Cleaning This Portrait Could Change the Way Historians See Shakespeare

The only portrait of the Bard made while he was alive might be getting touch-ups

Chandos POrtrait
The Chandos portrait is the only-known painting of Shakespeare made during his lifetime. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

William Shakespeare has been dead for 400 years, but his image lives on. Portraits of Shakespeare adorn countless copies of his plays alone. This image of the Bard in popular circulation gives him thick, black hair, a high forehead, a pointy mustache and a scruffy goatee. But throughout the Shakespeare's life, only one known painting of the playwright is known to have been created. Now, that painting is being considered for restoration, and it could change what historians think he looked like.

The Chandos Portrait, so-named for its one-time owner, the Duke of Chandos, has an illustrious history on its own right. Not only is it the only portrait of Shakespeare known to have been made during his lifetime (and which historians believe the Bard may have actually posed for), but it was the first painting donated to London’s National Portrait Gallery when it was founded in 1856, Tufayel Ahmed reports for Newsweek. But while the portrait has served as the basis for countless engravings and paintings of Shakespeare, the centuries have taken their toll on the painting’s condition.

Before it came to the National Portrait Gallery, the Chandos Portrait spent centuries hanging in the Duke’s Theater in London. During the 17th and 18th centuries, crude attempts to clean the painting left it damaged from scrubbing, Martin Bailey reports for the Art Newspaper.

“The original paint was sparsely applied, so today only a thin layer survives,” Bailey writes. “Early restorers made changes to details, such as lengthening the figure’s beard and hair. Retouches have become discoloured, most noticeably on the forehead. Old varnish has deteriorated, giving the picture a darker and yellow hue.”

Since then, the Chandos Portrait has informed many depictions of Shakespeare. But making the decision to clean it and attempt to restore it to its original image isn’t an easy one. So far, proposals for cleaning it have gone so far as to remove the discolored varnish coating the painting, but after that it gets tricky: conservators would have to find the fine line between the original painting and the later additions made during earlier restoration attempts. Considering how delicate the portrait is and how influential it has been in how historians picture Shakespeare, simply erasing the extra hair (and possible even his beard) isn’t a decision to be made lightly.

While past plans to restore the painting were discarded due to worries that the process could further damage the painting, recent advances in the techniques and technology used by conservators to fix old paintings might now make it feasible, Amah-Rose Abrams writes for artnet News. Conservators at the National Portrait Gallery are still considering the plan and likely won’t reach a decision until summer 2017. Until then, art lovers will get a chance to see the portrait in its current state when it goes on display this fall at the Swan Theater in Shakespeare’s hometown of Stratford-upon-Avon.

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