Family Ties Strengthen Authenticity of Shakespeare Portrait

March 17, 2011 - News Release

A University of Guelph professor has helped reveal family connections between William Shakespeare and ancestors of the Ottawa owner of a portrait thought to be the only depiction of the Bard painted while he was alive.

This latest discovery uncovers relations between the two families over several centuries and adds more evidence for the painting’s authenticity, said Daniel Fischlin, English professor and University Research Chair.

“We embarked on this journey to find the truth,” he said. “It comes down to wanting to give accurate shape to a very rich story and respecting the historical details surrounding one of the most important figures in western culture.”

Known as the Sanders portrait, the painting is thought to depict the Bard at age 39 and is owned by Lloyd Sullivan, a friend and supporter of the University of Guelph. Fischlin believes that the artist was a maternal ancestor of Sullivan’s named Sanders and that the portrait has been passed down through his family for 400 years.

Thirteen previous forensic tests confirmed that the painting dates from around 1600 and has remained unaltered. New genealogical research by Fischlin, Sullivan and British genealogist Pamela Hinks supports the Sanders family claim, said Fischlin.

The team spent seven years researching the connection between the Sanders and Shakespeare families. They visited gravesites, uncovered and transcribed historical documents, and interviewed Sullivan’s surviving ancestors.

“The weight of evidence supporting the authenticity of this painting is now overwhelming,” said Fischlin. "The research we have been doing has uncovered information about Shakespeare’s contexts that we never knew before. By investigating the micro-history of the Sanders family that was so intimately associated with Shakespeare’s own cultural, religious, and geographic milieu, we can paint a much more detailed picture of the world in which Shakespeare lived.”

They found that both families lived in the same small villages in England, intermarried and may have worked together as glove makers.

“With all these connections, it’s unthinkable that the two families wouldn’t have known each other,” said Fischlin. “The fact that we started with the current owner of the portrait and did genealogical research backward from him and ended up literally in Shakespeare’s backyard is an extraordinary and compelling aspect of the story.”

He said the artist was likely one of two Sanders brothers: John, a painter, or William, a bit actor in Shakespeare’s plays.

“There’s been an ongoing debate about whether Shakespeare came from an elite family, and it’s clear from our research that he came from a financially stable family but not an elite family.”

The new findings with the most comprehensive details of the genealogy and origin of the Sanders portrait are available only on the website of the University of Guelph’s Canadian Adaptations of Shakespeare Project (CASP). Founded and directed by Fischlin, CASP is the largest and most complete website in the world about Shakespeare’s cultural influence.

Fischlin learned about the Sanders portrait while seeking original Canadian adaptations of Shakespeare for the project.

Visit the CASP site at

View recently published genealogical research on the Sanders portrait at

Portrait of Shakespeare

Prof. Daniel Fischlin
School of English and Theatre Studies
519-824-4120, Ext. 53267

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