This rosy-cheeked fellow is almost certainly an authentic image of Shakespeare made during his life, Stanley Wells announced today. The portrait has been in the collection of the Cobbe family for years, but it was not until Alec Cobbe visited the Searching for Shakespeare exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in 2006 that he realised he might have Shakespeare on his wall.
In London, he saw the Folger portrait of Shakespeare and recognised the face. He contacted Stanley Wells, and in the past three years the painting was subjected to all kinds of tests, from tree-ring-dating to infrared reflectography. It appears to date from around 1610, and could well be the original of the portrait that is now in the Folger library. Interestingly, since the Cobbe collection belonged to the Earl of Southampton it may have been Henry Wriothesly, the dedicatee of Shakespeare’s sonnets, who commissioned the painting.
The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust quotes its chairman Stanley Wells:
The evidence that it represents Shakespeare and that is was done from life, though it is circumstantial, is in my view overwhelming, I feel in little doubt that this is a portrait of Shakespeare, done from life and commissioned by the Earl of Southampton and believe it could certainly be the basis for the engraving seen in the First Folio.
None of the English newspapers I have read so far explain the words “Principum amicitias!” written in gold above the bard’s head. I googled and discovered they derive from Horace’s Carmen Saeculare Odes, book 2, ode 1 (here’s the Latin, and here an English translation). Then I found this passage in the German Frankfürter Allgemeine:
Besonders reizvoll erscheint ihm [Wells] die Aufschrift „Principum amicitias!“ aus einer Ode des Horaz, die den römischen Dichter und Geschichtsschreiber Gaius Asinius Pollio warnt, sich bei der Darstellung politischer Intrigen seiner Zeit ja vorzusehen – eine Ermahnung, die auch auf Shakespeare gemünzt sein könne, zumal der katholische Graf von Southampton wegen seiner Verwicklung in den geplanten Umsturz der Protestantin Elisabeth I. im Tower einsaß.
In the ode, Horace warns the Roman poet and historian Gaius Asinius Pollio to be careful in his depiction of political intrigue, and apparently — according to this newspaper — Wells suggested that this might be a warning that could also be directed at Shakespeare, especially since the Catholic Earl of Southampton was involved in Essex’s rebellion. I haven’t been able to find any other sources that report this remark, and I don’t know what to think of it. Why would Southampton include secret messages about the Essex rebellion in a portrait seven years after his release from prison and his restoration to the court of James I? And does Wells agree with Hildegard Hammerschmidt-Hummel that Southampton was a Catholic? Perhaps my German has let me down — or perhaps the reporter’s own imagination takes over after the dash in that quotation.