Look Upon His Like(ness) Again

· 30 August 2019 ·

[A portrait of me that isn’t, and who it is]

Putative portraits of William Shakspere often invite speculation and disagreement about the true identities of the sitters. In addition to the troublesome Droeshout engraving in the First Folio, Stratford has at various times declared various depictions to be their boy, before moving on to the next one. Some of these are the Sanders portrait, the Chandos, and their current favourite the Cobbe, known to the rest of us as Sir Thomas Overbury. Then come the endless derivatives, such as this 19th-century nightmare at the Folger, or in Stratford itself three years ago, another sort of delus imagining. From there it’s but a short drop into this overflowing inkhell:
Authorial credit has its downside.

I don’t have many portraits. The 17th-century Welbeck copy of my lost 1575 Paris original is the best known, but other faces come alongside when you run my name through an image search.

Dog’s breakfast. The Welbeck is top left, the skull on the table is the much-contested Ashbourne (see Sources below), and Sir Thomas Overbury Is Not William Shakspere at top right. The bottom row includes Kit Marlowe, a curiously green Welbeck clone, the Earl of Southampton in white silk, and even my daughter Elizabeth, Countess of Derby. The one that matters now is top row second, the dark-haired man in a high-collared white doublet trimmed sparely in black. This portrait has come to be known as the St Albans.

I apologise on behalf of the following reproduction for its poor quality.

Portrait of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford
(1550-1604), formerly owned by the Duke of St Albans,
currently in the possession of the
Minos Miller Trust Fund

Wikimedia Commons

The sitter holds a boar pendant, badge of the de Veres, which hangs from entwined black-and-white ribbons around his neck. In large letters across the topmost of the painting, or at least the top of the cropped image, you can barely make out my name, my number, and my title.

Edwd         De      Vere
17th El                            of Oxford

You didn’t get here by believing everything you read.

If none but my naysayers were snagged by this, I would let it pass as just one more slub in their great tapestry of errors. But loyal Oxfordians, people I care about, have been caught. The mistake is understandable, presumably unintentional, and not new. Click or don’t on these links, they’re only meant as illustrations.

[Examples 1 and 2] [Example 3]
[Example 4] [Example 5] [Example 6]

Sure it’s annoying when my own side gets me wrong, but what is the matter is the ongoing slight to the goodly man obscured in the shadow cast by his own son. The St Albans portrait isn’t me, it’s my dad.

If you want more than just my word on this, keep reading.

Historical context is the key, so I need to begin in the 1550s, the first decade of my life. Three monarchs and (basically) three religions in less than nine years only begins to describe the turbulence of the time.

  • Relevant dates:
  • • John de Vere, 16th Earl: born 1516, died 3 Aug 1562.
  • • Edward de Vere, his heir (me): born 12 Apr 1550.
  • • Mary I’s reign: 6 Jul 1553 through 17 Nov 1558. Marriage to Philip of Spain, the future Philip II, 25 July 1554.

I left home early in my childhood by today’s standards, before my fifth birthday. Mary Tudor reigned, aided by her new Spanish husband. Mary’s efforts to bring Counter-Reformation to England meant that my father, as ranking nobleman in Essex and a lord justice and lieutenant, had a share of duties in the arraignment of accused Protestants in the county. Once formally charged, they were transported to London for examination by Mary’s home-grown Inquisitor, Bishop Edmund Bonner. Few recanted. Those who didn’t, condemned as heretics, were returned home for execution, their dreadful punishment also the Crown’s message to sympathetic friends and neighbours.

Many reformed believers in Essex were unwilling to re-embrace Rome. My father was under tremendous stress: whatever his personal ideology, he was no zealot. He knew these people, their families. He was their lord, and good lordship meant service and care, not arrest and death. John Foxe documents sixteen Essex martyrs charged by the Earle of Oxforde. Thomas Hawkes, the first of these to face the fire, had been a retainer in my father’s own personal service. Please read Thomas Hawkes, The Martyr I Almost Knew, also posted today, for more about this man.

Queen Mary came to feel that my father’s enthusiasm for this work was lacking. Imagine that. I was told much later that he hoped by sending me away to keep me from being scarred by what was happening at home. I know that it scarred him, and I suspect that it shortened his life.

Marian persecutions aside, it wasn’t that unusual for children of my rank and station to leave home early for tutoring elsewhere. I was precocious, and it was time to start filling my head with whatever it would hold.

