Uncover his face (part 2)

Droeshout engraving

Hildegard Hammerschmidt-Hummel
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

Having established, as thoroughly as she could, their documented provenance Hammerschmidt-Hummel arranged for the four primary candidates for Shakespeare’s genuine likeness — the Chandos and Flower portraits, the Davenant bust and the Darmstadt death mask — to undergo various scientific and technological investigations. These included computer montage, photogrammetry, trick image differentiation technique; the idea was to compare the four likenesses to see if there were enough correlations to establish that they were all of the same person. This proved to be the case in terms of proportion of features, head contours and so on.

What also emerged from these comparisons — of Shakespeare from his early 30s (the Chandos portrait), aged 45 (the Flower portrait), around the age of 50 (the Davenant bust) and soon after his death, aged 52 (the Darmstadt death mask) — was clear evidence of
the progression of certain diseases, one or more of which probably contributed to his relatively early death. Obvious pathological swellings on his forehead by his left temple and on his upper left eyelid were diagnosed as symptoms of Mikulicz syndrome, accompanying an illness such as lymphoma or sarcoidosis. Increasingly noticeable swellings in his left caruncle (the corner of the eye nearest the nose) were diagnosed as a caruncular tumour, again a symptom of a chronic skin sarcoidosis (leading to an early death). Finally, yellow-whitish spots on his lower lip spoke of inflammation and swelling of the oral mucous membrane, that is to say, stomatitis.

Is there any corroboration of the diagnoses that Shakespeare suffered from these debilitating diseases? Well, there is — even if it at third-hand. In the 1660s that inveterate gossip John Aubrey had reported that Will was said to be a “handsome, well-shap’t man” who was “very good company” with “a very readie and smoothe Witt”. And yet, in the 1590s (before 1598-9, when the Theatre was rebuilt as the Globe in Southwark) Aubrey’s informant William Beeston declared that Shakespeare was lodging near the Theatre in Shoreditch, in Hog Lane; here Will lived alone (“not a company-keeper”), “wouldn’t be debauched” by carousing and wenching, and “if invited to [be debauched], writ he was in pain” (my emphasis). This is also around the time when John Marston, another playwright, identifies the author of the poem Venus and Adonis as one Labeo (“thick-lipped”) which, if Hammerschmidt-Hummel is correct, can only be the nickname of that poem’s author, Shakespeare.

These may be slight and circumstantial references but they contribute to the impression from the Chandos portrait that in his thirties Will was already suffering from illnesses such as sarcoidosis and stomatis, causing him pain enough to excuse him from going out and giving him a distinctive physical appearance. 

*  *  *  *  *

I now come to two modern mysteries that the author has discovered, to which there are as yet no firm answers. First there is the case of the funerary bust on Shakespeare’s memorial in Stratford’s Holy Trinity church. The author gives full details of the vicissitudes of the bust, which must have been modelled in 1616 from the death mask made within a day or so of the playwright’s death. She identifies one Gheerart Janssen the Younger as the likely sculptor; however, during the English Civil War she argues that enough damage was done by iconoclasts to features like the nose and moustache to cause it be “much impair’d and decay’d” (as a report tells us in 1746). Running repairs and overpainting rendered the face even less like the original until in 1973 there was a break-in at the church. The bust was found placed on the floor, to where it had apparently been moved from its niche; police surmised that the intruders had been after documents supposedly hidden under the bust.

But here’s the intriguing thing which Hammerschmidt-Hummel suggests, though never explicitly: what if the bust eventually replaced in the niche in 1973 wasn’t the one that was there prior to the break-in but an inferior copy made from a mould taken between its early repair and modern times? Was the original taken in that break-in but the copy left on the floor to be found by the police? The author noticed differences between the bust seen by her on several occasions between 1964 and 1968 and that which she re-examined in 1996. She is convinced that the post-1973 bust is “an old, dirty and much darkened copy of the original … superficially repainted”; Simon Jenkins in 1999 commented on its noticeably “sunburnt” appearance. In addition Hammerschmidt-Hummel herself noted that broken fingers of the bust’s right hand in the sixties were now, after the 1973 break-in, oddly intact. The obvious inference from all this is that an old copy had been substituted for the genuine though much altered bust in the church.

The second mystery concerns the Flower portrait. In 1979 the painting was restored at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, revealing traces of the original Madonna underpainting below centuries of grime and dirt before its return to the Royal Shakespeare Company Collection in Stratford. But in 2005 further tests at the National Portrait Gallery trumpeted that this Flower portrait was a 19th-century “fake” because the tests had revealed the use of chrome paints, unavailable before 1814.

Luckily good photographs were available from 1996 and from 2002, showing that the 2002 painting “was distinctly different” from the painting the author saw in 1996. A forensic expert confirmed that that the original must have been “repainted”: with “everything smoothed out on the surface” the expert opinion was that the painting’s character “had been utterly lost”. “Blemishes” in pigment or varnishing and “unevenness due to the aging of the painting layers” had been made good. Even a cursory examination of the close-ups included for comparison in the book shows that, as the author says, “we are dealing with two different versions of the Flower portrait: the old, original painting from the playwright’s own lifetime, and a copy apparently not produced until some centuries later.” The key question she asks, therefore, is where in the authentic portrait?

