“If There Be Truth In Sight”

After 1988, 'Shakey' had more hair...

After 1988, 'Shakey' had more hair...

More twists in the case of the suspicious Shakespeares. You might remember that Katherine Duncan-Jones took apart the Cobbe portrait’s link to Shakespeare in part on the back of the fact that the Folger, or Jansenn, portrait’s likeness to Shakespeare had been added many years after the bard’s death, suggesting dishonest tampering. As reported in The Independent yesterday, however, there has now emerged research dating those alterations – largely to the subject’s head, making him appear balder and therefore more like the man depicted in the Droeshout portrait – to the Bard’s lifetime, meaning that their removal in 1988 conservation work (which was sceptical as to the Folger’s attachment to Shakespeare) may well have lost to the world a wealth of information about the playwright’s aging process.

Except that the quote from Rupert Featherstone, director of the Hamilton Kerr Institute in Cambridge, which accompanies many of the press reports of this story (including the Telegraph’s and the Guardian’s) hardly seems to speak that strongly of the conclusions drawn from the technical analysis: “We can no longer peer down a microscope to look at the physical evidence of the overpaint,” he says, which might just as well mean we can’t tell that the oil paint hair plugs are earlier as that we can’t tell they’re later, right?

Indeed, the spin on this research seems to come largely from, erm, the owners and promoters of the Cobbe portrait. Stan Wells gives two separate reasons why two separate paintings might have been altered in similar ways (this is called stretching credulity), including the claim that the homoerotic sonnets were dedicated to the Earl of Southampton (this is called deliberately courting controversy). You may remember that Wells and Cobbe’s case for their portrait rests on tenuous connections, the best of which is its link to Shakespeare’s early patron, Southampton. It follows, of course, that any portrait of a bloke in a ruff which resembles another portrait of a bloke in a ruff which was once thought to maybe possibly be Shakespeare, is, when belonging to the Earl of Southampton, definitely an image of Shakespeare. Especially when you can’t prove that the baldness wasn’t added to the portrait earlier than you’re arguing in your nasty debunkings. (So nyeh nyeh nyeh.)

More debate needed, I think.

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