Cobbe Shakespeare portrait (2)

eyesThis blog’s speculations on the phrase “Principum Amicitias”, no doubt together with expert comments from classicists below the post, have made it into a footnote in the Wikipedia article on the Cobbe portrait! This is a first for me.

The Wikipedia article reports on the controversy over the identification of the portrait that had already started at the time of my last post on the portrait. This post is a summary of the controversy as I have been following it online, in chronological order, followed by my own inexpert opinion.

Shakespeare found
On 9 March, Stanley Wells announced that he was 90% certain (or was it 99%?) that the Cobbe portrait was a portrait of Shakespeare painted during his lifetime. The Shakespeare Found website at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust summarizes the evidence as follows:

  1. Copies of the Cobbe portrait were identified as Shakespeare within his living memory (I have not been able to find the specifics of this claim online).
  2. The portait was ‘almost certainly’ owned by Shakespeare’s patron.
  3. The Latin inscription (which Wells in a video on the same site admits might not be contemporary with the portrait) warns a playwright of the dangers of writing on recent history, “dangers of which Shakespeare was all too well aware.
  4. The Cobbe portrait “seems” to have been the source for the Droeshout engraving.

There are other reasons why Wells is pleased with the portrait. He commented that it confirms his theory that Shakespeare should not be seen as a country yokel: “The clothing is quite elaborate, it’s clothing of somebody who could afford to dress well […] it confirms some of my own ideas about Shakespeare’s social status. We too easily believe I think, that Shakespeare remained a small-town man.” The New York Times reports that the brochure handed out to press at the event also saw another advantage to the portrait: in a handout for reporters, the Trust suggested that the portrait might give new momentum to the question of Shakespeare’s (bi)sexuality (see also Looking for Sex in Shakespeare).

The controversy

On the day of the revelation of the new portrait, David Scott Kastan was unconvinced in the New York Times of 9 March. He commented that if he had to bet, he would say that it is not Shakespeare.

On 10 March, Charlotte Higgins who blogs for the Culture section of The Guardian wrote her post A True Shakespeare Portrait? Surely not… in which she concluded that all we have here is “a portrait of just about the right period of a fellow with roughly the right kind of hairdo.” The next day, Higgins was back with Tarnya Cooper, 16th-century curator at the National Portrait Gallery, who was sceptical about the attribution of the portrait, and suggested that “if anything, both works are more likely to represent the courtier Sir Thomas Overbury.” The resemblance in costumes between the Cobbe portrait and the Droeshout Shakespeare in her view does not mean anything, since hundreds of men would have worn hair, beards, and costumes like that – it was the fashion.

Also on 10 March, the Heresiarch in the Heresy Corner wondered whether Stanley Wells’ identification of the portrait was perhaps wishful thinking: “Somewhere in Dr Wells’s mind, I suspect, is a desire for Shakespeare to have been as handsome and debonair as this portrait, rather than the intense scruffy wordsmith he more probably was. And can it be mere coincidence that this portrait bears more than a passing resemblance to Joseph Fiennes?”

In the Frankfurter Rundschau of 14-15 March, Hildegard Hammerschmidt-Hummel published an article which she summarizes in English in the comments to my previous post on the portrait. She compared the Cobbe portrait to the Janssen portrait in the Folger, and asked for the opinion of Professor Jost Metz, who specialises in diagnosing signs of disease in Renaissance portraits. He argues that the Janssen portrait pictures an inflammation in the left forehead area that can also be found in the Flower portrait and Shakespeare’s death mask (see Hammerschmidt-Hummel’s earlier book on this mask) and the Cobbe portrait does not. Moreover, the Janssen, Chandos, and Flower portraits as well as the Droeshout show a “pathological swelling of the left upper eyelid” lacking in the Cobbe painting. Therefore, Metz and Hammerschmidt-Hummel conclude, the painter of the Janssen portrait must have painted its sitter from the life, whereas the Cobbe is a copy. She also comments that the Latin inscription cannot have been contemporary with the portrait.

Katherine Duncan-Jones in the TLS of 18 March wrote that the Latin inscription “appears too large in scale, as well as highly unusual in its deployment of an exclamation mark, and was perhaps added later.” The man portrayed is too much of a courtier to her liking – a player would have been in trouble if he dressed above his rank. Moreover, the man in the portrait looks too young to be 46 years of age. She supports Tarnya Cooper’s suggestion that this is Sir Thomas Overbury, who died a mysterious death in 1613 and became the subject of court gossip. “Many of his former friends and allies, including Southampton,” writes Duncan-Jones, “would have wanted to possess visual mementoes of their friend.”

In the Dutch TV programme De Leugen Regeert, Paul Franssen, my colleague in the Shakespeare Society of the Low Countries, commented upon Dutch newspapers’ uncritical stance in hailing the new portrait as a representation of Shakespeare (a streaming video of the programme (in Dutch) is available here).

