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Shakespeare's Face

Unraveling the Legend and History of Shakespeare's Mysterious Portrait

About The Book

A fascinating literary detective story charting the surprising, true history of a recently discovered painting of Shakespeare held by the same family for 400 years -- adding new drama to the Bard's life.
When author Stephanie Nolen reported the discovery of the only portrait of William Shakespeare painted while he was alive, the announcement ignited furious controversy around the world.

Now, in this provocative biography of the portrait, she tells the riveting story of how a rare image of the young Bard at thirty-nine came to reside in the suburban home of a retired engineer, whose grandmother kept the family treasure under her bed, and how he embarked on authenticating it. The ultimate Antiques Roadshow dream, the portrait has been confirmed by six years of painstaking forensic studies to date from around 1600, and it has not been altered since.


Chapter One

Shakespeare knew us. His characters, with their foibles and their failings (and their ribald inside jokes) are people we recognize as soon as they walk onto a stage. It is not simply that Shakespeare's plays are the most performed of any playwright's -- rather, it is that Hamlet and Juliet and Othello are people just like us. We do not poison, behead or banish with quite the same frequency as did Shakespeare's medieval Italians and Danes or his early English Kings. But we plot, we pine and we fall disastrously in love with quite the wrong person every bit as often as do his creations. We are as darkly ambitious as Lady Macbeth, as jubilantly lusty as Bottom, as embittered as Iago. Shakespeare's first audiences loved his plays as much as we do today because they too saw themselves beneath the cloaks and helmets of his actors.

He knew us, but what do we know of William Shakespeare? Before I encountered the painting at the heart of this book, my knowledge of the playwright was sketchy, like most people's, and it came from predictable sources. I had an enthusiastic high school English teacher (who tried to get her surly teenage charges to speak in iambic pentameter in the lunch line), and I clutched a dog-eared copy of The Winter's Tale in earnest coffee-fuelled debates as an undergraduate. I knew that in recent years the union of Shakespeare studies and pop culture had produced not just state-of-the-art movies but also glossy magazine articles on some of the long-running debates (Shakespeare as misogynist or closet revolutionary).

Like most young North Americans with a reasonably good education, I knew Shakespeare came from Stratford-upon-Avon. I could name his wife, Anne Hathaway, and seemed to remember something about, shall we say, a hastily arranged marriage. I knew that many of the phrases he first penned had taken permanent root in English -- "love is blind," for example, "it was Greek to me," "neither here nor there" and "to catch a cold." And as Hollywood directors competed to film his plays, it was obvious Shakespeare's influence on culture continued to extend well beyond the realm of literature.

I didn't know the man. I didn't know I wanted to.

Then I met the man in the Sanders portrait and fast found myself in the thick of a detective story, one that drew its clues from genealogy, art history, forensics, great literature and old family tales.

The story of the portrait begins more than four hundred years ago -- but I made my entry from stage left only recently. It started with a phone call from my mother. We were having one of our regular chats, me in my kitchen in Toronto, she in hers in Ottawa, on a spring evening in 2001.

"Here's a funny thing," she said. "Dad was talking to Lloyd Sullivan" -- a neighbour who lives up the street, in a suburban house much like her own. "Well, he's got this picture -- he inherited it from his mother, I think. It's a portrait of William Shakespeare -- or maybe it's by William Shakespeare. Anyway, it's the only one of its kind. It might even be worth a million dollars. I thought it might make a good story."

My mother knows a good story when she hears one. She has been sending them my way since I was fifteen, when she helped me get my first job at a newspaper. But this one sounded like a bit much: a million-dollar picture of -- or by, or something -- Shakespeare, in a sleepy suburb of Ottawa? Not likely. My mother didn't know much more than these vague details. She had heard about the painting from my father, who had heard the story from the neighbour. My father was coming home from a jog one evening, saw Lloyd Sullivan fixing his brakes and stopped for a chat. They were discussing the stock market, when Lloyd quipped that his retirement plan was an oil painting -- and he told my father about an old picture he had. It seemed like a rather fantastic tale, and my dad didn't take it too seriously. But a few days later he mentioned it to my mother, and she passed the story along to me.