If any one event can be pointed to as the genesis of Shake-Speare, it is this: I went to live and study with Sir Thomas Smith (1513–1577), polymath and educator, at his home near Windsor. He was a gifted scholar of Greek and other languages, the classics, law (his doctorate was from the University of Padua), natural philosophy and astronomy, horticulture, more. He was Provost of Eton, a diplomat and councillor under successive Tudor monarchs, a member of Parliament. Of all his gifts the greatest was his brilliance as a teacher. For most of the next eight years I was his only pupil.

I know he enjoyed schooling me. He called me mea spongiola, his little sponge. Later he awarded me a cognomen, Eduardus Verus Spongiosus. It sounds silly now but when I was a boy of seven I was proud of that name, and nothing made me happier than pleasing Sir Thomas in my studies. My only failures at absorption tended to involve the subject of economics. [Go ahead, I’ll wait.] He’d stray onto bugbears like the inflationary effects of debasing the coinage, or taxing the domestic manufacture of woollen cloth. I’d do my best to look attentive while I scribbled all the rhymes I could think of for gold, or adjectives describing sheep.

Due to the doings at home I didn’t see my parents often. It was also a long trip back to Essex, the M25 being several centuries from completion, although less congested. Sir Thomas kept me busy, and when he wasn’t home his books were there. Here are a few, now at Queens’ College, Cambridge, where his library went after his death. I recognise Ziegler’s Terræ Sanctæ in the middle. The text was full of inscrutable place-names and lists of figures for latitude and longitude, but I happily absorbed the tabulæ at the end, maps of the holy lands and Schondia (Scandinavia). I spent a lot of time with my nose in the back of that book.

photo: Queens’ Old Library, Cambridge

Sir Thomas forbade all fire in his library, so with my schoolboy’s wit I dubbed the room Alexandria. If you wanted to read at night you took your candle and book elsewhere, to protect the rest. But if you didn’t return your choice to its proper place on the shelves, God spare you because Sir Thomas wouldn’t. For years after I left his care, his books would appear in my dreams. I used his filing system in my own library.

In late 1558 I was packed off to Queens’ with a tutor [1]. Mary Tudor was dead, and Sir Thomas expected a place on Elizabeth’s new Privy Council, as he had held under her brother Edward. It didn’t happen. William Cecil’s wife’s brother-in-law got the spot. Imagine that. Sir Thomas, redundant, returned to Hill Hall, his Essex manor halfway between London and Hedingham. I left Cambridge and rejoined him there. It was deemed safe for me to be closer to home, now that the incendiary terrors of Mary’s reign had ended with her end.

Here’s the point of all this backstory. After Elizabeth’s accession it would have been imperative for my father to show all of Essex his support for the new queen, after what he had been doing, however reluctantly, for the old one. He needed to put the previous four years completely behind him. Rehabilitate his optics. Pronto.

At this stage in her life, Elizabeth was known for her elegant but plain mode of dress. Rich, not gaudy. Little colour, little trim. She was no Puritan, but she didn’t mind looking like one when it suited her purpose. This style not only accentuated her slim figure and Tudor-red tresses, it also heightened the contrast with short, frumpy Mary, who had favoured elaborate, unflattering gowns overladen with jewelry and gewgaws. From two rooms away you could hear Mary rattling.

Once Elizabeth was on the throne, her black-and-white fashions and lack of bling became a political statement. Protestant partisans out from cover and anyone with a recent past to disavow all wanted to be seen in their Team Elizabeth home kit. Tailors with fast needles never had it so good.

My father’s likeness, taken in one of his new doublets, would have been painted as soon as it could be arranged, his public gesture of loyalty to the new monarch. I still didn’t go home much, and it’s not something a boy of nine pays attention to, but I think the first half of 1559 is a safe bet. Quickly done, not too fussy or fragile. Competent painter, but no more expensive than necessary. It didn’t have to be a masterpiece, it only had to be good enough to do its job.

That job was to travel with my father and be displayed wherever he was working or residing, so that anyone who had business with Earl John would know exactly where he stood. It wasn’t an heirloom, it was an advert. It was a billboard.

I couldn’t find a good photo of the A12.

By August 1561 when the queen and court spent five days as my father’s guests at Hedingham Castle, the portrait was hanging on the wall, its job done, its retirement earned. Twelve months later John de Vere was dead.

