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Representing Shakespeare: the Chesterfield Portrait

The Chesterfield portrait of Shakespeare is just one of many examples of representations of the playwright.

Emily Millward

Painting is welcome. The painting is almost the natural man.

— Timon of Athens, Act I, Scene I
Chesterfield Portrait
STRST: SBT 1967-3, the Chesterfield Portrait

The Chesterfield portrait of Shakespeare is just one of many examples of representations of the playwright. Thought to have been rendered by either the Dutch painter Pieter Borsselaer or Zuccaro (whose name appears in an inscription), the portrait was eponymously named by one of its previous owners, the Earl of Chesterfield. It was acquired by the Trust in 1967. It is perhaps the most Baroque of all paintings of Shakespeare; his head is clearly modelled on the Chandos Portrait (now in the National Portrait Gallery), including the characteristic earring in his left ear. This portrait does not make any claim to be painted from life and in style is clearly of the second half of the Seventeenth Century.
George Vertue, when he saw the picture at the Halifax sale in 1739-1740, thought it had 'a head new painted onto the posture, perhaps by Sykes' (a painter working in the early Eighteenth Century). If Vertue was right, the painting was doubtless made (of someone else) in the 1660s and then altered to represent Shakespeare around 1700. During restoration in 1962 no evidence of any such change was found, however.

A notable feature of this portrait is the gesture Shakespeare is seen to making with his left hand. It can be seen as a variation of the logos gesture, also adopted by the figure of Francis Beaumont - a contemporary of Shakespeare’s - in this portrait. The logos gesture originates as far back as ancient Western Asia, but is seen on large quantities of art work from ancient Greece and Rome. There are various interpretations of the meaning of the logos gesture, but there is a general consensus that it was used by orator’s to express wonder, amazement and enlightenment, but perhaps also as a signal for silence in order for the speaker’s resonating words to be heard. The latter seems particularly appropriate concerning this portrait and the person it represents.

Representations of Shakespeare are constantly evolving and examples like the Chesterfield portrait are becoming less traditional. Even contemporary artwork, however, depicts Shakespeare with the same general appearance: balding head, plain white collar, and, commonly, the earring. We will never be able to confirm exactly what Shakespeare looked like in real life, which means that artists can continually re-invent representations of him. It is fascinating, however, that in each instance Shakespeare is recognisable, no matter how abstract the portrait may be. The features first seen in the Chandos, and reproduced in later portraits, allow for automatic recognition of the unknowable face of the playwright.

Ted May's "Young Shakespeare Contemplating"
STRST: SBT 2006-37, "Young Shakespeare Contemplating" by Australian artist, Ted May (2006)

Read about another portrait of Shakespeare, The Flower Portrait.