Canadian Man Said to Own Only Portrait of Shakespeare


The face of Shakespeare takes centre stage at symposium

Shakespeare’s plays are among the most widely read in the canon of English literature, yet aspects of the playwright’s true identity remain cloaked in mystery. One piece of the puzzle that has captivated academics is the so-called Sanders portrait, which dates back to 1603, and is believed to be the only portrait of Shakespeare painted while he was alive.

A conference, entitled “Look Here Upon This Picture: A Symposium on the Sanders Portrait of Shakespeare,” took place on Nov. 28 at the Munk School of Global Affairs in Toronto. Sponsored by U of G and Canadian Adaptations of Shakespeare Project (CASP), the conference brought experts together to discuss research supporting the authenticity of the portrait.

The painting belongs to Ottawa resident Lloyd Sullivan. It depicts Shakespeare at age 39 and was supposedly painted by one of Sullivan’s ancestors, actor and painter John Sanders. Sullivan inherited the work from his mother in 1972. The painting has been held in the family for 400 years.

Daniel Fischlin, Professor of English at the University of Guelph and head of CASP, has researched this painting for the past decade. “The cumulative weight of it is unprecedented and makes the portrait the rarest of all art commodities: the only image of Shakespeare painted during his lifetime that has survived the period. No portrait comes close or has faced the same degree of interdisciplinary scholarly scrutiny,” Fischlin has said of the project.

Sally Hickson, Associate Professor of Renaissance Art History at the University of Guelph, attended the symposium and has studied the painting from an art historical perspective. “The portrait has passed all the technical examinations that confirm it is certainly an original Jacobean portrait,” Hickson said.

“Having determined that the painting itself is an ‘authentic’ portrait, the question remains as to whether it is a portrait made of Shakespeare in his own lifetime, which it purports to be,” Hickson explained, adding that proving this information is more difficult. The painting is not without critics, and determining its authenticity relies on input from a team of specialists in various fields.

Lloyd DeWitt, Curator of European Art at the Art Gallery of Ontario, addressed claims that the sitter in the portrait appears younger than 39. The varnish could explain Shakespeare’s youthful appearance in the portrait, explained DeWitt, which smoothes out fine details in the features.

Another common criticism is that the clothing the sitter is wearing would not have been appropriate to Shakespeare’s social class or profession – but costume historian Jenny Tiramani has argued that there is nothing out of place with his clothing. Shakespeare could have had formal attire made in honour of a special event: in 1603 he became a member of the household of James I, along with his fellow actors in the King’s Men.

So why was the portrait painted? According to Hickson, Shakespeare might have had the portrait commissioned to give to his friend John Hemings, a fellow player with marriage ties to the Sanders family, and one of the people responsible for publishing the first folio of Shakespeare’s plays.

Compelling historical evidence has been provided to support the authenticity of the Sanders painting. Hickson said, “As a brand, Shakespeare is about the essence of Englishness and national identity – and a portrait made of him in his own lifetime would be the closest thing we have to the man himself. It would be completely unique in the world.”