointment this brought.
"The Grafton portrait fits the desire to find a Shakespeare that matches our expectations of him," she said. "We all like our great heroes to look like gorgeous, romantic young men."Reuse content