For centuries, the commonly accepted illustration of William Shakespeare has been one of a balding, stern and rather lifeless subject, based on a black-and-white woodcut by Martin Droeshout and a marble bust which both emerged posthumously in the early 1620s and until now were considered his most authentic images.
All that changed when Alec Cobbe, Irish art restorer and heir to the Cobbe family’s art collection, visited the National Portrait Gallery in London in 2006 and saw a painting that was accepted as a portrait done during Shakespeare’s life until it was debunked about 70 years ago. Cobbe recognized it as a copy of a portrait in the collection he had inherited in the 1980s, depicting a handsome and lifelike figure that had previously never been identified as Shakespeare. The Cobbe original portrait, by an unknown artist, has now been dated at around 1610, six years before Shakespeare’s death in 1616.
Mark Broch, curator of the Cobbe Collection, who has conducted comprehensive research on the painting over the past three years, said, “We feel especially convinced that the portrait is Shakespeare because it seems to have been the source for the engraving of 1623 by Martin Droeshout, which was published in the First Folio by people who actually knew Shakespeare, which is why [the portrait] is such a fascinating discovery.”
The Cobbe family came into possession of the painting through a cousin’s marriage to the great-granddaughter of Henry Wriothesley, the 3rd Earl of Southampton. The Earl, Shakespeare’s only literary patron, is believed to have commissioned the portrait.
In an interview with Irish America, Broch talked about Charles Cobbe (1686-1765), who emigrated from Hampshire to Ireland in the beginning of the 18th century to pursue a career in the church and eventually became the Archbishop of Dublin.
Dr. Cobbe built Newbridge House, an elegant Georgian mansion just north of the city, where his descendants remain today, though the house itself was acquired by the Irish state in 1985.
“There are many works by Irish artists in the collection, particularly portraits by artists such as James Latham, and landscapes by painters such as George Barrett,” said Broch, who went on to explain why part of the collection had been sold off. “In 1839, Charles Cobbe, then owner of the house, sold valuable landscapes by Meindert Hobbema [now in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.] and Gaspard Dughet, in order to be able to build stone cottages for his tenants.”
Some skeptics have proposed that the Cobbe portrait might be of Sir Thomas Overbury, English poet and essayist who was alive in the late 16th and early 17th century. Broch disputes this claim, saying that “all the evidence points to Shakespeare.”
Boasting a youthful and ruddy complexion, fine and glamorous clothes and flattering auburn beard, the figure in the Cobbe portrait is described by Professor Stanley Wells, chairman of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, as a “pinup.” Indeed, this new representation of the bard has more in common with Ralph Fiennes’ dreamy portrayal in 1998’s Shakespeare in Love than it does with the 1620’s depictions.
And what might this new portrait tell us about Shakespeare’s life and the mysteries of his legacy?
Broch proposes that “the new portrait changes the general perception of Shakespeare, because it shows him as a friendly, attentive, successful and quite wealthy man, which is slightly different from the general idea of Shakespeare as a rather romantic, poor playwright. In fact the new portrait fits very well with what we actually know about Shakespeare: he was a rich man, his father had been a mayor of Stratford-upon-Avon, and Shakespeare owned the second largest house in town and land; his will is that of a present-day millionaire.”
The Cobbe portrait went on display for the public at The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford-Upon-Avon on April 23, Shakespeare’s birthday, and continues through September 6, in the exhibit “Shakespeare Found: A Life Portrait.”