Bodleian painting provides evidence in search for Shakespeare's identity

23 March 2009

overbury_webversion_smallA painting recently hailed as the only likeness of William Shakespeare made in his lifetime (known as the ‘Cobbe’ portrait) has now been identified as a portrait of Sir Thomas Overbury (1581-1613), an Elizabethan courtier. The suggestion has been made by Professor Katherine Duncan-Jones, a Shakespeare scholar and a Fellow of Somerville College, Oxford.  She published her findings in the Times Literary Supplement this week.

Professor Duncan-Jones explored the identity of the sitter in the Cobbe portrait after the recent announcement that this was the only known portrait of Shakespeare painted in his lifetime, supposedly around 1610.  She made the identification after examining the closely similar portrait found in the Bodleian.

‘This picture bears a startling resemblance to the Cobbe painting (and its companions),’ said Professor Duncan-Jones. ‘Features such as a distinctive bushy hairline, and a slightly malformed left ear that may once have borne the weight of a jewelled earring, appear identical. Even the man’s beautifully intricate lace collar, though not identical in pattern, shares overall design with Cobbe, having square rather than rounded corners.’

Sir Thomas Overbury was educated at The Queen’s College, Oxford. He was made Sewer to the King and knighted in 1608. His stubborn opposition to the proposed marriage of the King’s favourite Sir Robert Carr to Frances, nee Howard, led to his imprisonment in the Tower in 1613, on the King’s orders.  His death a few months later, probably from poison, followed by long-drawn out trials of the murder suspects, made him a celebrity. Many of his old friends at court are likely to have wanted visual mementos of him. This may explain why a clutch of high-quality versions of his portrait appear to have been produced in the months following his death.

A portrait of Sir Thomas Overbury was bequeathed to the Bodleian Library in Oxford in 1740 by a member of his family. Professor Duncan-Jones, a former Curator of the Library, concludes:  ‘With its solid provenance – first with the Overbury family, then with the library – the “Bodleian” Overbury appears to be the “prime” version of which the “Cobbe” portrait and the rest are fine, but smaller, copies.’

The Cobbe painting has been owned by the Cobbe family since the early 18th century. It was recently unveiled by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust as a great discovery of a true likeness of Shakespeare ahead of its planned display for the celebrations of Shakespeare’s birth next month in Stratford-upon-Avon.

Richard Ovenden, Keeper of Special Collections at the Bodleian Library said: ‘The Bodleian has a portrait collection of immense historical significance that deserves to be much better known. We are delighted that this portrait has provided a valuable piece of evidence in the search for the visual identity of the Bard and we welcome scholars wishing to use this extraordinary resource. We also look forward to being able to better display our portrait collection in the refurbished New Bodleian.’

The Overbury portrait was publicly displayed at the Bodleian for many years.  It has become increasingly fragile and is now in storage awaiting restoration. Donations for this purpose are welcome.

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