Disputed painting of Shakespeare takes centre stage for portrait gallery's 150th anniversary show

Louise Jury Arts Correspondent
Thursday 16 September 2004 00:00 BST

A portrait of Shakespeare that was the first work given to the National Portrait Gallery will form the centrepiece of an exhibition celebrating the institution's 150th anniversary in 2006.

A portrait of Shakespeare that was the first work given to the National Portrait Gallery will form the centrepiece of an exhibition celebrating the institution's 150th anniversary in 2006.

The so-called Chandos portrait, which has been the subject of fierce debate over whether it really does feature Shakespeare, is set to be joined by other controversial portraits of the writer whose life is little documented.

The National Portrait Gallery's work, named because it was once owned by the Duke of Chandos, has been attributed to a painter called John Taylor and dated to around 1610.

Sandy Nairne, the gallery's director, said yesterday he was convinced it really was Shakespeare. "But it is intriguing because it's a portrait about which everyone has argued."

There are records which show it was originally owned by the playwright and theatre manager Sir William Davenant, born in 1606, who claimed to have been Shakespeare's illegitimate son.

Other works which the gallery has secured tentative agreement to show include the portrait which emerged a couple of years ago in the hands of a family called Sanders in Canada which has a crumbling label bearing the legend "Shakespere" on the back, the Grafton portrait in the Rylands Library in Manchester and the Flowers portrait owned by the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC).

Jacob Simon, the chief curator, said there were perhaps half a dozen 17th century portraits which were contenders to be considered genuine portraits of the Bard although nearly all have been the subject of disagreements.

But he pointed out that there were archive boxes of dozens of portraits which supposedly depict Shakespeare. "Over the years there are probably a couple of hundred that at one stage or another people have thought 'he looks like a writer, he must be ...'," Mr Simon said.

The celebration of Shakespeare will coincide with a massive festival of Shakespeare being planned by the RSC which is to present all his plays in one season.

The anniversary year will close with an exhibition of the portraits of David Hockney, which will include drawings and some new works - although it is not known of whom. It has taken some time to arrange this show. Mr Nairne said: "Hockney is completely tied up with whatever he's thinking about now, so it needed the right moment for David to be comfortable and allow us to look back [at his work]."

Before then, the usual programme continues in 2005 with shows dedicated to Lee Miller, the photographer famous both for her own work and for her role as an assistant and lover of the photographer Man Ray, and to portraits of Frida Kahlo, the charismatic Mexican artist whose work is to be featured in a major show at Tate Modern next summer.

Before Christmas, the gallery will unveil an exhibition of 500 years of self-portraits including works by Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Velasquez, Hogarth and Freud.

And after the success last year of a new photography portrait prize sponsored by Schweppes, entries this year have more than doubled to nearly 8,000, Mr Nairne said. More than 60 have been shortlisted for display from November.

The gallery revealed yesterday that it had bought a portrait of the late British art critic David Sylvester, famed for his educational radio broadcasts in the 1950s and 1960s and for his friendship with the artist Francis Bacon.

The portrait, by the American artist Larry Rivers, was purchased with money from the National Art Collections Fund and others, including the estate of Bacon himself.

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