I put down the telephone, both amused and intrigued. It is an axiom of the news business that the best-sounding leads are invariably apocryphal. And this one seemed really far-fetched. I was working on other stories, solid stories with real deadlines. I stored this one away.

And William Shakespeare did not cross my mind again for a week or two -- until one morning a few hours before a weekly story meeting at The Globe and Mail, the newspaper where I report on international affairs. This was at the height of a ferocious newspaper war that then gripped Toronto, and I knew I had to come up with something: a new idea, a recycled idea, a lead I was still "nailing down." But all I could think of was that conversation with my mother. In the morning I tried several times to get hold of the man who owned the portrait, but in his retirement he occasionally drove a school bus and was hard to reach.

That afternoon, when I faced the lineup of hungry editors, I knew better than to make too much of this bizarre little tale. For if it turned out to be a fraud -- and that seemed almost certain -- I would be left making hollow excuses to the same testy bunch. Quickly I summarized what I knew: that my parents had this neighbour, that the neighbour had this picture and that the picture might possibly be of Shakespeare. Or by him.

The Globe's editor-in-chief, Richard Addis, a recently transplanted Englishman, was delighted with the notion of an undiscovered Shakespeare portrait. My reporter colleagues met it with skepticism: Shakespeare didn't paint. If he did paint, what were the odds that a retired engineer in Ottawa owned his lone masterpiece? Whoever the guy was, he had obviously seen one too many episodes of The Antiques Roadshow.

But Richard Addis was intrigued. I left that meeting with strict orders from the boss to find out more and report back. The next evening I finally caught up by telephone with Lloyd Sullivan, the representative acting on behalf of the family members who own the portrait. I started with neighbourly chitchat -- "Don't know if you remember me, Barb and Jim Nolen's daughter" -- and then got around to the painting my father had told my mother about. His story spilled out: there was indeed a picture. Not by Shakespeare, but of him. The only one painted from life. Handed down through Lloyd's family for four hundred years. He had put the past ten years of his life and most of his savings into establishing its authenticity. And he had proved it: he was absolutely convinced that he owned the only genuine picture of the world's greatest writer.

Finally I asked the crucial question: would he let me come and see the painting? Could I write about it in The Globe and Mail? Lloyd agreed cautiously, on the condition that I not identify him in the newspaper. He was worried about security, since a painting he believed could be extremely valuable was stashed in his dining room. It seemed a little odd that he had not put the portrait in a bank vault, but then, from what I remembered, he was a regular-folks kind of guy. Maybe he didn't trust banks.

I was starting to get that prickle on the back of my neck that a good story always brings. But I was puzzled by Lloyd's assertion that his was the "only" picture of William Shakespeare. I knew what Shakespeare looked like: bald guy in a ruff; bit of a sourpuss, actually -- not the type you imagined writing Romeo and Juliet. And if I knew that face of Shakespeare, there must be at least one portrait.

That night I holed up in The Globe's cramped but rich library and started thumbing through the reference books. It took me only a few minutes to learn an astounding thing: we don't know what Shakespeare looked like. Not really. The only two reasonably reliable images we have -- one of them the ubiquitous grump in the doublet -- were created after his death. No portrait exists that was painted while Shakespeare was alive -- at least none on which most scholars agree.

This was the knowledge I carried with me on the morning of May 9, 2001, when I knocked on the Sullivans' front door. Lloyd and his wife, Mary, live in an unpretentious four-bedroom house in an Ottawa suburb built around a crossroads: school, church, grocery store, hockey rink. Lloyd answered my knock and greeted me warmly. He was older than I remembered from our last encounter about ten years before -- snowy haired now, but still jovial. He introduced Raymond du Plessis, an old friend who had been helping with "The Project."

