Cobbe Shakespeare portrait

This YouTube video from the Channel 4 News on the Cobbe Shakespeare portrait does what I’ve been doing in my mind’s eye since its discovery: it lets the Droeshout engraving mutate into the Cobbe painting. It also contains interviews with Stanley Wells and with Alex Cobbe in his ancestral home, which is also the home of the portrait of the Earl of Southampton. The video concludes by saying that Shakespeare scholars are “famously quarrelsome” and there will be a debate.

The blogosphere is preparing for the debate already: the Heresy Corner does not believe the portrait is authentic, nor does Charlotte Higgins who writes a blog in the culture section of The Guardian. Meanwhile, this blog welcomes a host of visitors who googled the words “Principum amicitias” and hit upon my first post on the portrait.


One thought on “Cobbe Shakespeare portrait

  1. The Cobbe painting is not an authentic, true to life portrait of the bard.

    Alec Cobbe, whose family is said to have owned this picture for 300 years, stated three years ago that at the National Portrait Gallery’s ‘Searching for Shakespeare’ exhibition in 2006 he had come across a Shakespeare portrait (he meant the famous Janssen portrait from the Folger Library in Washington) which looked exactly like one of the pictures in the family collection. This revelation was quite a surprise to me at the time. For how could Cobbe, of all people, an art restorer by profession, have overlooked a Shakespeare portrait in his own family’s collection that bore such a striking resemblance to a well-publicised image of the great writer? On 9 March 2009 Cobbe claimed – solidly backed by Prof. Stanley Well – that his picture is a true to life depiction of Shakespeare, and that the Janssen portrait is just one of several copies of the original.

    Soon after Alec Cobbe’s claim was made public, I was invited by a major national German newspaper to comment on the authenticity of ‘the new Shakespeare portrait’. Below readers will find an extract of my article, „Much Ado About Nothing: why the Cobbe portrait is not an authentic, true-to-life portrait of William Shakespeare”, Frankfurter Rundschau (14-15 March 2009), pp. 34-35:

    “In February 2006, after some ten years of research and collaboration with numerous experts from other disciplines, I presented in book form my proof of the authenticity of four Shakespeare images [Engl. transl.: The True Face of William Shakespeare. The Poet’s Death Mask and Likenesses from Three Periods of His Life. London: Chaucer Press, August 2006.* Shortly before the book was published, I applied the criteria of authenticity I had put together to – among others – the impressive Janssen portrait (known since 1770). I had, however, previously consulted the BKA expert Altmann, who used the Trick Image Differentiation Technique to bring to light significant correspondences. It turned out that – subject to the resolution of certain as yet unanswered questions about its history – this picture too could well be admitted to the small circle of genuine Shakespeare portraits.

    Comparing the Janssen portrait (restored in 1988) today with the Cobbe portrait, I was able to establish that in terms of general impression they differ very considerably from each other, and that they do so particularly in regard to morphological and pathological details. This led me to consult the dermatologist Professor Jost Metz, who specialises in diagnosing signs of disease in Renaissance portraits. Metz had earlier submitted his professional opinion concerning the pathological symptom on the forehead of the Flower portrait and the death mask. In his comparative assessment of the two portraits, Cobbe and Janssen, dated 12 March 2009, the dermatologist noted so many important divergences that he doubted ‘whether both portraits featured one and the same subject’. To cite just a few examples: ‘the nose in the Janssen portrait was considerably longer than in the Cobbe portrait’; the distances between the point of the chin and the tip of the nose and alo from the tip to the root of the nose too failed to correspond. The left nostril on the Janssen portrait appeared ‘clearly more flared’ than in the Cobbe. The lips too were different. The lower lip of the Janssen portrait corresponded more to the ‘full’, not to say ‘plump’ (lower) lips which ‘characterised the Davenant bust and the Chandos and Flower portraits’. With regard to the left earlobe, Metz found that the one in the Cobbe portrait appeared misshapen, and did not correspond to that in the Janssen. In contrast to the rims of the eye-sockets (orbit) in the Janssen portrait, whose shape (together with that of the eyebrows) formed a segment of a circle, in the Cobbe picture this area took a ‘more horizontal course’. While the right eyeball of the Janssen painting was higher than the left, in the Cobbe portrait ‘the eyeballs were painted level with each other’. There were also significant differences in the clothing. The ‘patterns of the expensively fashioned collars’ were ‘completely different’, appearing ‘even more intricately worked’ in the Cobbe portrait than in the Janssen.

    Particularly important are the divergences apparent in the reproduction or the absence of pathological symptoms. Metz notes that ‘marked annular infiltration (inflamation)’ in the ‘left forehead area’ of the Janssen portrait, ‘in the same location’ as in the Flower portrait and the death mask, was missing from the Cobbe portrait. With regard to the pathological swelling of the left upper eyelid, ‘so conspicuous’ both in the Chandos and the Flower portraits as well as the Droeshout engraving, he states that this ‘pathological alteration’ is to be found also ‘on the upper left eylid’ of the Janssen portrait. But in the Cobbe portrait there was little more than a suggestion of this symptom.

    The conclusion is that the painter of the Janssen picture was very well acquainted with the pathological details of Shakespeare’s face – and with its precise morphological characteristics – whereas the Cobbe portraitist was not, or only to a limited extent. While the creator of the Janssen portrait, discovered in 1770, can only have derived this knowledge from the living model, the originator of the Cobbe portrait, which first became known in 2006, appears to have acquired his very limited information at second hand … . My results drew attention to the significant signs of disease visible in Shakespeare’s face for the first time. All of this indicates that the Cobbe painting cannot be an authentic portrait of William Shakespeare painted from life.

    This conclusion is supported not only by the youthful appearance of the subject, estimated by Professor Metz as ‘mid-30s’, and certainly not ‘aged 46’; it is also reinforced by the expert opinion of Dr Eberhard J. Nikitsch, a specialist in inscriptions at the Mainz Academy of Science and Literature,dated 11 March 2009. Nikitsch stated that the inscription on the picture – ‘Principum amicitias!’ [‘Be afraid of] the friendship of princes!’ – ‘was not carried out in epigraphic script, but in a cursive hand using a brush’. This was not something one might expect to find ‘in this form at the beginning of the 17th century’. For it lacked ‘the capitals, fracture, and (slightly sloping) italic minuscules’ that are the ‘the scripts normally used for portraits of the time’. As a result, it looks ‘somewhat clumsy, like schoolboy writing’, and must have been added later.”

    Prof. Dr Hildgard Hammerschmidt-Hummel
    University of Mainz, Germany

    *The images are the Chandos portrait, c. 1594-99 (National Portrait Gallery, London); the Flower portrait, 1609, restored in 1979 (RSC collection, Stratford-upon-Avon, until c. 1999, and since missing without trace); the Davenant bust, c.1613 (Garrick Club, London); and the Darmstadt Shakespeare death mask, 1616 (University and State Library, Darmstadt). For comments and book reviews see:

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