Shakespeare in Manhattan

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Last Thursday was a great night for The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

It was the preview of the new exhibition at The Pierpont Morgan Library of ‘The Changing Face of William Shakespeare’ (until 1 May).

There were about a hundred specially invited guests, including members of the Cobbe family, whose portrait of Shakespeare was again at the centre of the international stage.

But although this was the first time the Cobbe portrait has been seen outside the U.K., perhaps the greatest sense of a premier was the opportunity to see The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust portrait, which research has shown to be the earliest version of the Cobbe original.

It was last seen in 1947 when it was sold at Sotheby’s auction house and emerged in Madrid just over a year ago in light of the Cobbe portrait being on exhibition at The Shakespeare Centre.

The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust portrait is softly painted which makes the face of the sitter seem more expressive than in the other three seventeenth-century copies (the Folger, Fitzgerald, and Dorchester portraits). Copies of portraits never look as vibrant as their original when, one supposes, either the sitter is in front of the artist’s canvas or the artist’s imagination is allowing for a greater fluidity and dynamism of expression through the way the paint is being applied to the canvas or, in this case, the oak pannel. Like the Cobbe, the SBT portrait has a provenance connecting it to a direct descendant of the Earl of Southampton,  Shakespeare’s patron. Jane Digby, the Earl’s great- granddaughter married into the Ellenborough family in whose collection the portrait resided until 1947.

For part of the evening I chaired a panel discussion with Alec Cobbe, Stanley Wells, and art historian Jane Turner. We were able to show lots of images of the various versions, and it made for a fascinating discussion. There was a gasp from the audience when a slide showing eight successive versions of the Cobbe portrait came on to the screen, from the seventeenth through to the nineteenth century. This for me is a highly significant part of the evidence for the sitter being Shakespeare. Three of the seventeenth-century versions have long- established independent identifications as being portraits of Shakespeare; they have then been copied and  those copies circulated.

I would not be at all surprised if more copies emerged in light of the exhibition at the Morgan.

‘Make thee another self for love of me,
That beauty still may live in thine or thee.’ (Sonnet 10, lines 13-14).

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Author:Paul Edmondson

Head of Research and Knowledge and Director of the Stratford-upon-Avon Poetry Festival for The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Follow Paul on Twitter @paul_edmondson
  • Ty Unglebower

    I wonder from what far flung place the next potential copy of the portrait will emerge. Sounds like a fascinating presentation. I regret being too far away to attend it.

  • http://ajleon.me ajleon

    Loved the panel, Paul, you all were wonderful!

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  • Josina Reaves

    Your presentation with Stanley Wells on Friday, “Facing Shakespeare,” was exciting and incredibly useful. As a student of early modern drama, I am always fascinated by the ways in which scholars determine the provenance and significance of freshly unearthed primary documents. Well done, and thank you for taking the time to share your discoveries with New York’s teachers.

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