Conference Explores Origins of Shakespeare Portrait

More than 400 years old, portrait still inspires interest

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The Sanders portrait of Shakespeare

The Sanders portrait

Daniel Fischlin was hunkered down by the phone in mid-December “waiting for the media feeding frenzy to begin.” News had broken that day of a tentative agreement to buy a Canadian-owned portrait believed to depict William Shakespeare during his lifetime, and the University of Guelph English professor expected to find himself in the middle of the story again.

Under the deal reached in early December, an anonymous Canadian family has agreed to buy the 410-year-old Sanders portrait from its longtime Ottawa owner, according to a Globe and Mail story published Dec. 15.

Some two decades after Lloyd Sullivan began researching the portrait – passed through his family from a distant maternal ancestor contemporary with Shakespeare — evidence continues to mount that the work is the only likeness of the Bard done from life.

Speaking of the tentative sale, Fischlin says, “It’s a very complicated negotiation.”

He says the deal will likely be completed in early 2014; the new owners are expected to donate the portrait to an unnamed public art institution in Canada.

Referring to Sullivan, he says “the owner is very happy, because these buyers understand that this is really a legacy issue and are gearing up to do the right thing.”

That means “bringing the portrait into a public space, ramping up the information about the portrait. Growing that bandwidth is really important. It’s the beginning of a whole other sequence of events that are probably going to be more involved than the work so far.”

Much of that work, including recent research connecting Shakespeare with the Sanders family and other associates from Elizabethan and Jacobean England, has been led by Fischlin and other scholars on both sides of the Atlantic.

Those findings and the earlier detective work into the portrait’s provenance were discussed by experts during a one-day symposium in Toronto last month. Negotiations for the portrait’s sale were still occurring during the event.

The Sanders portrait is believed to depict William Shakespeare at age 39. The painting belongs to Sullivan, an Ottawa engineer. His family has passed it down from John Sanders. Family lore says Sanders was a painter and actor with Shakespeare’s theatre company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (later called the King’s Men).

Sullivan inherited the piece from his mother in 1972. Since retiring some 20 years ago, he has researched the painting.

At the Toronto conference, scientists, costume experts, historians, writers and museum curators discussed everything from the doublet worn by the sitter to tests validating the age of the paint, the wood panel and the label affixed to the back of the portrait.

Fischlin’s recent work has involved genealogy and geography in the British Midlands and London and between Canada and England. He is a University Research Chair and founding director of the Canadian Adaptations of Shakespeare Project (CASP), the world’s most comprehensive website about the Bard’s cultural influence.

He and other researchers – notably British genealogist Pam Hinks — have traced Sullivan’s family through 13 unbroken generations and 10 great-grandfathers back to Shakespeare’s lifetime.

They have visited gravesites, uncovered and transcribed historical documents, examined major historical archives in the United Kingdom and interviewed Sullivan’s relatives.

That path has led to a small group of villages in the Midlands and to the part of London where Shakespeare and his acquaintances are known to have lived.

Before moving to London, Shakespeare and Sanders lived in towns about eight miles apart in and around Stratford. So did John Heminges, another company actor and eventually co-editor of the 1623 First Folio of Shakespeare’s works.

By 1603, all three were residents in the capital, living only minutes from each other in adjoining parishes.

Heminges and John Sanders’s son – also John and an early ancestor to Lloyd Sullivan – were both active members of the Grocers’ guild during the early 1600s.

Those connections strengthen the argument that Sanders was close enough to have painted Shakespeare, says Fischlin.

“It would have been impossible for the two men not to have been intimately acquainted with each other, not only because their families came from neighbouring villages in the Midlands, but also because they would have had significantly overlapped business interests.”

Fischlin plans to continue this work, including investigating leads about where artist and sitter met in London.

“We’re very close to identifying the workshop where the painting was painted. We seem to have a member of the Sanders family married into an apprentice from this workshop,” he says.

He adds that “the workshop was well known to the theatre scene in London in that period and also was close physically to where the Sanders and Heminges families and Shakespeare were all living at the time.

“It’s not definitive but it’s very, very promising.”

The Sanders portrait was exhibited at the University of Guelph’s Macdonald Stewart Art Centre for six months in 2007. That year, U of G teamed up with some 30 local arts and culture organizations in more than 50 community programs and activities centred on Shakespeare and the painting.

The portrait is the signature image of CASP. It also appears on new copies of The Tempest and Romeo and Juliet, the first editions of Shakespeare’s works to feature the Sanders likeness on their cover.

Those volumes were published by the Canadian arm of Oxford University Press. Acquisitions editor Jen Rubio credits her late father, Gerald Rubio, an English professor at U of G, for instilling some of Shakespeare’s words during her childhood.

He often borrowed lines from the Bard to suit a particular situation, even if listeners failed to pick up on the reference. Once quoting Hamlet after a restaurant meal, she says, “He later said, ‘The funeral baked meats did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables.’”

Rubio says the genealogical research and information about the Grocers’ guild uncovered by Fischlin and other scholars was new to her. “It’s amazing what research you can do from back in 1603.”

She is convinced that the Sanders portrait is an authentic likeness of Shakespeare. “I don’t see how anybody can read the evidence and think otherwise. I haven’t actually heard a good argument why we should not believe it.”

“It is such a compelling image,” says U of G president Alastair Summerlee. He attended the Toronto symposium and was involved in seeking a buyer for the Sanders portrait, which has been held for more than a year at U of G.

Commenting on the debate over a 410-year-old likeness, Summerlee says, “It matters because we all know Shakespeare. We all know him because we are all imbued in his work. As a scientist I know we have a craving to associate faces with people.”