Books: The Face or Not the Face of Shakespeare?; Shakespeare's Face. by Stephanie Nolen (Piatkus, Pounds 18.99)

Article excerpt

Byline: Ross Reyburn

The intriguing quest to find the true face of William Shakespeare is unlikely ever to be resolved. But Canadian journalist Stephanie Nolen, in her book examining the merits of the recently unveiled Sanders portrait, has provided an invaluable insight into the merits of the various paintings reputed to portray the world's greatest writer.

Two years ago, retired engineer Lloyd Sullivan decided the Sanders portrait being kept in his Ottawa home should be revealed to the world. Dated 1603, the painting was reputedly a portrait of Shakespeare by distant relative John Sanders.

For 400 years, the portrait had apparently been passed down through the family finding its way across the Atlantic in 1919.

Scepticism over the Sanders portrait is understandable - as Catharine MacLeod, a curator at the National Portrait Gallery in London, said: 'We get a new Shakespeare about every eighteen months'.

The main backing for the family's claim is a label naming the sitter as Shakespeare - and Nolen also provides an effective defence of the authenticity of the label. Although the hand-written inscription came at least 50 years after the portrait was painted, radiocarbon dating has shown the linen rag paper is from Shakespeare's time.

'What motive could there have been in the 1650s to fake the attribution, unless the owner intended to sell the portrait?', she writes. 'But the Sanders panel did not then come to light. It remained in private hands until 1908, when Thomas Hales-Sanders Jr took it for evaluation to Marion Henry Spielmann'.

In essence the book is an intriguing detective story with an interesting assessment of the world of 'Shakespeare' paintings voiced by Shakespearian and art experts.

The Chandos portrait said to have been once owned by the playwright and theatre manager Sir William Davenant is the most impressive portrait of the playwright while the image with the most persuasive claim remains the 1623 engraving by Martin Droeshout.

It may be of no great artistic merit but it was used for the title page of the First Folio assembled by Shakespeare's friend and playwright Ben Jonson testified in verse to its merits as a true likeness. …