On May 11, 2001, Globe and Mail reporter Stephanie Nolen announced a stunning discovery to the world: an attractive portrait held by an Ontario family for twelve generations, which may well be the only known portrait of Shakespeare painted during his lifetime. Shakespeare’s Face is the biography of a portrait — a literary mystery story — and the furious debate that has ensued since its discovery.
A slip of paper affixed to the back proclaims “Shakespere. This likeness taken 1603, Age at that time 39 ys.” But is it really Shakespeare who peers at us from the small oil on wood painting? The twinkling eyes, reddish hair, and green jacket are not in keeping with the duller, traditional images of the bard. But they are more suggestive of the humorous and humane man who wrote the greatest plays in the English language.
Shakespeare’s Face tells the riveting story of how the painting came to reside in the home of a retired engineer in a mid-sized Ontario town. The painting is reputed to be by John Sanders of Worcester, England. As a retirement project, the engineer, whose grandmother kept the family treasure under her bed, embarked on authenticating the portrait: the forensic analyses that followed have proven it without doubt to the period.
In a remarkable publishing coup, Knopf Canada has gathered around Stephanie Nolen’s story a group of the world’s leading Shakespeare scholars and art and cultural historians to delve into one of the most fascinating literary mysteries of our times: “Is this the face of genius?”
Excerpt from Chapter 1 of Shakespeare’s Face by Stephanie Nolen
*By the late afternoon I was beginning to go a little cross-eyed. I had examined countless documents and read the test results from the painting’s painstaking forensic analysis. I now had everything I needed to write my story — except for one crucial item. “Is he here?” I asked, almost in a whisper....
The owner laid the package carefully on the cluttered table. He gently pulled back the kraft paper wrapping, underneath which was a layer of bubble wrap. Then he peeled back this second layer to reveal his treasure.
I was caught off-guard by how small the portrait was — and how vivid. The colours in the paint seemed too rich to be 400 years old. Except for the hairline cracks in the varnish, the face could have been painted yesterday. And there was nothing austere or haughty about it, nothing of the great man being painted for posterity. It was a rogue’s face, a charmer’s face that looked back at me with a tolerant, mischievous slightly world-weary air....
It was painted on two pieces of solid board so expertly joined that the seam was barely visible. A date, “Ano 1603”, was painted in small red letters in the top right hand corner. The right side had been nibbled by woodworms.... I stood and gazed, quelling an instinctive urge to pick the portrait up and hold it in my hands. And as my professional skepticism crumpled for a moment, I found myself wanting desperately to believe that this was indeed Shakespeare’s face.*