This has been an exciting account of historical detection, thoroughly researched and carefully presented, one I find hard not to be convinced by. She readily admits what may be speculation on her part but her informed arguments make them eminently plausible.

Her approach has ruffled some expert feathers, though: according to a report in The Daily Telegraph in February 2006 (two months before the book’s publication) Dr Tarnya Cooper, in charge of the NPG’s research, said: “My view about using measurements of facial features from portraiture is that this is based on a fundamental misunderstanding about the nature of visual art. Portraits are not, and can never be forensic evidence of likeness.” But the author has marshalled support from a variety of international experts in several disciplines which she’s included on her website, and they seem convinced.

Now, in other publications she has claimed she’s identified Shakespeare’s Dark Lady of the sonnets and uncovered positive evidence Will was a committed Catholic. But perhaps that’ll be for another time.

11 thoughts on “Uncover his face (part 2)

    1. True enough, but knowing about the author informs and deepens one’s understanding of the text. Does it matter that he was in pain? That he may have hidden his Catholicism? That he was well regarded for his writing and acting? Does that impact on the insights into character that the plays reveal? Maybe, maybe not, but it’s worth considering.


      1. That leads to a debate which gives a lot of fun but no actual resolution. Should one avoid cluttering a work of art with extraneous matter/information and enjoy it as a unique entity, or is the experience indeed enhanced by analysis based on background?

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Good point, Col. I can only point to my experience as a schoolboy embarking on a music course. I had previously imbibed music, including classical, in what –if I could have articulated it — could be described as a pure and innocent fashion, immersing myself in the sounds and emotions and letting it carry me where it would. I had therefore great worries that academic study, with its cold structural analysis and interrogation of context, would forever blight the pure enjoyment I’d enjoyed before.

          That was the Blakean innocent speaking. I soon found that both heart and head could engage, maybe not simultaneously, but neither exclusive of the other. A fuller appreciation of the music would come with deeper analysis and understanding of the artist, the temporal and geographical and cultural context as well as the nuts and bolts of composition and performance. And I could also experience and savour the gut feelings I’d always had by surrendering to the moment.

          And so I feel about all art — I can have my cake and eat it.


  1. An interesting conclusion to a fascinating study.
    I’m cynical about the diagnosis of certain illnesses from artworks, though. The sculptures of the Egyptian Pharoah Akenaten, with their bulging feminine hips and long faces, have been mooted as evidence for various conditions – but we’ll never really know if these were reflections of his physique or stylistic changes to fit with the new religion he invented.
    But, still fascinating idea about the swapping of the bust – sounds like the basis of a mystery novel to me … 🙂


    1. I know what you mean, Lynn, about medical conclusions drawn from likenesses. For me the author makes a good case, though, and it’s otherwise hard to understand why all four likenesses are show similar facial blemishes, some of which show clear development over time consistent with progress of diseases that the author’s expert witnesses identify. Unlike Akhenaten there’s no obvious reason, whether religious, political or from sheer vanity, that these deformities in Shakespeare’s physiognomy should be so clearly depicted either in art or in masks made from life or in death.

      The swapping of the memorial bust and the apparent substitution of the Flower portrait do seem sensational to me too: I have no idea why the answers to these conundrums haven’t been sought by anybody else other than Hammerschmidt-Hummel. A true mystery plot!

      (By the way, I’ve just noticed: does Hammer-Schmidt mean ‘hammer-smith’? Quite apart from it sounding like a London district it brings vivid images to my fevered mind: of someone who shakes-a-spear investigated by someone who forges-a-hammer … And I have some thoughts on Mervyn Peake’s Steerpike too, for that matter. Something for another post!)


      1. Yes, I should read the book before drawing conclusions about Hammerschmidt-Hummel’s findings. The progression of the disease markers is an interesting factor, certainly. And you’re right, I can’t think why anyone hasn’t addressed the swapping of the bust and portrait before. Is the assumption that the replacement bust is too close to the original to make any difference in identification?
        I’m not sure why the subject fascinates us all so much. I suppose it’s as simple as wishing to look into the eyes of genius, to try to identify something in that face, something that explains why one person is so much more talented than the majority.
        I like the idea of the Hammer Smith investigating the Spear Shaker – it has a Medieval ring to it. Though I’m not sure how easy it would be to Steer a Pike without losing your fingers!

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I think Steerpike’s name has multiple resonances. You’ve mentioned the fish with the wicked teeth (certainly appropriate to Steerpike’s predatory psychopathic character) but I was thinking also of a pike as a particularly unpleasant weapon, more targeted than the Bard’s shaken spear. Or is that too far-fetched?


          1. Not too far fetched at all – highly appropriate for a man of his sharpness. I wrote a blog post on fitting character names today – must have been inspired by our conversation! Forgot to mention Steerpike, though – darn it!

            Liked by 1 person

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