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A Portrait of an Actor

Take a look at some dramatic portraits of William Sly, Nathan Field, and Richard Burbage (all of whom were friends of William Shakespeare and acted in his plays), and see what these sorts of paintings can tell us about the statuses of their subjects.

Rosalyn Sklar

There are three paintings in the collection of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust which very much belong together. Although they may not have been painted by the same artist or at exactly the same point in time they can nevertheless be considered as a group. They are portraits of three actors who were all born in the 16th Century and who all acted in plays written by William Shakespeare. These actors are William Sly, Nathan Field, and Richard Burbage. We know that all three of these men would have acted alongside Shakespeare and were friends of his.

William Sly
This portrait of the actor William Sly is a nineteenth-century copy by Charles Fullwood of a painting at the Dulwich Picture Gallery.

The portraits in our collection are all copies done by Charles Fullwood, a Victorian painter. The original paintings are in the collection of the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London. The originals were gifted in the late 17th Century to Dulwich College by the actor and collector William Cartwright (1606-1686). Dulwich College had itself been founded by Queen Elizabeth I’s favourite actor, Edward Alleyn.

In the households of the nobility during this time it was fairly common to find portraits of family members and even royalty. This was, however, a relatively recent development and many who sat for portraits would have been the first in their family to be painted. At the turn of the 17th Century men of the middling ranks who aspired to greater things also began to commission their own portraits. The finished result would have been displayed in the sitter’s own home or, occasionally, would have been passed on to a friend as a gift.

Nathan Field
This portrait of the actor Nathan Field is a nineteenth-century copy by Charles Fullwood from the original in the Dulwich Picture Gallery.

The style and composition of a portrait as well as the choice of artist can tell us something of the sitter’s wealth and status. All three of the portraits here are thought to be by British artists. At this time British artists were generally less accomplished, and therefore cheaper, than their European counterparts. This was due to a lack of patronage and less intensive training. The portraits also do not contain many embellishments. Portraits of this time were a means of putting across a message, sometimes a moral one or a reference to the passing of time and the transience of material things. However the surviving portraits of actors and playwrights are notably sparse in this sense. The portrait of Field is slightly different to the other two and it is possible that he is depicted here in costume and if so, it is one of the first British portraits to show an actor in costume.

Tarnya Cooper notes that in the late 16th and early 17th Centuries, "there was no fully established tradition of depicting poets, playwrights or actors, and the question of whether such individuals were worthy subjects for visual representation would have still been an issue." All three of the men depicted here, as well as Shakespeare himself, would have performed at the royal court and at the houses of the nobility. Perhaps it was exposure to the portraiture in these palaces and great houses which prompted them to commission their own portraits. They were certainly at the top of their profession at the time and it is possible that their likeness would have been in demand by their audiences. The engraving of William Shakespeare by Martin Droeshout that can be found on the frontispiece of the first folio would have been based on a life portrait of the man himself.

Richard Burbage
This portrait of the actor Richard Burbage is a nineteenth-century copy by Charles Fullwood of an original in the Dulwich Picture Gallery.

In today’s world where it is so easy to capture your own image or that of your family and friends, it is hard to imagine a time when such a thing was relatively rare. Even those who had their portrait painted may only have done so once in their lifetime. Those of the poorer classes may never have seen their own reflection clearly. When you consider this, it is easier to understand the status inferred upon the sitter when their portrait was painted. It also sheds light upon the crossover of the image painted onto board and the image painted with words. Words could better express all the parts of a person or a story whereas a painted portrait showed only one image to the world.

The identification of the sitter in the portrait thought to be of William Sly is now in doubt. However, whether it is Sly or not, it seems to be a dramatic portrait.
The main source for this blog has been Tarnya Cooper’s article in the catalogue for the ‘Searching for Shakespeare’ exhibition (National Portrait Gallery, 2006). The article is entitled ‘Silent ‘Oratory’: Portrait Painting in England around 1600’.