This fully illustrated and splendidly produced book seeks to establish that a portrait now in the collection of the Cobbe family is not only of Shakespeare but was painted during his lifetime. This is a bold if not controversial claim but, somewhat frustratingly, it is not argued with the support of references by which such claims can be checked. Moreover, of its 118 pages, only the first 37 discuss the new portrait (illustrated in several color plates), together with another piece in the Cobbe collection—a portrait believed to be Shakespeare’s patron, the earl of Southampton, as a young man—first brought to the public’s attention in 2002. This leads to discussions by Stanley Wells and Anthony Holden concerning the possible relationship between Shakespeare and Southampton. The second half of the book comprises editions of the two poems dedicated by Shakespeare to Southampton (Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece), followed by a selection of some forty of Shakespeare’s Sonnets “addressed to a man” or “possibly addressed to a man” (105, 110), included on the grounds that these might also have had a Southampton connection.
Scholarly attention will inevitably focus on the first thirty-seven pages, contributed by Alec Cobbe, Alastair Laing, Stanley Wells, Mark Broch, and Diana Scarisbrick. Do the authors make a convincing case that a new portrait of Shakespeare has indeed been discovered? The few material facts are certainly of considerable interest. From the evidence of dendrochronological and x-ray examination, the authors establish that the portrait in question dates from the early seventeenth century. They go on to argue that a copy of it (“the FitzGerald copy”) appears to have been made at a similarly early date and that at least two further copies of that copy were subsequently made.
None of this, of course, establishes that the original portrait, fine though it is, is of Shakespeare. However, in a separate chapter it is strongly argued that there is a striking resemblance between the newly discovered portrait (or, rather, a copy) and the Droeshout engaving of Shakespeare and that the painting itself might have been used by Droeshout. As for the putative portrait of the young Southampton, the identification depends mainly on the view that, when it is compared with other known portraits of Southampton in later life, a reasonable likeness can be detected.
Such arguments must always be attended by some uncertainty and in any case can be partly subjective. Attribution and provenance are also of crucial importance. We are told, from the evidence of manuscript endorsements, that the two portraits were in the possession of Charles Cobbe in the mid-eighteenth century but that he believed them to be portraits of Sir Walter Raleigh and Lady Ann Norton. Such attributions may well be mistaken and the authors therefore justified in disregarding them. But provenance is a more serious issue. The authors address this by arguing that the portraits had passed to the Cobbe family as eventual heirs to some of Southampton’s chattels. Indeed, the first lines of the preface set the tone for all that follows: “The discovery of a previously uninvestigated route of descent for two paintings that must once have belonged to Henry Wriothesley, 3rd earl of Southampton . . . throws new light on the earl’s relationship with William Shakespeare” (vii; emphasis added). But when we reach a more detailed account of this descent, the more cautious will not be convinced. One of the descendants of the earl of Southampton is identified, if a little tortuously, as the wife of Richard Norton of Southwick. It is therefore possible, although no material evidence is produced to demonstrate this, that some of Southampton’s chattels may have reached Richard Norton along this route. But even if they had, the authors must also explain how they passed from him to Charles Cobbe.
Cobbe is described as Richard Norton’s cousin, the result of his grandfather’s marriage into the senior branch of the Norton family. But the two men were only distantly related, their nearest common ancestor being Richard’s great-great-grandfather. Moreover, Richard Norton’s will, albeit eccentric, makes careful provision for his family portraits, leaving those relating to...