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The Shakespeare Portrait

There is no definitive Portrait of Shakespeare, but one found in Grafton Regis was shortlisted as a potential candidate....

Image by Hulki Okan Tabak
GR Portrait of Shakespeare #2.JPG

The Grafton Portrait of Shakespeare

The Grafton Portrait is a painting on a wooden panel of a young man aged 24 and painted in 1588, according to the inscription painted on it. William Shakespeare was 24 in 1588 and it is believed by many that this could be a genuine portrait of the Bard himself. To understand why, it's important to understand its history.


The painting acquired its name in the early 20th century, when the owners, the Smith family,

 recalled an old family tradition that the portrait had been bequeathed by one of the Dukes of Grafton to their ancestor, a yeoman farmer in Grafton Regis, five or six generations previously. It was found in a house next to the White Hart Public House, but then travelled to a village inn near Darlington, Country Durham (The Bridgewater Arms in Winston-in-Tees) with the family where it was displayed on the wall. It was said to have been in a rather sorry state as it had been regularly scrubbed 'clean', when it came to the attention of a Mr. Thomas Kay of Stockport (who had 'considerable experience in portraiture') after an article about it was published in the Manchester Guardian. Mr Kay contacted the then owners, (Misses Ludgate, descendants of the Smiths) and subsequently purchased it in 1909, as he wished to preserve it, find out about its history and keep it in England for posterity. He was writing a book about it and the sacking of Grafton House in the Civil War but he died before completion in 1914. He bequeathed the portrait to the present owners, the John Rylands Library in Manchester.

In 2006 the National Portrait Gallery put on an exhibition called 'Searching for Shakespeare' to try to find a definitive portrait of The Bard. The Grafton Portrait was one of 6 candidate Portraits they brought together in the preceding couple of years for evaluation in which time it was fully restored to its former glory.


The candidate Portraits were:

The Chandos Portrait - attributed to John Taylor, c.1600 (founding Portrait of the National Portrait Gallery)

The Grafton Portrait - unknown English artist, 1588

The Sanders Portrait - unknown English artist, 1603

The Janssen Portrait - unknown Anglo-Netherlandish artist, c 1610

The Soest Portrait - Gerard or Gilbert Soest, c. 1605 - 81

The Flower Portrait - unknown English artist, c. 1820 - 40

The National Portrait Gallery used various techniques on the candidate paintings to determine whether any portraits could be ruled out based on scientific evidence alone. Techniques included examination using Ultraviloet (UV), X-Ray (XR), Infrared (IR), Micro / Macro Photography, Paint Sampling and Dendrochronology. They concluded that the Grafton Portrait painting was painted on wood from a tree felled at the right time to have been used as the basis of a painting of Shakespeare and was from a tree from London or Southern England. They also examined the paintwork using the techniques above, and focused on the age incscription as it had been changed from 23 to 24. This was found to be contemporary with the age of the painting and so concluded that the age of the sitter must have changed before the portrait was completed and so the sitter had asked for the age to be changed. Ultimately the scientific evidence concluded that the painting was contemporary with the time of Shakespeare so could not be ruled out on that basis alone.

Whilst the National Portrait Gallery ultimately concluded that 'we will never know what Shakespeare looked like', and that their preferred candidate for the likeness of him was the Chandos portrait, there is still a lot of circumstantial evidence leading its supporters to believe the Grafton Portrait is also a genuine portrait of Shakespeare. The search continues to find the 'missing link' which could provide more solid evidence...

If you want to find out more, why not come and visit one of our '1000 Years in 100 Minutes' events (see Events page!

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