Searching for Shakespeare

Friday, June 23, 2006
Sunday, September 17, 2006

In 1856, the first portrait presented to the newly founded National Portrait Gallery in London was a work believed to portray William Shakespeare. How England’s most famous poet and playwright actually looked had been a matter of national interest for the previous two hundred years. Yet whether his picture, known as the “Chandos” portrait, accurately represents Shakespeare’s face is still a matter of debate, since no portrait of the bard is known to have been created during his lifetime. This exhibition examined the representation of Shakespeare and, for the first time in this country, brought together the five other “contender” portraits purporting to represent him. Originating at the National Portrait Gallery in London (on the occasion of that institution’s sesquicentennial in 2006), the display presented the results of the latest technical analysis and research on several of these pictures, casting new light on the search for Shakespeare’s authentic appearance.

Although Shakespeare’s life can only be reconstructed partially, the exhibition examined the playwright as his contemporaries knew him by looking closely at his own circle. The exhibition placed Shakespeare in the broader context of the Elizabethan stage through the display of an extraordinary range of contemporary works of art and historical artifacts, including original sixteenth- and seventeenth-century costumes. Manuscript and printed material related to Elizabethan performance and stagecraft, and early printed editions of Shakespeare’s plays and poetry, were featured along with portraits of actors, patrons, and other playwrights. This extraordinary body of work, much never before seen in this country, allowed the public a unique opportunity to see virtually all the extant material relating to Shakespeare’s life and his work.

Wenceslaus Hollar, 1607-1677, Bohemian, A View from St. Mary's, Southwark, Looking Towards Westminster, ca. 1638, pen and black ink over graphite on medium, slightly textured, cream wove paper, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

The exhibition included nearly 150 works on loan from the National Portrait Gallery, the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Museum of London, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Folger Shakespeare Library, and a number of private collections, with fifty additional works selected from collections at Yale.

The exhibition was organized by the National Portrait Gallery, London, in association with the Center. Tarnya Cooper, Sixteenth Century Curator at the National Portrait Gallery, was the curator. The Center’s in-house curator was Elisabeth Fairman, Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts.


National Portrait Gallery:
March 2–May 29, 2006

Yale Center for British Art:
June 23–September 17, 2006