As the generations pass, a portrait’s context and symbolism can be lost. It becomes just a dusty relic of a distant relative whose face no one is old enough to remember.

Now let’s set the calendar with those dates aside for a moment while we put on our Not An Art Expert caps. To be clear: I am Not An Art Expert, and I had less information about the painting than I wanted. All the same, I don’t believe you need to be An Art Expert in order to draw some reasonable conclusions from what is available. Just as when you ask questions about Authorship, sometimes it’s what you don’t see that matters as much as what’s there. So.

Photo-credit captions of the St Albans that claim the sitter is me also claim that it may have been, or was without doubt painted by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger. The Wikimedia Commons image shown above also asserts an attribution to Gheeraerts.

Born in 1561/62 in Flanders but raised in England, Gheeraerts was the foremost portraitist of the late Elizabethan and Jacobean courts, from the 1590s until about 1615. King James’s wife Anne of Denmark was a big fan.

Depending on whose count you use, anywhere from seven to thirty Gheeraertses have been identified by signature or inscription, along with many more attributed (artspeak for possibly) to him or his circle or workshop. Images of almost a hundred works spanning Gheeraerts’s entire career have been assembled at the Art UK website. That page, when set to display chronologically, begins with a portrait of Burghley circa 1585 (I cannot escape this man), and goes on to include the Ditchley portrait of Elizabeth, umpteen versions of the narcissistic Earl of Essex (think of them as selfies), a fair but not so youthful Earl of Southampton, and even Sir Thomas Overbury Is Still Not William Shakspere.

Gheeraerts was largely responsible for the transition from wood panel to canvas in English portraiture at the end of the 16th century, but there was a period of overlap when both surfaces were in use. There are, or were, parallel cracks in the paint layer of the St Albans, running widthwise at the sitter’s forehead and just below his collar. The Wikimedia Commons image is no good for seeing these, but here and here you can. This is not craquelure but carpentry, and it indicates that the St Albans was painted on a panel of joined boards. Dendrochronology, analysis of the growth-rings in wood, could help determine the portrait’s earliest possible date. You can’t paint a picture on a tree that hasn’t been felled yet.

Corridors is an arts blog written by a Not An Art Expert Chicagoan named John Walsh. His page on Gheeraerts leads off with Captain Thomas Lee bare-legged in Irish dress, and continues with other high-quality images that are worth looking at closely. Gheeraerts’s fame came from his ability to render fine detail (fabric, jewelry, lace, embroidery, hair) and most especially from his dimensional shading that gave volume and depth to faces and forms. His use of new flesh tones was innovative and remarkable. Sitters loved the way he made them look solid, real, 3-D instead of flat. Good reproductions allow you to see for yourself these hallmarks of Gheeraerts’s entire body of work.

Now pick the calendar back up. It’s obvious from the dates alone that Gheeraerts the Younger did not paint de Vere the Elder. But to play my own devil’s advocate, if the St Albans is me, painted when I was 40 in 1590 (add a few more if you think the sitter looks older), there should be similarities in format and style to other portraits from the same period by Gheeraerts, or even by other artists working in the 1590s. Portraiture followed fashions just as sitters’ attire did. The portraits at Art UK, Corridors, and a few others from elsewhere can be put to use.

In addition to the political context which I’ve already explained, that style of doublet and collar was out of fashion long before I hit my forties. Even in my teens when I lived with Cecil I never wore anything that wasn’t à la mode, and a glance at my accounts will make that clear. The link goes to page 31 in Ward’s 1928 biography, and his text in Section IV hits the mark. Costly my habit was, and that habit was lifelong. When I had to go to Bristol with my father-in-law in 1574 to feign an apology for my forbidden rescue mission, I held up our departure to have some apparel meet for the Court made first (his description). I had seen new styles in the Low Countries, and I wanted to be seen in them before they crossed the Channel behind me. The Lord Treasurer whinged about the delay and the expense, along with everything else.

The following portraits show some of the changes in fashion between 1565 and 1598. Where does the St Albans belong?

Proper captions are given at the end of the post.

While I was tying up the loose ends of this post, a curious thing happened. Author Lee Durkee, whose blog Curious Portraits of Dead Elizabethans explores the topic of curious portraits of dead Elizabethans, posted How To Date Elizabethan Portraits By Costume: Men’s Portraits, and an Essential Glossary for Elizabethan Fashion. He says they are works-in-progress, but they are already bookmark-worthy references.

