Private thoughts on a bust of Shakespeare

Image: Twitter – @MethShakespeare

Portraits are powerful objects. They play an enormous role in helping visualise and shape our interpretation of figures from the past.

Whilst driving through Stratford upon Avon last week I spotted many bright and glossy posters promoting a Shakespeare Anniversary event being held in the town. Whilst waiting in traffic lights, I must admit to being slightly overcome by one such advert attached to some railings. This wasn’t because of the particularly overpowering shade of crimson that they had used in the poster, but, due to the face that was staring out of it.

The face was a piece of modern sculpture, purporting to depict a likeness of the bard himself. In fact, this bust takes direct inspiration from a portrait of William Shakespeare that is definitely not Shakespeare.

The portrait in question is the so-called ‘Cobbe portrait’, a painting which the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust (SBT) in 2009 had launched as a genuine portrait of William Shakespeare and the only likeness of him completed during his lifetime. Despite the serious doubts raised by many in the academic world regarding the accuracy of this identification, the SBT have since done all they can to make this image the most widely used image of the playwright in the present day. The Cobbe portrait is actually a portrait of courtier Sir Thomas Overbury, see links 1 2 for discussions on this subject. Bendor Grosvenor’s arthistorynews.com has fairly regular updates as to where the imposter turns up in the print and online media.

This ‘re-discovery’ has since spawned a whole cult of devotion to this picture. It is available for purchase in almost every retail outlet in Stratford upon Avon. Bought by devotees and treated like a sacred religious icon, why is it so popular? The Cobbe portrait plays up to our romantic visions of the bard by showing him as a younger and more handsome gentleman which befits our 21st century vision of what a poet should look like. The two other portraits which are widely accepted as the closest period representations of the poet, the Chandos portrait (NPG) and Droeshout engraving, show an older and less flamboyant character than we want to believe Shakespeare was.

It seems that the ‘re-appearance’ of the painting had inspired sculptor Judy Methuen to transform the two dimensional image of the portrait into a piece of three dimensional sculpture. It is claimed by some that “the Methuen Shakespeare is our first time to meet him.” Her new busts based the Cobbe, in both small and large scale, have since been exhibited at the Globe Theatre and SBT Museum.

What will the repercussions of this error be? Will we be bringing up a new generation to believe in an image which gives us a false impression of arguably the English language’s most famous playwright? Does it even matter?

This last question has preoccupied my mind somewhat. Should pieces of modern sculpture be considered on different terms to historic portraits? What is the role that ‘truth’ plays in all of this? Methuen has copied the paintings details, down to his period lace collar and elaborate doublet. Surely this is suggesting some degree of historical authenticity?

I remind myself on a daily basis that ‘art’ is short for ‘artifice’. Portraiture from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was full of the bending of rules in regards to accurate depictions of people. Historic portraiture gives us more of an impression about how people wished to be perceived. Even poet Sir Phillip Sidney had made the case for painters (as poets should) to “bestow that in colours upon which is fittest for the eye to see.”

However, what is the role of sculpture in all of this? In the classical tradition, sculpture played a part in trying to evoke the essence of the subject it depicted. Statues, in many cases, aim to physically embody certain attributes, ideals, virtues and meanings rather than give a purely accurate likeness. What should the primary consideration in the present day be? Should academic accuracy play any part in this at all? Can any interpretation, based on the Cobbe as a starting point, be considered anything but flawed from the outset?  Or, is the role of the artist’s interpretation and ‘journey’ all we should consider in this instance? Perhaps statues should only serve the purpose of being a ‘photo-opportunity’ like this recent and curious example erected in front of the world famous Royal Shakespeare Theatre.

Will, should and could Methuen’s bust one day take primary position in the public imagination, as Lord Ronald Gower’s powerful Shakespeare memorial had in the past? Will we one day eventually replace and remove the statue of Fontana’s stone statue in Leicester Square, itself inspired by the Westminster Abbey version by Scheemaker’s eighteenth century interpretation. Can all of these famous depictions of the bard sit side by side, harmoniously?

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