Mistaken identities: Shakespeare Season at the Bodleian

29 July 2009

Overbury painting

The Bodleian portrait of Sir Thomas Overbury (1581-1613) which has recently provided evidence in the visual quest for Shakespeare’s identity goes on display today. The painting closely resembles the ‘Cobbe’ portrait which was lauded as the only known portrait of William Shakespeare painted from life. The comparison between these two portraits sparked widespread debate among Shakespeare scholars and much comment in the media. 

Known as the principal portrait of Sir Thomas Overbury, the Bodleian’s painting was bequeathed to the Library by a member of his family in 1740. A courtier and minor writer active during Shakespeare’s lifetime, Overbury was the centre of a great deal of attention after his death in the Tower of London. The Bodleian painting is assumed to be a memorial to a promising young man who died young.

For the next two weeks, the Overbury portrait is part of a special display showcasing Shakespeare-related materials from the Library’s collections which marks the Shakespeare season at the Bodleian. Building on last year’s success, Shakespeare’s Globe on Tour revisits the Bodleian Old Schools Quad for the second time with performance of The Comedy of Errors. Accompanying events include pre- and post-show talks, special tours of the Bodleian and family workshops. More details can be found here.

Restoration Appeal

A fine Jacobean image painted on panel, the Bodleian portrait of Sir Thomas Overbury has become increasingly fragile and it is in need of complete restoration.

Restoring the painting would also provide an opportunity to study it scientifically, to try to confirm its date and stylistic technique, and hence perhaps the artist; there is as yet no firm attribution to a known artist. This would be of great interest to scholars studying the portrayal of Shakespeare. Even if the Overbury identity were confirmed beyond doubt, restoration of the portrait would be a worthy contribution to Jacobean and Shakespearean studies. In a conservation frame it could also be lent to external exhibitions, as well as being restored to public view in the Bodleian itself.

Preliminary conservation treatment has already been carried out to make the Overbury portrait exhibitable for a short time during the 2009 Shakespeare season at the Bodleian. The total cost of this and projected further work, including full cleaning, removal of over-painting, retouching, and additional scientific examination, may come to £9,000. Donations for this purpose are welcome.

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