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The Claims
For The Cobbe Portrait

Copies of the painting we now refer to as the Cobbe portrait were identified as Shakespeare within living memory of the poet. The original was almost certainly owned by Shakespeare's only known literary patron, Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton, to whom the Cobbe family is distantly related. The sitter would appear to have been identified as a playwright in the 17th century. The Latin inscription along its top edge, 'Principum Amicitias!', is a quotation from an ode by the classical writer Horace (Book II, Ode I). In Horace's poem, the words--which can be translated as 'the alliances of princes!'-- were addressed to the tragic playwright Pollio. Horace's words warned Pollio of the dangers of writing vividly about recent major historical events (dangers of which Shakespeare was all too well aware) and contrasted the playwright's historical and tragic writings. But even more importantly, the Cobbe portrait seems to have been the model or source (through a copy) for Martin Droeshout's familiar engraving of Shakespeare for the First Folio of 1623.

What people are saying

Early dissenters have objected to the age of the sitter being forty-six, but painters (like photographers) have ever flattered. Objections have been raised about the Droeshout engraving looking too different. But Droeshout was just twenty-two at the time of the engraving. He simplified the portrait for his brass plate, updated the fashion of the collar and gave Shakespeare less hair (there is already a receding hairline in the Cobbe portrait.) Engravers usually did simplify and update. Droeshout was keen enough to capture the cast in the left eye and the composition of his engraving perfectly fits that of the portrait.

The main contender for the sitter is Sir Thomas Overbury (1581-1613) who to our mind was not quite as good looking as Shakespeare. His claim is based on the mistaken assertion of David Piper who did not quite consider the provenance of one of the copies of the Cobbe portrait (the Ellenborough copy) carefully enough. Overbury's beard is brown not auburn, and he does not have the characteristic Shakespearian cast in his left eye. Comparing the portraits of the two men is interesting to a point, but they remain two different people.

‘In the quest for an authentic portrait of Shakespeare taken from life, the Cobbe portrait comes with a strong provenance, convincing technical evidence of its date, and a tantalizingly close resemblance to the Droeshout engraving which may have been taken from it. The publication of the Cobbe portrait provides an opportunity to think again about Shakespeare's appearance and his relations with the Earl of Southampton’

Professor Henry Woudhuysen
University College London

But why not visit the exhibition, join the debate, and see for yourself?

23 April 2009 to 4 October 2009

The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

Professor Stanley Wells, Chairman of The Shakespeare
Birthplace Trust discussing the Cobbe Portrait.