Mary brought tea, and the four of us sat down in the living room for a chat. The room was a rather unlikely setting for a story about a Renaissance painting, for its walls were adorned with religious icons and, hung above the sofa, just one painting: a standard-issue-Canadiana oil of a snow-topped red barn at sunset. Lloyd and Mary asked after my brother and sister, and I inquired about their two daughters, with whom I had played hide-and-seek as a child. The Sullivans wanted to know all about my job with The Globe, and we talked about the places I had travelled and the stories I had covered, while my mind raced forward to the questions I wanted to ask.

Finally I cracked a fresh notebook and tried to start at the beginning. Where did Lloyd get the portrait? And who painted it? And what made him think it was Shakespeare, of all people? He began to tell his story, speaking with a mixture of gravity

and enthusiasm that soon made it clear this painting was a consuming passion for him. The tale he told was a long and complicated one that jumped back and forth over four centuries and two continents. Raymond, a thin, serious, retired constitutional lawyer, interrupted periodically to correct Lloyd on dates and times and proper names. Ray's analytical mind clearly relished the puzzle of it all. And a few times Mary joined the conversation too, usually to correct some detail of the family history. She had the many branches of a sprawling Catholic clan clear in her mind.

We talked well into the night, and by the time I headed home, I had the skeleton of a fascinating story. But I had seen no sign of the painting, and somehow, I didn't like to bring it up: I needed to earn more of Lloyd's confidence before I asked to meet the man the family called "Willy Shake."

Very early the next morning, I made a series of rather ludicrous phone calls. Richard Addis had instructed me to seek comments on the painting from Shakespeare scholars and art experts. But I was not to reveal the specific portrait behind my questions or any details about its circumstances for fear that someone would scoop The Globe.

My first call was to Jacob Simon, chief curator of the National Portrait Gallery in London. The Gallery is one of Britain's premier art institutions, and I reckoned that if anyone would be knowledgeable about pictures of England's great writer, it would be their curators. Although I did not know it at the time, the Gallery has a Shakespeare of its own, called the Chandos portrait, a leading contender for the life-picture title. To my surprise, Simon actually picked up the phone. I introduced myself and launched into a brief, mortifying conversation.

I asked the British curator to assess the significance of a new, authentic life portrait of Shakespeare. He replied rather frostily that people are forever thinking they have found a Shakespeare, and they never have. "You're calling from where?" he asked at one point, his tone conveying that he considered it most unlikely that a plausible picture of Shakespeare would turn up in Canada, of all places. He was unimpressed. Three minutes into our conversation, Simon hung up on me. I could picture him shaking his head, wondering why the switchboard always put the nutcases through to him.

Mentally readjusting my reporter's armour, I turned to the Shakespeare scholars on my list. First I dialled the office of Stanley Wells, a professor of English literature who chairs the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford-upon-Avon. The Trust is Shakespeare mecca: it maintains the poet's various homes and fosters much of the best Shakespeare scholarship today, keeping a precious archive of historical records for the town of Stratford. Over the telephone, Wells sounded just as one imagines a retired professor in a small English town ought to sound: wise, a bit posh, terribly polite. He was more kind than the curator had been and told me that a new portrait would of course be exciting, but like Simon, he warned that "new" portraits turn up frequently. Reasonably enough, he asked for details about this latest picture. Sworn to secrecy by the newspaper, I could give him only the most general information, quickly undermining the last of my credibility.

After my conversations with Jacob Simon and Stanley Wells, I called several more academics, a handful of art historians and a few auction houses to try to get a sense of the potential value of the picture. Talking to the art experts, I cagily posed such questions as, "If somebody had a picture of -- oh, say, Jesus -- and it had been scientifically authenticated and had a solid provenance, what would that be worth?" Jesus was the only remotely comparable figure I could come up with; someone revered all over the world but of whom we had no verified image. After a few hours of this, I had collected a couple of useable comments and had left a trail of experts in a variety of fields across Canada, the United States and Britain convinced that I was a complete lunatic.

By mid-morning I was back in the Sullivans' living room, barraging Lloyd and Ray with more questions. We spent hours going through the mountain of documents they had amassed and consulting genealogical charts spread across the dining room table. I sat on the thick beige carpet with files stacked around me and ticked through my list of queries, gradually filling a fat notebook.

