Is this what Shakespeare really looked like? The only portrait painted during his lifetime

A portrait has been unveiled as the only signed and dated image of William Shakespeare painted during his lifetime.

The only signed and dated image of William Shakespeare painted during his lifetime.
The only signed and dated image of William Shakespeare painted during his lifetime.

The portrait, complete with trademark beard and distinctly receding hairline, has been described as the forgotten face of Shakespeare waiting for centuries to be re-discovered. In the parlance of the art market, it is the greatest ‘sleeper’ ever to emerge.

The painting is offered for sale by private treaty and interest is expected from around the world. The owner, who wishes to remain anonymous, hopes it will stay in the UK.

Prior to 1975, the picture hung in the library of a stately home in the north of England, once home to the Danby family, where it was always known as ‘Shakespeare’.

Since then, it has been in private hands and significant research has been undertaken that has revealed the artist and numerous connections to Shakespeare.

The painting is by Robert Peake (1551-1619), Sergeant-Painter to James I. It is dated 1608 and signed by the artist with his regular mark.

The age of the sitter is recorded on the portrait as 44. William Shakespeare was 44 in 1608. The connections between Shakespeare and Robert Peake are extensive.

Peake was a well-known and highly respected artist who was also commissioned by the Office of the Revels, the Crown department that oversaw the licensing and presentation of plays. He was also commissioned to paint scenery at the buildings of the Revels, the Priory of St John of Jerusalem of Clerkenwell, where the Master of the Revels, Edmund Tilney, was based.

Tilney wrote that the Office “consisteth of a wardrobe and other several rooms for artificers to work in (viz. tailors, embroiderers, property makers, painters, wire-drawers and carpenters), together with a convenient place for the rehearsals and setting forth of plays and other shows...”

It was at the Priory of St John where The Comedy of Errors, Romeo and Juliet, Richard II, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Merchant of Venice, Much Ado About Nothing, Hamlet, and Macbeth were rehearsed, performed and licensed for performance. Robert Peake worked in the same premises and at the same time as William Shakespeare rehearsed his plays.

Peake was regularly commissioned to paint the portraits of numerous high-ranking members of the Court and Jacobean society. He was assisted by his son William and, later, grandson Robert. Peake also ran a commercial art studio and printing business from premises at Holburne Conduit.

Shakespeare is known to have to have resided in the area. All the available evidence suggests Peake knew Shakespeare and would have been the natural choice for a portrait, whether it was commissioned by the playwright, by his patrons or supporters.

The view is supported by the historian Mary Edmond, an expert on Robert Peake and his family, who said: “It must be more than likely that one or both playwrights sat to the Peakes.”

Further evidence of the connections between the Peakes and Shakespeare has emerged in recent months. Among the many print commissions undertaken by the Peakes in the 1620s were engravings by Martin Droeshout, the artist responsible for the frontispiece image of Shakespeare that appears in First Folio of 1623, produced seven years after Shakespeare’s death. Droeshout’s engravings, printed by William Peake, can be found in the National Portrait Gallery and British Museum.

This fact connects the only verifiable image of Shakespeare – the First Folio engraving – with the rediscovered portrait by Peake. Furthermore, Shakespeare is shown in both the engraving and portrait wearing a typical doublet of the period, a garment befitting his status.

The portrait is described as in very good condition and has been examined by the Courtauld Institute in London where the paint and pigments were subject to thorough testing for age and authenticity.

Art expert Duncan Phillips said: “There is more evidence for this portrait of Shakespeare than any other known painting of the playwright. It is a monogrammed and dated work by a portrait painter of serious status with connections to the artist who produced the image for the First Folio.

“The picture has survived 400 years almost untouched by wear and tear thanks to its ownership by a family of Shakespeare enthusiasts who hung it in their library.’

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