Only Portrait of William Shakespeare Painted From Life to Be Cleaned for First Time

The legendary playwright may have looked quite different.

William Shakespeare, attributed to John Taylor (circa 1610). Photo courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery.
William Shakespeare, attributed to John Taylor (circa 1610). Photo courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery.

The only portrait painted of William Shakespeare from sight is due to be cleaned for the first time since it was painted over 400 years ago.

The portrait—believed to have been painted by John Taylor, circa 1610—shows a 46-year-old Shakespeare with almost shoulder-length curly hair and a beard. Although experts say that, in cleaning the painting, some of the later additions to the work may also be removed.

“The original restored works can look very different,”Chris Bill, technical director of the Fine Art Company, told the Daily Mail. “You could get a dramatic revelation,” he added.

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It is thought that the beloved bard’s beard was extended and his hair lengthened, which could mean the finished result, thought to be the most accurate possible representation of Shakespeare, could look quite different from what we might expect.

Despite the huge curiosity surrounding the life and times of Shakespeare, the work has not been cleaned due to its historical value and fragility. Modern technological advances now mean that the process is now much safer.

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“About 30 years ago I would have said they should leave it alone,” art expert Simon Gillespie told the Daily Mail. “But today we can do very sensitive cleaning with new technology.”

The work was bought by the Duke of Chandos from his godson—some say illegitimate son—William Davenant. It then later became the first painting to hang in London’s National Portrait Gallery in 1848, after is was donated by the Earl of Ellesmere.

Shakespeare’s life is a constant source of interest for historians and art lovers alike, with many rumors of lovers, influences, and intentions regularly speculated over. In terms of actual facts, there is very little known about Shakespeare, making this portrait, painted from life, a rare and precious object.


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