By late afternoon, I had pieced together the following story. In 1972, Lloyd's mother, Kathleen, had died in Montreal at the age of sixty-nine. She left everything she owned to her husband, who outlived her by seven years -- everything except her painting of William Shakespeare, a family heirloom that had come to her from an older brother, and then passed into the custody of Lloyd, her only child. He was then a practising engineer, a busy father, a man active in his church, a pitcher for the local softball team. For a while he hung the painting on his dining room wall. When he entertained colleagues at home, they would invariably ask about it. Who's the fellow with the twinkling eyes? That's William Shakespeare, Lloyd would tell them. "And they'd say, 'Have another drink,'" he recalls with a chuckle. Then one day a couple of friends suggested the portrait might be valuable; Lloyd thought it over and concluded the picture might best be put away for safekeeping. So Willy Shake went into the cupboard in the upstairs hall.

But Lloyd did not forget about the painting. Shortly before his mother died, she had advised him to give the portrait some attention -- there was more to it than just a story. A retirement project, she suggested. And he thought, Damn it, when I retire and I've got nothing to do, I'm gonna research this. I'm not going to sit in a rocking chair and read newspapers. And, I mean, nobody in the family moved the yardsticks on this in the whole four hundred years.

This much Lloyd believed he knew from family tradition: the portrait was painted by his ancestor a dozen generations back, one John Sanders, born in 1576, the eldest son of a family in Worcester, England. Young John left home to make his fortune in London. There he became an actor, or at least a bit player, in Shakespeare's company -- the Lord Chamberlain's Men, which was formed in 1594, when Shakespeare was thirty. John Sanders also dabbled in oils and did odd bits of painting around the theatre. He liked to try his hand at portraiture. And sometime in 1603, he prepared a sturdy oak panel and some bright oil paint and recorded the face of his colleague, William Shakespeare -- then a writer of limited but burgeoning renown. Sanders or one of his children labelled the picture "Shakspere" (in a spelling the poet himself used) and included the playwright's birth and death dates, noting that this was his likeness at the age of thirty-nine. The portrait was handed down, passing from the first John Sanders to his son, and so on through the family.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, when the Sanders family left England for Canada, the portrait followed them. It passed from a school principal to his children and eventually to the gentle youngest sister -- Lloyd's mother -- and then to Lloyd. Since he had removed the painting from the wall where it had originally hung, Lloyd had kept it in that upstairs hall cupboard. For years, he had been researching the origin, provenance, history and authenticity of the portrait on behalf of the family. This work was still in progress and was expected to be concluded sometime within the next few years.

As I neared the end of that second long day at the Sullivans', my head ached with complicated details and a surfeit of unanswered questions. How did he know it wasn't a very good fake? If John Sanders painted well enough to record Shakespeare, why was none of his other work known? Why had the picture never become public before? Why hadn't some enterprising Sanders in the past four hundred years sold it for the fortune it was likely worth?

But Lloyd showed me wills and letters and a list of the rolls of actors from the Lord Chamberlain's and the King's Men from Shakespeare's time, a list that included a "J. Sanders." He gave me a thick sheaf of results from painstaking forensic analysis of the painting, which certainly looked persuasive. He appeared to have done a thorough job. I could not report the existence of a definite portrait of Shakespeare, but I could certainly report on a picture with an extraordinary claim. There was just one crucial thing I needed.

"Is he here?" I asked, suddenly a little nervous.

Lloyd got up from the dining room table, took a few steps to a nearby cabinet, reached down beside it and pulled out a brown parcel about four inches thick and a little bigger than an old-fashioned vinyl LP. He laid the package on the cluttered table, then casually pulled back the kraft paper wrapping and a layer of bubble wrap to reveal his treasure.

It was a rogue's face, a charmer's face that looked back at me with a tolerant, mischievous, slightly world-weary air. There was nothing austere or haughty about him, nothing of the great man being painted for posterity. The portrait was small, much smaller than I had imagined, but it was extraordinarily vivid. The colours in the paint seemed much too rich to be four centuries old.