The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust’s response

The Shakespeare Found website at the Birthplace Trust counters criticism under the heading “What people are saying.” They explain that if the resemblance between the Cobbe portrait and the Droeshout engraving is perhaps not all that striking, then this is so because Droeshout was only twenty-two when he made the engraving, and that he would have simplified the portrait  for his brass plate. Also, they argue that Sir Thomas Overbury “to our mind was not quite as good looking as Shakespeare,” that his hair is the wrong colour, and that he does not have that “characteristic Shakespearian cast in his left eye.” I’ve cropped the eyes of the portraits in the image above, for those who want to look for that cast.

My penny’s worth

I like the Cobbe portrait, and I could imagine that Shakespeare looked like him – clever, ironic, understanding and kind at the same time. But I know that that’s not enough proof, and Sir Thomas may have been all those things as well. There are a lot of ifs and buts in the evidence presented by the Birthplace Trust: words such as “within living memory,” and all the “seems” signal that the case is perhaps less than 90 percent certain. The evidence of the line from Horace is now drawn into doubt by Stanley Wells himself in the video on the Trust website.

rembrandtbathshebaOn the other hand, I am also a little wary of arguments based on realism. If the man in the portrait does not look as if he is 46, is that hard evidence that the portrait could not be of a 46-year-old person? Could not a painter have flattered the sitter? For the same reason, I am also sceptical about arguments based on the portrayal of diseases in portraits. Years ago, a researcher claimed that Rembrandt’s Bathsheba suffered from breast cancer, because of a discoloration in her left breast. These kinds of scientific examinations of paintings tend to disregard the conventions of the time as well as art-historical knowledge (an accusation also leveled at Wells). I think the hypothesis was undermined by an art historian who commented that the discoloration was due to the natural aging process of the paint Rembrandt used. Hammerschmidt-Hummel’s earlier work has met with similar objections (see for example the TLS and Folio; but see also the positive reviews on her own website and  Wikipedia page).

The reaction to the controversy by the Birthplace Trust is not quite convincing – where they first claimed a resemblance to the Droeshout engraving, they now claim that poor Droeshout was only 22 years old at the time he made the brass plate. Also, the argument that the Cobbe portrait is more goodlooking than the Overbury from the Bodleian is a little iffy, particularly if the Bodleian painting is as faded by time as Duncan Jones suggests.

My inexpert opinion, then, is that it would be wonderful if this were an authentic Shakespeare portrait – I like his looks and the fact that the portrait might support the image of a courtly, bisexual Shakespeare – but I am not convinced by the evidence presented so far.

See also:


2 thoughts on “Cobbe Shakespeare portrait (2)

  1. Nothing can ever be know for certain about any of the claimed portraits of Shakespeare. The only images which have any sort of validity are the engraving in the First Folio and the memorial in the Stratford church. Even so, there are many who doubt that these are good likenesses.

  2. The claims for the Cobbe portrait

    What people are saying – Counter arguments cannot be regarded as valid

    Prof. Stanley Wells has rejected objections that have been raised about the Droeshout engraving “looking too different” from the Cobbe portrait by saying that “painters (like photographers) have ever flattered”. He argues that Droeshout “simplified the portrait for his brass plate”, adding that engravers “usually did simplify and update” (see

    These counter arguments cannot be regarded as valid because they are not in accordance with what was common practice in England and on the Continent at the time of Shakespeare. Portraits in the Renaissance were created ad vivam effigiem, i.e. ”from life”, or ”based on the live model”, and reproduced the physiognomy of the subject – together with all the visible signs of illness – with strict verism in order to create a faithful representation of the sitter’s face and actual physical appearance.[1]

    In 1582 the eminent Italian theologian Gabriele Paleotti wrote that it was “necessary to ensure that the face or other parts of the body are not rendered more beautiful or more ugly, or changed in any way …, even if he [or she] should be very disfigured by congenital or accidental flaws”.[2]

    It is this strict verism or realism, which also applies to the work of the engravers of the time, that enabled the BKA (CID/FBI) experts to identify the sitter of the Chandos and Flower portraits and the Davenant bust as well as the man represented by the Darmstadt Shakespeare death mask. Without this absolute truth to life, the medical experts would not have been able to diagnose the signs of disease in these Shakespearean images, all in the same location, but presented at different stages of life.

    Droeshout and the sculptor of Shakespeare’s Stratford funerary bust both depicted the poet accurately, although not directly from life but – as was customary in the Renaissance – from a true-to-life portrait or from a death mask. This is why the Droeshout engraving and the funerary bust formed a perfect comparison basis for investigating and finally authenticating the above-named depictions of Shakespeare.

    As I have shown in my article in Frankfurter Rundschau (March 14-15, 2009),[3] there are so many divergencies between the facial features of the Cobbe portrait and the morphological and pathological features of the four authenticated, true-to-life images of the bard (and also the Droeshout engraving and the funerary bust) that it can be ruled out that the sitter of the Cobbe portrait represents William Shakespeare.

    Prof. Hildegard Hammerschmidt-Hummel
    University of Mainz, Germany

    [1] See my book The True Face of William Shakespeare. The Poet’s Death Mask and Likenesses from Three Periods of His Life (London: Chaucer Press, 2006), pp. 21ff.

    [2] The True Face, p. 23.


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