MIDWAY: What the bard looked like

Claims that the 17th century Cobbe portrait is a painting of Shakespeare made during his lifetime have been quashed by the UK’s leading expert on Tudor portraiture. Tarnya Cooper, 16th-century curator, says she is “very sceptical”, and questions Professor Stanley Wells’s main argument: that the Cobbe, so named after the family in whose home it hung unidentified

for years, is the original from which the work known as the Janssen portrait was copied — and that the Janssen portrait represents Shakespeare.

Cooper does not deny that the two paintings are versions of the same image; it was common practice to make copies of portraits in the period. But she points out that the Janssen portrait was doctored in the 18th or 19th century to look like Shakespeare. If anything, she says, both works are more likely to represent the courtier Sir Thomas Overbury. “I respect Wells’s scholarship enormously,” she says, “but portraiture is a very different area, and this doesn’t add up.” Wells contends that Martin Droeshout’s 1623 engraving for the frontispiece of the First Folio was also based on the Cobbe portrait. Cooper disagrees.

“The costumes are very similar, but that was the fashion,” she says. “Hundreds of men would have worn doublets like that. One cannot make an argument based on facial resemblance alone.” More compelling evidence would include an inscription giving a date, or a coat of arms.

Wells, however, remains convinced. “The Janssen portrait was believed to be of Shakespeare until the 1940s,’ he said. “Yes, it had been altered to make it look more like Shakespeare, but we believe that alteration was in fact restoring it to its original appearance.”

He added, “In our opinion, the resemblances between the Cobbe portrait and the Droeshout engraving outweigh the differences. We do have a painting that represents what Shakespeare

ought to have looked like — a gentleman, who at that time was wealthy.”

Over to Cooper, “Every five to 10 years, a ‘new’ Shakespeare portrait will appear,” she says.

“There are between 50 and 100 images in the National Portrait Gallery stacks that were

at one time considered to be him.