Feature Stories

“Compare our faces and be judge yourself.”

King John, Act I, Scene I


by Lori Bona Hunt

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For as long as he can remember, Lloyd Sullivan has been mesmerized and mystified by the face of William Shakespeare. His fascination with a portrait of Shakespeare has grown into near obsession over the past 20 years, to the point that most of his waking hours are now spent researching the painting.

It’s not because Sullivan is an artist or even an avid fan of the Bard’s work. The allure is 400 years of ancestral history. The tangled roots of Sullivan’s family tree tie this quiet and unassuming Ottawa man to the most celebrated playwright in the world.

Lloyd Sullivan

In 1972, Sullivan inherited a family heirloom — a portrait that may be the only image of Shakespeare painted while the playwright was alive. Its public “outing” in 2001 and subsequent authentication have ignited controversy around the world.

But this is nothing new to Sullivan. For him, the name “Shakespeare” is synonymous with controversy. While he was growing up, the mere mention of the Bard was often enough to evoke heated discussions at family gatherings, with his uncles and aunts, mother and grandmother at loggerheads about what to do with the portrait — to sell or not to sell.

“I was quite young at the time, and I didn’t know who Shakespeare really was,” says Sullivan. “To me, he was just this man that people were always arguing about, a man whose portrait hung on the wall in our dining room.”

An only child, Sullivan used to sit in the hallway and listen to the grown-ups. “They’d argue about things like whether they should sell it or if Shakespeare’s name was spelled wrong on the label on the back of the portrait — it says ‘Shakspere.’”

The arguing only added to the portrait’s allure. “I was captivated by it,” he says.

The painting, which belonged to Sullivan’s maternal grandmother, Agnes Hales Sanders, was only 16½ inches high and about 13 inches wide, but to a child, it seemed larger than life. He used to think the Bard’s eyes were looking at him during meals or following him around the dining room.

When Sullivan was eight or nine, his grandmother, who lived with him and his parents, became bedridden and the portrait disappeared from the wall. He went searching for it one day and found it under his grandmother’s bed.

“When she became ill, she wanted all of her things around her, so the painting was put in a suitcase, and she kept it close to her.”

Sullivan loved his grandmother, but she could be cantankerous at times. He soon learned that if he brought her tea, she would let him pull out the suitcase and look at the portrait, which she kept wrapped in an accordion-type cardboard and tied up in brown paper. She also let him examine the other Shakespearean relics she owned, including some 200-year-old leather-bound books of Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets that were also passed down through the family.

“I was captivated by the mysterious character in the suitcase,” says Sullivan. “I just didn’t know the fascination would remain my entire life.”

Everyone in his family, as far back as anyone can remember, always said the portrait was of Shakespeare. Sullivan says it was painted in 1603 — as indicated on the portrait itself — by one of his ancestors, John Sanders, an aspiring painter who was thought to be a bit actor in an early theatre company called Lord Chamberlain’s Men, which Shakespeare belonged to. The family lore is that the two were friends.
The painting depicts the playwright at age 39 and shows him with receding reddish hair, blue-green eyes and slightly smiling lips. “I call it his Mona Lisa smile,” says Sullivan.

Growing up, Sullivan never questioned the family’s stories or the portrait’s history, and he still doesn’t. “I have no doubt, no doubt, that this is the true image of Shakespeare.”

Numerous artists and scholars alike have agreed, and mounting evidence supports the claim. Every aspect of the portrait has been tested and scrutinized over the past 15 years, with much of the scientific work done by the Canadian Conservation Institute. They’ve looked at the oak the portrait was painted on (it was tree-ring dated back to an oak that was felled in 1585) and the paint (the content and colours are consistent with the time period). They did acid tests on the paper label on the back of the portrait (linen fibres, dated 1640 at the latest) and the glue used to affix it (starch from rice and potatoes). There was even an analysis of the clothing worn by the man depicted in the portrait. The Globe Theatre in London, England, determined that the style and material were consistent with the rank and status of Shakespeare in 1603.

“They had their own dress code back in those days,” says Sullivan. “When the portrait was painted, Shakespeare was just starting his social climb, and it was about the time that he would have first been allowed to wear such an elaborate outfit.”

The conclusion following all these tests? The painting was done in 1603 and has not been altered since.

“I think this must be the most thoroughly researched and tested portrait in existence,” says Sullivan. “The materials used and the method of painting are consistent with a painting made in England in the early 17th century.”

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