May 2006 Journal

previous article:A tale of two secretaries
next article:A Universal Message (theatre review)

Art Notes (review)

Attempts to unravel Shakespeare's life and times are as intricate as the Bard's work. It's enough that his authorship is constantly speculated on: now it's his face we challenge. The search for an authentic portrait produced in his lifetime has been frustrated by lack of conclusive evidence, says the National Portrait Gallery, whose exhibition, Searching for Shakespeare, continues until the end of May. Among five other doubtfuls, the Chandos Portrait is the most recognised; its provenance, according to the Gallery, is arguably the most genuine. Apparently, the little gold earring in his left ear and the murky, open white collar are the definitive sign of an artist. This is the painting of a reflective, middle-aged man, whose receding, but voluminous hair reveals the domed forehead you expect in Shakespeare. The dark eyes look way beyond the seventeenth century and into the future immensity of his literary power.

But apparently, it's all about dress. The Janssen Portrait, c 1610, is now thought to represent the Jacobean courtier Thomas Overbury. In an expensive, lacy starched collar, he looks nothing like our poet, while the pensive young man featured in the Grafton Portrait is too young and too finely dressed in velvet doublet to be an actor-writer of the 1600s. The Flower Portrait has been dismissed as a fake because its chrome yellow pigment became available only in the nineteenth century, and the Sanders Portrait is chronologically too young.

The Restoration Soest Portrait, created long after Shakespeare's death, looks the most naturalistic, conveying a man not yet at the pinnacle of his career, with a raffish smile and amused cynicism in his eyes. It is this painting which puts one in mind of London writer Robert Greene's rejection of Shakespeare as 'an upstart crow'. Although the features compare with the approved Chandos Portrait, which Ben Jonson authenticated within living memory of the Bard, it has nothing of the deep austerity which was to come - if the Chandos tells the truth.

But even this portrait was rejected - as too Jewish! A nineteenth-century critic declared it was impossible to imagine 'our essentially English Shakespeare to have been a dark, heavy man - of decidedly Jewish physiognomy'.

ArtsDepot linked with the Ben Uri Gallery to host an exhibition of Jewish Artists in Britain, to celebrate the 350th anniversary of the Jews' return to Britain. Their work indicates how Jewish artists reflect the home country as well as hinting at art movements like the banned Expressionism which they introduced to Britain. Some subjects are notably Jewish, such as Jacob Kramer's monochromatric, almost cubic portrait of his parents, Rabbi and Rebbetzin, with its implied nostalgia for the shtetl. The Solomon family, which included Simeon Solomon, Solomon J. Solomon and their sister, Lily Delissa Joseph, made an impressive contribution to British art. Solomon J. Solomon appears to break with tradition with his equestrian portrait of his daughter in a red coat, so eloquent of Sir Joshua Reynolds. Lily herself was a Suffragette, who couldn't attend her own private view because she was in Holloway Prison!
Gloria Tessler

previous article:A tale of two secretaries
next article:A Universal Message (theatre review)