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Is the engraving of Shakespeare
in the first folio based on
the Wadlow portrait?

It is 400 years since the first folio of Shakespeare's plays was published in 1623. It contained the only accepted image of Shakespeare. It was known as the Droeshout engraving. However the artist never knew Shakespeare so it is believed that he worked from a portrait of Shakespeare painted when he was alive. But which painting was it?


One painting that for many centuries was considered to be the painting on which the Droeshout engraving was based is the Flower portrait. However, when it was finally x-rayed another picture of a Madonna and child was revealed underneath. This of course did not rule it out because artists often re-used panels. More recent tests on the paint used in the Flower portrait revealed that it was a 19th century fake.

PRESS SPEAKER ICON FOR AUDIO. Watch the Wadlow portrait become the Droeshout and make up your own mind whether it could be the painting the engraving is based on.

The Flower portrait of Shakespeare

The first folio of Shakespeare's plays was published in 1623 seven years after he died.

There are several portraits that are still championed as the painting used as the blueprint for the Droeshout engraving.  One of them is the Cobbe portrait which was declared to be a genuine portrait of Shakespeare by the noted Shakespeare scholar Stanley Wells who is President of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust who said “The evidence that it represents Shakespeare and that it was done from life, though it is circumstantial, is in my view overwhelming.”

The Cobbe portrait of Shakespeare

However, art experts point out that the Cobbe is in fact an almost exact copy of a portrait of Sir Thomas Overbury. Wells support for the Cobbe might be a consequence of the desire to have a more acceptable image of Shakespeare than the engraving which is not an easy fit in an age where successful branding can mean big profits.


Portrait of Sir Thomas Overbury

Folio400 celebrates all things to do with the first folio of Shakespeare's plays.

THE Chandos Portrait

The Chandos portrait thought to be painted by John Taylor. Owned by Robert Keck

Engraving by George Vertue based on the Chandos poartrait owned by Robert Keck

In 1710, Robert Keck a barrister and Shakespeare enthusiast bought a portrait of Shakespeare . It cost him 40 guineas and in time it would become known as the Chandos portrait. It is believed by many to have a claim to being painted during Shakespeare's life time. It also has a claim to be the painting on which the Droeshout engraving is based. It was the fist painting owned by the National Portrait gallery and is seen as the British Mona Lisa.


The Chandos has a provenance which takes it back to Shakespeare's time. It was mentioned by George Vertue in his notebook by 1719 as having belonged to Robert Keck. Keck believed it had been painted by John Taylor and then to have been owned by Sir William Davenant who claimed to be Shakespeare's godson but was given to exaggeration. Then it was owned by the actor Thomas Betterton who sold it to Robert Keck.

However, objections to the claims of the Chandos focus on the effects of overcleaning meaning there is very little of the original paint left on the image we see today. Also much of this provenance is hearsay and not backed up by paperwork. Even the National Portrait gallery will not assert that they are certain that the man portrayed is in fact William Shakespeare.

Another Shakespeare portrait

The Chandos was not the only portrait of Shakespeare mentioned in George Vertue’s notebooks as he also records the existence of a second lifetime portrait of Shakespeare in Keck’s collection. This second picture was oil on board and dated to 1595 it was attributed by Vertue to the painter Marcus Gheeraerts.

After his visit to Keck, Vertue did not mention this second portrait and that could mean that either he did not see the 1595 portrait or that he did see but thought it unlikely to represent Shakespeare. However, there is a far more plausible interpretation of Vertue’s note and that is revealed in an important change made to his original notes after he had visited Keck.

Before his visit to see Keck’s paintings Vertue described the Chandos as the “only original” portrait of Shakespeare, after visiting Keck he changed this so that his notes read “one” original. Having visited Keck and seen the second portrait he now knew that the Chandos was not the only original portrait but just one of the original portraits of Shakespeare.

Historian Mary Edmond believed that this second portrait owned by Robert Keck was the painting on which the Droeshout was based. Her evidence was once again provided by George Vertue’s notebook


“Writing early in the eighteenth century, he referred to a portrait painted by "one Taylor," which he at first supposed to be the only one surviving; later he added a note about


"an other of Shakespear. painted in Oil by ... 1595"; still later he wrote beside this in the margin:


"I suppose Mar. Garrard." Thus his continuing enquiries led him to believe that in 1595 the fashionable immigrant portraitist born in Bruges, Marcus Gheeraerts had painted Shakespeare… I suggest that the Shakespeare engraving might derive from a lost portrait by Marcus Gheeraerts.”

Her conclusion that the Droeshout was based on a 1595 oil on board came from her analysis of the identity of the engraver Martin Droeshout which led to her discovery of his links to Marcus Gheeraerts family.

Like the lost portrait once owned by the Keck family of Great Tew, the Wadlow portrait is believed to have been found at Great Tew, it is also oil on board and it was painted in 1595.

The one thing that the experts had continually said about the Wadlow is that it looked like an English painting. Whilst Marcus Gheeraerts was a Flemish artist he had become a court painter and adopted a style that would appeal to his English clientele. He was part of a group of four artists whose work was similar in style that to the untrained eye it is difficult to tell apart. The others in the group were Isaac Oliver, John de Critz and Robert Peake the Elder.

When Catharine Macleod of the National portrait gallery saw the Wadlow portrait she suggested circle of Robert Peake. Whilst this would include the likes of Gheeraerts, Peake himself could be an interesting candidate. Peake worked for the Revels Office, which was part of the royal household and was responsible for putting on plays at court. Shakespeare would have worked very closely with the Master of the Revels as his first plays were performed before Elizabeth I during the 1590’s. It was during this period that Robert Peake turned his hand to portraiture and soon established a reputation for portraits of fashionable London types.

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