The True Face of William Shakespeare:
The poet’s death mask and likenesses from three periods of his life
Translated from the German by Alan Bance
Chaucer Press 2006
Here is my kind of book: a true life tale of literary detection that outshines fictional mysteries, however well written they may be. Sadly, it is also a piece of research that exposes at least two more mysteries: what has happened to two very probable Shakespeare likenesses in very recent times, centuries after the playwright’s death? But there is also pleasure and satisfaction that any lingering doubts expressed by anti-Stratfordians (“Did Shakespeare actually write Shakespeare’s plays?”) have finally been put to sleep … one hopes.
Hildegard Hammerschmidt-Hummel is a determined Shakespearean academic who, in this closely argued study, examines two portraits, two sculptured busts and a death mask in great forensic and documentary detail. She gives the cultural context for the 16th- and 17th-century creation of accurate, true-to-life, warts-and-all representations of illustrious people before then going on to describe her selected images. Then she describes the various scientific tests she applied to those images (with the help of experts in several disciplines) using procedures available in the 1990s, and then summarises the results. Finally she puts those results back into historical and biographical context.
What were those images?
The first is the painting known as the Chandos portrait (most of these pieces of art are named for one of their owners). The author argues for a date a little after 1594 and before 1599, at a time when Shakespeare and his colleague Richard Burbage (1567-1619) were both actors in the company known as the Chamberlain’s Men. Interestingly, the portrait (which it’s agreed was painted by a talented amateur) could well be by Burbage himself — his own self-portrait is in the Dulwich gallery — and was later owned in turn by succession of actors (Joseph Taylor, William Davenant and Thomas Betterton) following on from Shakespeare.
The Flower portrait has the date 1609 in the top left corner which the author argues is genuine. We now know from X-ray imagery that his portrait was painted on top of a late 15th- or early 16th-century panel of the Madonna. Before we see this as in any way sacrilegious we have to remember that this was a dangerous time to own Catholic images; John — William’s father — left a document testifying to his own Catholicism (only discovered in 1757) while Mary Arden, his mother, belonged to a staunch Catholic family. Mary’s death in 1608 may have led to the playwright to arrange the safeguarding of the icon by having his own image overlaid, the author suggests, rather than destroying it completely. As to the artist, she suggests either Maerten (or Martin) Droeshout the Elder or Marcus Geeraerts the Younger (1553-1635).
Next is the Davenant bust. This was found in 1837 adjacent to the former Lincoln Inn Fields Theatre (also known as the Duke’s Theatre) established in 1661 on the site of a converted tennis court. Sir William D’avenant or Davenant (the godson or possibly natural son of Shakespeare) owned the neighbouring house where he appears to have displayed this bust and one of Ben Jonson in wall niches. Hammerschmidt-Hummel’s researches in the Royal College of Surgeons Hunterian Museum lead her to suggest Nicholas Stone was the creator of this slightly larger than lifesize terracotta bust in 1613. This is the year Stone returns to London from training in Amsterdam and the last year Shakespeare is in London before retiring to Stratford; this is also the year, she suggests, in which Shakespeare visits Rome for the last time, assuming the name of his recently deceased brother (“Ricardus Stratfordus”).
Finally we come to the Death mask. This has a convoluted provenance, but seems to have been acquired in 1775 by Count Franz Ludwig von Kesselstadt on a trip to England. This must have been made as a model for the funerary bust in Holy Trinity church, Stratford and then discarded, somehow surviving from 1616 until the 1770s when it was taken to Germany; it is now owned by the city of Darmstadt.
These then are the four prime exhibits; what leads the author to believe these genuinely portray Shakespeare? And what further mysteries does she, after her exhaustive detective work, believe remain to plague us?
To be concluded