Is it Shakespeare? Controversial Cobbe Portrait goes on display

By Adam Bambury | 17 April 2009
  • Archived article
A painting of a pale bearded man with a ruff

The Cobbe Portrait. Picture courtesy The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

A painting thought to be the only portrait of William Shakespeare made in his lifetime is going on show in Stratford-upon-Avon on the great bard's birthday – April 23, 2009. The controversial recent discovery, known as The Cobbe Portrait, will be displayed at The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust until September 6, 2009.

Distinguished Shakespearean scholar Stanley Wells identified the portrait as representing the bard in March, following a series of scientific tests including tree-ring dating and x-ray analysis.

It had languished for centuries in the collection of the Irish Cobbe family, going unnoticed until descendant Alec Cobbe noticed the striking resemblance it had to a portrait of Shakespeare in the National Portrait Gallery.

Wells was drafted in to establish the painting's provenance, and now believes that it dates from 1610 – making the Shakespeare depicted 46 years of age. He argues that subsequent images of Shakespeare used this as their template, and that it is the only known painting of the bard that was carried out in his lifetime.

The identification has been contested by some experts such as Dr Tarnya Cooper, Curator of 16th century portraits at the National Portrait Gallery, who believes it represents Sir Thomas Overbury.

Visitors to the new exhibition will be able to make up their own minds after having the case presented to them alongside a selection of other rarely-seen images purporting to represent the mysterious playwright.

For more information on the exhibition visit Shakespeare Found.

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