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Shakespeare Quarterly 57.3 (2006) 309-317

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Two "New" Seventeenth-Century Portraits of Shakespeare

In the latter part of the seventeenth century, English entrepreneurs enthusiastically adopted the Dutch innovation of disposing of fine art collections by auction; before long, they began selling books in the same manner. There were two methods of sale, by "outcry" and by "inch of candle." The first method is self-evident and is still in vogue at rural auctions; in the second, an inch-high candle was lit, and the auction item was taken by the last bid before the candle extinguished itself. The first newspaper advertisement for a picture auction, for sale by outcry, was placed in the London Gazette for Monday, 18 May 1674.1 As might be expected, pictures of English kings and queens attributed to well-known artists or "a master painter" or merely "finely painted" or "curiously painted" were regularly auctioned, along with divers landscapes, seascapes, religious subjects, and so-called fruit-pieces, pictured or sculpted representations of fruit.2 Although rare compared to representations [End Page 309] of the nobility, portraits of literary figures occasionally surfaced; indeed, Hans Holbein's portraits of Sir Thomas More3 and Erasmus, William Dobson's portrait(s) of Ben Jonson,4 and portraits of Katharine Philips attributed to Sir Peter Lely and Willem de Ryck cropped up fairly regularly. And at least two hitherto-unrecorded representations of Shakespeare came up for auction in the 1690s.

Undisputed credibility is, of course, of paramount importance when anything rare or unique is put up for sale, and auctioneers were (and are) somewhat dependent on the honesty of sellers and appraisers. Although early auctioneers made no written guarantees for the authenticity of the objects they sold, they were not entirely credulous, and catalogers were careful to state that certain paintings were merely attributed to a given artist or were copies of an original.5 Other pictures were boldly proclaimed to be original and genuine; however, the plethora of paintings attributed to Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci and readily available in London in the seventeenth century is clearly too good to be true. Yet even with today's sophisticated tools for detection, frauds and forgeries are not unknown.

Obviously, a mere notation in an auction catalogue is not proof positive that any given item is genuine. But with that caveat in mind, let the record show that the first of two portraits of Shakespeare was featured in A Curious Collection of Painting, of the Most Famous, Antient and Modern Masters in Europe.6 A total of 346 paintings were "Exposed to Sale by Auction, on Wednesday, the 24th. of this Instant September [1690], At the House of Mr. Smith Gent. next Bedford-Gate in [End Page 310] York-street, Covent-Garden" at "precisely half an hour after Two."7 There is nothing in the catalogue to indicate who Smith was, whether he was the owner of the items offered for sale, or whether his house was merely a convenient venue. It was commonplace in this period for book auctions to be held in coffeehouses and taverns, as well as in private dwellings; the latter location was usually the case when the deceased owner's collection was too large to be moved to a public place. In the Smith auction, in addition to paintings, "large Looking-Glasses in Rich Frames, and Rich Tea-Tables," an item "in plaister," and fancy display books ("Civitatis Orbis Terrarumin Three Volums" and "a Book of Vandikes heads") were put up for bidding.8 The auction began with typical offerings: first, a "Battle piece well painted," followed by "a Pheasant and Dog by a good Master" and "Our Saviour on the Cross in an Ebony Frame."9

Of primary interest to Shakespeareans, however, is item 170 in the catalogue: "Shakespears the Poets head by the Life."10 This picture presents us with a puzzle impossible to solve from this remove in time, but it is of more than passing interest that Shakespeare is said to have been painted "by the Life." The phrase...


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