Lloyd flipped the painting over and pointed to a three-inch-square patch near the top of the unpainted wood. This was what remained of the label that once identified the subject as "Shakspere" -- but by now much of it had flaked away, and none of the writing was legible. The only identifying mark on the painting itself was a date, "AN° 1603," which appeared in small red letters in the top-right-hand corner. The right edge of the board seemed to have been damaged, and a faint line visible just inside the perimeter of the painting suggested that it had once been framed. There were three gouges across the top -- I would learn later that someone sometime in the past had crudely attempted to attach the picture to a frame with nails.

I stood and gazed into those beguiling eyes, stifling an instinctive urge to pick up the portrait 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.

"He's...lovely," I said.

"Isn't he?" Lloyd agreed, with a paternal sort of smile. "Much better-looking than the others. You should see the Chandos portrait! It makes Shakespeare look...Italian! The guy in that picture is wearing an earring!" Shaking his head at the very idea, Lloyd bundled his Shakespeare back into the bubble wrap and tucked it in beside the cabinet.

I made my farewells and emerged into the late afternoon sun, feeling slightly stunned. It was hard to get that face out of my head. The evidence appeared solid, yet it didn't seem possible that a real picture of Shakespeare was here in the innocuous neighbourhood where I grew up.

Just as I arrived at my parents' house, a taxi pulled up bearing The Globe photographer Patti Gower, who had flown to Ottawa to take a picture of the picture. But when I called Lloyd to tell him I was bringing the photographer over, he told me he preferred that Patti not know who he was or where he lived. So I trundled back to his house, took charge of his precious heirloom and started home. I was hardly down his driveway when a light spring shower began to fall. I broke into a run and sprinted down the block, terrified the painting would get wet and be damaged. With the portrait safely within my parents' walls, Patti took over, promptly converting the living room into her photo studio.

While she worked, I called Richard Addis in his office in Toronto. Feeling a certain unreality even as I said the words, I told him that as far as I could ascertain from the little information I had, the picture had a possible claim to authenticity. I would need, of course, to call Lloyd's sources myself, and I would need to verify many of the details with Shakespeare scholars and experts on art. But I felt we could confidently report the discovery of a possible life portrait of William Shakespeare. Addis was ecstatic: "Marvellous!" he said. "Tell us everything!"

Then I started making calls: to the Canadian Conservation Institute, which had done the forensic tests, to the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., to professors in Liverpool and California, checking as much of Lloyd's tale as I could. And while Patti shot the picture from every angle, I paced, trying to calculate the likelihood of the house getting hit by lightning. An hour later, with enormous relief, I carried the Sanders portrait back to the Sullivans.

It was now the afternoon of May 10, 2001. Barely two weeks had elapsed from the time my mother first told me about the painting that had something to do with William Shakespeare. For the better part of forty-eight hours, I had been immersed in one of the strangest and potentially the most wonderful stories I had ever covered. I now had a day and a half to produce a news story for the paper.

At four o'clock, I sat down at my parents' dining room table and stared at my laptop screen, acutely conscious of the gaping holes in my knowledge of both Shakespeare and art history. But the life of a newspaper reporter is a repeated exercise in quickly learning enough to write authoritatively about something you previously knew nothing about. I had brought a towering pile of photocopied references with me from Toronto, and they were festooned with Post-it notes from a crash course self-administered late into the previous night. I began to write.

At five o'clock, Richard Addis called. The Globe's editor-in-chief had decided the paper could not risk waiting another day, and he wanted the story for tomorrow's paper -- which meant I had to file it at six o'clock. I had one more hour to tell the story of the painting that just might show us Shakespeare's face.

Copyright © 2002 by Stephanie Nolen

About The Author

Photo Credit:

Stephanie Nolen is the Johannesburg bureau chief for The Globe and Mail, the national newspaper of Canada. She recently reported from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and currently covers the AIDS pandemic in Africa. She is the author of Promised the Moon: The Untold Story of the First Women in the Space Race.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Atria Books (June 15, 2010)
  • Length: 384 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781451603897

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