Despite the fact that Shakespeare’s image has attained iconic status in today’s culture, experts have not been able to prove a direct link between the available portraits and the man himself.
“What did Shakespeare look like?” is still a very legitimate question.
However, the recently discovered Cobbe portrait is considered to be the only authentic image of Shakespeare made during his lifetime, and is considered to be the original painting from which today’s iconic image of the Bard was copied.
Is the Cobbe Portrait directly linked to Shakespeare?
Research reveals that the Cobbe family inherited the portrait after their cousin married the great granddaughter of the third Earl of Southampton, Henry Wriothesley - Shakespeare’s only literary patron. But the painting was misidentified for years and hung in the Cobbe family home until the 1980s after which it was placed in a trust along with the family’s other heirlooms.
The painting wasn’t correctly identified until 2006 when Alec Cobbe visited a Shakespeare exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery and realized that one of the paintings (known to be a copy) was actually copied from the original portrait in his family’s collection.
After years of restoration, the painting was unveiled to the public by Professor Stanley Wells in March 2009, who said that “I feel in little doubt that this is a portrait of Shakespeare, done from life and commissioned by the Earl of Southampton and believe it could certainly be the basis for the engraving seen in the First Folio.”
Experts believe that the sitter is William Shakespeare because:
- They can trace the painting directly to someone closely connected to Shakespeare
- Some copies of the painting can be traced back to within living memory of Shakespeare
- The Cobbe portrait is inscribed with a classical quotation addressed to a playwright
Although it is likely that the man featured in the Cobbe portrait is William Shakespeare, the evidence remains circumstantial because a direct link back to Shakespeare himself cannot be established. However, the original and its copies are now being considered together as a group for the first time.