Internet Shakespeare Editions

A New Image of Shakespeare?

I paint him in the character
Coriolanus, 5.4

By Ryan Vernon, July 2001.

A Canadian owned painting, possibly of Shakespeare, has stimulated a debate amongst art collectors, newspapers, scholars and scientists. The portrait is of a man of mature, yet still youthful looks, with the beginnings of a receding hairline, and a somewhat enigmatic, possibly ironical, smile. For copyright reasons, the Internet Shakespeare Editions is unable to post a copy of the portrait, though several unauthorized versions are available on the Internet. Later this year the Shakespeare Festival at Stratford, Ontario, will have an authorized version on its web site.

The public controversy over this painting began in 1909 when the painting's owner took it to A.M. Spielmann, a London expert on Shakespearean iconography, who concluded that it could not be Shakespeare. In an article in The Connoisseur Spielmann claimed that the style of the painting was typical of the seventeenth century, but he believed that parts of the painting had been altered sometime after its inception and that the note affixed to the back of the painting was not authentic. Recent scientific analysis, however, has questioned this judgement.

How did a possible portrait of Shakespeare end up in Canada? The painting is said to be the work of John Sanders, who, as records show, was born in Worcester in 1575. Like Shakespeare himself, Sanders as a young man made the journey to London to seek his fortune. As the story goes, Sanders became involved with Shakespeare's theatre company as a bit actor, and for reasons unknown painted Shakespeare's portrait in 1603--the date on the painting. Ian Lancashire, English Professor at the University of Toronto, has found that there was a Saunder in Burbage's company in 1591, about the time Shakespeare started to work with the company, who played two women's parts in The Second Part of the Deadly Sins. Certainly, Saunder could be an alternate spelling of Sanders (early modern spelling had not yet been standardized) but it could also be an abbreviation of "Alexander." In any case, baptism records show that Sanders' children were born in Worcester--just as Shakespeare's children were born in Stratford. As other church records show, the Sanders family stayed in the Worcester area until the turn of the twentieth century when a large branch of the family emigrated to Canada, bringing the portrait with them.

The painting was stored under various beds and in several closets until the current owner, a descendent of John Sanders, decided to consider putting the portrait up for auction, first undertaking a reassessment of its authenticity. Radiograph testing at the Canadian Conservation Institute (CCI) indicates that the painting was not forged in the nineteenth century, as Spielmann suggested, and tree-ring dating on the wooden panel on which the painting was executed indicates that it dates from as early as 1597. Similarly corroborating the painting's claimed date of 1603, analysis of the paint flakes taken from the Sanders painting are consistent with seventeenth century methods employed by the Northern School, which included England.

The major point of contention regarding the painting's authenticity surrounds a note affixed to its back. While time has rendered the words on this paper largely illegible, a transcription made by Spielmann in 1909 reads "Shakspere / Born April 23, 1564 / Died April 23, 1616 / Aged 52 / This likeness taken 1603 / Age at that time 39 ys." While the rag linen paper on which the note was written is consistent with the type of paper used in Shakespeare's day, images of the remains of this note taken under ultraviolet light show handwriting that is not consistent with either secretary or italic scripts which would have been used by Shakespeare and his contemporaries; instead, the note is in a round script, which did not appear until the eighteenth century. Scholars like Donald Foster, Alexander Legatt, and Anthony Dawson feel that this evidence is corroborated by the diction of the note which suggests an eighteenth century origin. While some commentators feel that this is proof of the painting's inauthenticity, others feel that the wording of the note (if not the paper) was probably added at a later date by a member of the family.

The weight of evidence on either side of this argument suggests that the controversy surrounding the Saunders painting will not ebb any time soon. Few individuals are as culturally important in England and English speaking cultures as Shakespeare, and thus artifacts and ideas that challenge established traditions surrounding this canonical figure are likely to meet with academic and social resistance; yet, Shakespeare's cultural importance makes Shakespearean artifacts monetarily valuable, and consequently a target for forgery. Like Desdemona's handkerchief, the Sanders painting signifies many things to many different people--if all the world's a stage, the Sanders painting is a complex and suggestive prop.


These addresses were accessible at the time of writing (July, 2001)

The Globe and Mail :
The National Post :
Transcription of an article from the Globe and Mail :
Canadian Conservation Website--details the testing done on the painting. Follow the links.
A site that details many portraits of Shakespeare, including the Sanders portrait.
The Washington Post's article on the painting, currently (July-September 2001) on exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario..