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The Flower Portrait of Shakespeare

Debate surrounds many portraits of Shakespeare, not the least of which is The Flower Portrait, an image that seems to coincide with his engraving in the first folio.

Catherine Simpson

"O sweet Mr. Shakespeare! I'll have his picture in my study at the court.” (Return from Parnassus, anonymous play written in the 17th century),

There are numerous portraits of Shakespeare but only two are definitively accepted as validly portraying him, both of which are posthumous.  One is Martin’s Droeshout engraving that appears on the title page of the first folio, and the other is the funeral monument above his grave in Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon.  However, it has been argued that several paintings from the 17th century, including The Cobbe, Chandos and The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Portraits, represent Shakespeare. The debate rages on as to whether they were painted during his life time or later.

One such painting that purports to be of Shakespeare is known as the Flower Portrait, which has been surrounded by controversy for several years.

The Flower Portrait, oil on canvas, artist unknown, Courtesy of the Royal Shakespeare Company
The Flower Portrait, oil on canvas, artist unknown, Courtesy of the Royal Shakespeare Company

The painting is from the collection of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Its author is unknown, but the name originates with its previous owners, the Flower family, who donated it to Shakespeare Memorial Theatre at the end of the 19th century.  It depicts Shakespeare dressed in a beautiful and elaborately embroidered costume with a wide white collar, gazing out of the picture at the viewer.

Owing to the signed date of 1609, just visible in the top left hand corner, many thought that it meant that it was a genuine 17th century painting.  More excitingly, scholars believed that it may have acted as the source for Droeshout’s engraving of Shakespeare in the first folio.  As the Droeshout engraving has been accepted as one of the most accurate representations of Shakespeare, the implications of it having been copied from the Flower portrait are huge: the unknown author would have known Shakespeare, and, given the date of 1609, it would have been painted during his lifetime.

However, in the early 20th century the portrait was analysed in detail and the conclusion reached that it couldn’t have been the source for Droeshout’s engraving.  In fact, the evidence actually points to the Flower portrait having been painted from the engraving rather than the other way round.  This is because the execution of the portrait is like that of an artist who has traced the outline from the engraving and then developed and improved on the original. The removal of certain features present in the engraving —such as contradictory lighting, shadows and perspective – all point towards an artist seeking to improve on the original.

The debate was re-engaged in 1966 when an x-ray, taken by the Courtauld Institute of Art, revealed that the portrait was painted on top of a 16th-century painting that depicts the Madonna and child with John the Baptist.  If you look closely you can just see traces of this early painting to the left of the portrait.  To many this was proof of the early date of the painting and therefore of its authenticity. They argued that a shortage of materials may have prompted the Shakespeare artist to cover up the Madonna and child, or that it was covered up due to anti catholic sentiment of Shakespeare’s time.

Sadly, this theory did not stand the test of time.  In 2004/5, experts from the National Portrait Gallery in the UK investigated the portrait alongside two others.  In doing so they found that some of the pigments, embedded deep within the painting and therefore not painted over at a later date, would not have been available before 1814.  The Flower portrait was a 19th century forgery.

However, this has not stopped the debates surrounding the Flower Portrait. For example, some believe that the picture indicates the existence of two people.  They claim that the face is a mask – due to a dark line running round the left hand side of the face – and that behind the mask is a portrait of the real Shakespeare! It may be that the painting will never be free from controversy.

Even if the painting is from the 19th century, this does not mean that it is not important.  At the very least, it gives us an insight into the re-birth of interest in Shakespeare in the 19th century, and the history of investigations surrounding the painting.