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A New Face in the Reading Room

Jessie takes a look at some of the portraits of Shakespeare from our Collections, and examines the desire we humans have to look upon his image, even if we can never be certain as to exactly how the great playwright might have looked.

Jessie Petheram
Soest Portrait of Shakespeare
William Shakespeare, by Gerard Soest (SBT 1994-19/183)

Look here, upon this picture, and on this

— Hamlet, III.4.52

Regular visitors to the Reading Room will perhaps have become used to being overseen by the imposing figure of Sir George Carew, his portrait having hung on the wall behind the staff desk for almost a year. Because this has now been moved to our latest exhibition, the new guardian of the Reading Room is Shakespeare himself, in a fine portrait by the seventeenth century artist, Gerard Soest. It is thought to have been painted between 1660 and 1680, at least 44 years after Shakespeare’s death. Soest is believed to have been born in Soest, Westphalia, today part of Germany, and may well have trained in the Netherlands. He was active in England from the mid 1640s, painting portraits largely of men, generally in head-and-shoulders or three-quarter length. The Oxford Dictionary of Art (1988) states ‘he is often [an]...interesting painter, as he dispensed with the flattery and superficial elegance in vogue at the Restoration court and had a strong grasp of character’.

The portrait shows Shakespeare in three-quarter view, gazing steadily out at the viewer, dressed in a black doublet with slashed sleeves. It bears a resemblance to the Chandos portrait in the National Portrait Gallery with the white falling collar and wavy hair, although the style of dress is more reminiscent of the Droeshout engraving from the First Folio of 1623. The face however is highly distinctive and painted with great sensitivity. Related anecdotes suggest that the sitter was an actor of the day who was thought to strongly resemble Shakespeare.

The portrait was less well known until the 1720s when an engraving of it was produced by John Simon, increasing its familiarity to viewers. The portrait at that time was in the possession of the artist Thomas Wright. A portrait by Wright in pastels is also in the collection of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust (SBT 1994-19/123) and has some similarities with the Soest.

Wright Portrait of Shakespeare
William Shakespeare, by Thomas Wright (SBT 1994-19/123)

Portraits were becoming increasingly popular when Shakespeare was writing, and there was a growing trend for professional men aspiring to be gentlemen to commission their own portraits, in order to demonstrate their position in society. Portrait painters and their works however were not yet held in particularly high esteem in England, as they were on the continent, and commissioning a portrait was relatively inexpensive. In addition the word ‘portrait’ did not have common currency and it appears just twice in Shakespeare’s plays and poems. Frequently used instead were ‘picture’, ‘painting’, ‘image’, ‘table’ and ‘counterfeit’. Often these words had connotations of deception or dissemblance.

For example, the word ‘paint’ in both its noun and verb forms especially indicated fakery, as did its derivatives. ‘Are you like the painting of a sorrow,/A face without a heart?’ asks Claudius of Laertes in Hamlet (IV.7.107-8), suggesting that portraits were considered superficial, that they quite literally did not get to the heart of a person and were no substitute for the real thing. Throughout Hamlet characters question whether you can trust what you see and much of Shakespeare’s work presents a dichotomy between outward appearances and inward feelings –all that cross-dressing is only the most obvious example.

As is often the case in Shakespeare scholarship, the subject of Shakespearian portraiture is a hotly contested one. Our desire to know what the Bard looked like goes hand in hand with a yearning to understand the mind that produced the works we know so well today. The Holy Grail would surely be a contemporary likeness, which the Soest portrait is clearly not. It is regarded however as one of the earliest memorial portraits to be produced. Painted after the Restoration in 1660, when the Puritan ban on the performance of plays was lifted, it reflects the revival of interest in the theatre of the English Renaissance and in Shakespeare’s works. His increased popularity prompted a growing desire to look upon his image, to seek indicators of his genius in his features. This portrait represents that desire, which has continued to this day and shows no signs of abating.

The questioning of the truth of outward appearances in Shakespeare’s writing provides a nice parallel with the debates around images of the man himself. In his preface to the First Folio, Ben Jonson told us to ‘looke/Not on his Picture, but his Booke’. But we are visually-minded people; we keep looking on the pictures. The slim chance of ever knowing precisely what Shakespeare looked like is not, it seems, a deterrent, but it does mean we have to focus on those images which are already part of the legend. It is fortunate therefore that some of them, including the Soest now gracing the walls of our Reading Room, are also extremely attractive works of art.