New Test Strengthens Authenticity of Shakespeare Portrait

October 18, 2007 - News Release

The results of an independent test released this week add to the growing evidence that a Canadian man owns the only portrait of William Shakespeare painted while he was alive.

Known as the Sanders portrait, the painting is thought to depict the Bard at age 39 and is owned by Ottawa resident Lloyd Sullivan, a friend and supporter of the University of Guelph.

The portrait was the centrepiece of a five-month-long exhibit at Guelph's Macdonald Stewart Art Centre this spring and is the signature image of U of G's Canadian Adaptations of Shakespeare Project (CASP), which was founded and directed by Guelph English Prof. Daniel Fischlin.

Twelve previous forensic tests conducted over a eight-year period have already confirmed that the painting dates from around 1600 and has not been altered since.

The most recent test looked at the ink from a hand-written inscription on a label on the back of the portrait that says the subject is William Shakespeare, and lists his birth and death dates. Radiocarbon dating tests conducted in 2000 on the paper label date it between 1627 and 1667.

The ink test results reveal that the ink formulation is consistent with materials and manufacturing methods available during the 17th century. They also indicate that the ink is integrated into the paper fibres of the label in the manner of an iron gall ink, which was used during that period. The outer tracks of the letterform on the label also suggest that the writing implement used was most likely a quill pen. The testing was conducted by McCrone Associates Inc., based in Chicago.

"The ink was the only thing on the portrait that had not been tested," Sullivan said. "This is the final test; there's nothing left to prove. Every scientific test known to man has now been done."

In addition to verifying that the ink is from that period, the findings shed light on Shakespeare’s birth and death dates, information that has only been speculated about before now.

“The fact that the ink dates to the same period means the person who wrote Shakespeare’s birth and death dates on the back of the portrait knew intimate details of Shakespeare’s life that weren't published until the 18th century," said Fischlin, who has been helping confirm some of the historic connections that substantiate the authenticity of the portrait.

"What are the chances of that? All those personal details, including Shakespeare’s birthdate, which nobody knew in his own period except for a small group of intimates, are included.”

The label identified the sitter as "Shakspere," a spelling, it has been determined, that Shakespeare himself used in his hometown of Stratford. It’s believed that he sat for an ancestor of Sullivan’s, an unknown actor and painter called John Sanders, in 1603. The portrait was held in the family for 400 years, and at one time was stored under Sullivan’s grandmother’s bed. Sullivan inherited it from his mother in 1972.

Fischlin learned about the Sanders portrait while he and his research team were travelling across the country to uncover original Canadian adaptations of Shakespeare for their project. He contacted Sullivan and obtained the right to use the image. Since then, he has been working closely with Sullivan to write a book based on how the painting was discovered and authenticated, and the controversy it has ignited.

In 2006, the Sanders portrait was part of “Searching for Shakespeare,” an international exhibit by the National Portrait Gallery in London that toured North America.It joined the National Portrait Gallery’s famous Chandos painting and four other early “contender” portraits purporting to represent Shakespeare. It was the first time the portraits were displayed together. The exhibition also presented the results of new technical analysis and research on several of the pictures. The portrait was also the subject of the 2001 book Shakespeare’s Face.

For media questions, contact Communications and Public Affairs: Lori Bona Hunt, 519-824-4120, Ext. 53338, or Deirdre Healey, 519-824-4120, Ext. 56982.

University of Guelph
50 Stone Road East
Guelph, Ontario, N1G 2W1