Wednesday 18 July 2018

Is this a Shakespeare which I see before me?

The image on the cover of this supplement has a rich Irish history and may be the only surviving portrait of The Bard painted in his lifetime, says Kim Bielenberg

Shakespeare scholar, Professor Stanley Wells, who came forward to claim that this painting was one of the only surviving portraits of William Shakespeare painted during his lifetime. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
Shakespeare scholar, Professor Stanley Wells, who came forward to claim that this painting was one of the only surviving portraits of William Shakespeare painted during his lifetime. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

When Alec Cobbe was growing up in a mansion near Donabate, the painting was just one of many in his family drawing room.

The handsome Tudor gentleman with a bulky lace collar and a somewhat inscrutable mouth gazed out over the family in Newbridge House, North Co. Dublin, as they went about their business.

“As a painting it didn’t really stand out, because there were an awful lot of paintings in the house,’’ Alec Cobbe told me.

But all of a sudden in 2009, the inconspicuous portrait that could have been a random Tudor gentleman — or everyone’s favourite hippy uncle — caused a sensation that rippled across the literary and artistic world.  

The Shakespeare scholar, Professor Stanley Wells, came forward to claim that the work was one of the the only surviving portraits of William Shakespeare, painted during his lifetime.

Could this be The Bard as he really was?

It was claimed that through this portrait, we could gaze into the soul of the man who wrote the soliloquies of Hamlet, the passionate speeches of Romeo and Juliet, and the love sonnets.

But there have also been plenty of sceptics about the picture including the art historian Sir Roy Strong who described the claims as “fantasy” and “codswallop”.

By this time, the portrait had been taken to England.

The Co. Dublin home of the painting for centuries, Newbridge House, is one of the finest Georgian mansions in the country.

Until 1985, when it was taken over by the county council, Newbridge House was the family seat of the Cobbe family.

The Cobbes were influential aristocrats who moved to Dublin in the early 18th century. One self-effacing Cobbe, the writer Frances, famously said of her family that it was “chiefly remarkable for never having done anything remarkable’’.

Alec Cobbe told me how he grew up with the portrait at home. Time stood still in the rambling Georgian pile, but the fortunes of the Cobbes as local landlords had faded by the middle of the last century.

Down through the generations, Alec’s family thought that the man with the insightful demeanour in the painting was Sir Walter Raleigh, the famous explorer and courtier of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth 1.

The figure in the portrait looks well-to-do, somewhat dashing, and, in modern fashion, his wrinkles may have had a bit of air-brushing.

So how did the portrait come to be in the hands of the Anglo-Irish family, and how did it go unnoticed?

Alec Cobbe, himself an art restorer, decided to carry out his own detective work into the unusual paintings at Newbridge.

He established a link with Shakespeare before the sensational claim about the portrait had been made.

Among the other hidden treasures, Alec found a portrait of a person who appeared to be a young woman with smooth skin, long hair and rosy cheeks.

The painting was thought to be of Lady Norton, but Alec discovered that the young lady was not, in fact, a woman at all.

He suggested the painting showed the Earl of Southampton, a nobleman linked to the Cobbes. The Earl was Shakespeare’s only known literary patron.

There has even been speculation that the Earl and the writer had an intimate bisexual relationship.

The Earl is also thought to have been the “fair youth’’ of Shakespeare’s sonnets.

The Earl was believed to have commissioned the portrait of Shakespeare.

The picture came to the Cobbes when one of the family married a great granddaughter of the earl.  And when the Cobbes moved to Ireland, the portraits of the Earl and the playwright came with them.

Alec Cobbe told me: “Confusion arose, because (an ancestor) Archbishop Cobbe scribbled Walter Raleigh on the back of it. That is why it was thought to be Raleigh.’’

Cobbe’s theory that the portrait was The Bard was spurred by a visit to the Searching for Shakespeare exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London a decade ago.

One of the portraits of Shakespeare, which usually hangs in the Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, caught his eye.

It struck Cobbe that it was a copy of his painting at home back in Ireland. He called Professor Wells.

The professor, general editor of the Oxford Shakespeare and chairman of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, originally had doubts, but became convinced of its authenticity.

To support the claim, experts carried out a barrage of scientific tests. These included tree-ring dating of the oak panel on which the portrait is painted, X-ray analysis and infra-red photography.

The portrait has divided the art world ever since. 

Art historians such as Alastair Laing, curator of paintings at the British National Trust, have declared that it is genuine, while others maintain that it is much ado about nothing.

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