Portrait of William Shakespeare

n.p. n.d. [late 19th century?].

Head and shoulders portrait of William Shakespeare printed in black and sepia on paper (510x465mm) and mounted on white card (663x603mm). The edges have been roughly trimmed in places and there are some small tears where the paper has been folded in the past but overall it is in very good condition and the portrait itself is beautifully fresh and clear.

Although it is our job as booksellers and cataloguers to describe an object as clearly, fully and with as much certainty as possible, we have to confess that there is a cloud of unknowing enveloping this striking image of Shakespeare.
There is no firm agreement on how the print was made. Our initial view (shared by others) was that it is a wood engraving but the print seems to large for this. It has been suggested that calico printing might be the method as this uses large block for printing fabric and wallpaper. Or it may be a linocut. A further thought is that it has been painted in black India ink with the lighter parts highlighted. We have no clear answer.

We have also been unable to identify the artist nor, it must be said, has the National Portrait Gallery, although they have suggested that it is based on the 1747 Houbraken portrait, which quickly became the defining image of Shakespeare. This would suggest a date for the print in the late eighteenth or possibly into the early nineteenth century. Houbraken may well be in there but so too are Jannsen (particularly in the collar and decorations on the clothes) and a touch of Droeshout making this a composite portrait. The Folger has tentatively indicated that it might be based on the Richard Earlom mezzotint of the Jannsen portrait and this seems the most hopeful lead. Certainly the lace on the collar matches the Earlom/Jannsen.

One thing which seems clear is that this was a print made for something more than framing and displaying. It has been folded and unfolded over the years and the edges are not smoothly trimmed. This leads us, and others, to think that it was used by a travelling theatre group who carried it with them and used it as a publicity image. It is very striking. It is large enough, clear enough and Shakespeare is looking the viewer directly in the eye daring you to ignore him. It would certainly have drawn a lot of attention.