The St Albans sits almost atop Mr Durkee’s post, which is organised by date, old to new. I hope you aren’t surprised to learn that his comments and mine agree. My date is a bit earlier, but he’s looking at costume only, without adding realpolitik. He doesn’t even mention Gheeraerts; when you properly date the picture, Gheeraerts is out of the picture. I’ve chosen to discuss him here nonetheless, in case anyone isn’t convinced by the political and costume explanations.

After looking at 1590s portraits you might think the St Albans would have more area in its composition, a wider angle in photo terms. I don’t have a reproduction that shows its outer edges, nor do I know its dimensions. The available images could have been cropped from an absent, wider original, but the pose and framing of the sitter and the odd placement of the odd inscription suggest to me that the portrait was either reduced in size or painted in a style non-typical for that period. Zoomed in, closer to what actors and photographers today call a head shot.

Head to this page, and if necessary crank up your screen’s brightness. The Wikimedia Commons image is no good for seeing this either, but the sitter’s head has a cap on it. Compare it to the one worn by Sir Thomas (my father’s contemporary), or this one in a portrait from 1560. Then look at the tall capotains popular in the 1580s, 90s, and into the 1600s. An older man might wear a newer fashion, but a younger man rarely wears anything old. Not in a painted portrait, at any rate.

More Artful Dodginess lies in the fact that my name is painted directly on the cap. There is one other portrait at Art UK, from the too-late date of 1624, with similar lettering in a superscription, but that one has plenty of space above the sitter’s head for the text. Large, uneven lettering superimposed on the sitter’s headgear is not the way an inscription would be made on a formal portrait of an earl, as any likeness of me at this age would by definition have been.

Roy Strong (Sir Roy from 1982), Preeminent Art Expert on Elizabethan portraiture, wrote three articles for The Burlington Magazine in 1963 under the title Elizabethan Painting: An Approach Through Inscriptions. The third article explores the inscriptions of Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger in the decade from 1590 to 1600. The takeaway is that no inscription painted by Gheeraerts in this period bears the slightest resemblance to my name and title blazoned across the head of the St Albans sitter. If you have JSTOR access or feel like paying for the PDF (see Sources for details and links), the article is entirely relevant and says interesting things about Gheeraerts’s inscriptions and his work in general. I encourage you to read it if you can get hold of it. Sir Roy at a later date had interesting things to say about the St Albans portrait itself, which I’ve linked below also.

One more thing about inscriptions: a standard feature in a proper inscription is the dating of the sitter ÆTATIS SVÆ (in the year of his age), with the year of the painting (ANNO DOMINI, often abbreviated). This is a formal portrait’s ID card, its driving licence.

Something like this. Latin.

Any portrait of me painted by Gheeraerts or anyone else, in 1590 or any year near it, would show me garbed in all my most best, depicted in realistic detail. Plenty of space on the sides for my heraldic achievement, an Ætatis ID, and a mini-biography in elegant script. I would not have paid a penny for anything less.

As to that: from whence the pennies for this commission? Good painters weren’t cheap, and Gheeraerts was top of the pops, even early on. My financial status by this point is too-common knowledge and well documented. “Perhaps the most downwardly-mobile person in the history of the planet” – much obliged for the quote, Roger! [3] My annuity from Elizabeth was not meant for vanities. The rest was debt. Fie on’t. Hanging useless, costly pictures of myself on the wall was not something I cared about. The only reason the Welbeck’s original even existed was because I promised Anne I’d send home a likeness right away, so she’d have it to look at while I was gone. There’s a reason why I had no hall of mirrors like Devereux, why Google returns such slim pickings. I blew my fortune on more important things, and we are here today because I did.

Even for me there are times when a picture is worth a thousand words, especially when writing about pictures. Here is a Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger with a good reproduction at Wikimedia Commons. Oil on panel from 1592, one of the two earliest works known to be by the artist’s own hand. It’s an appropriate comparator to the St Albans’s hypothetical 1590-95 date.

Sir Thomas liked to dabble in alchemy, but these days I do my experiments in Photoshop. Fewer explosions, and doesn’t smell as bad.

Gheeraerts the Younger didn’t paint the St Albans portrait, he hadn’t yet been born. The inscription is neither original nor correct. If there was any identification of my father as the sitter it could have been painted over or removed, however there is a better explanation for its absence. I have already given it, but here it is again.

The identification may have been omitted and the sitter framed tightly from the start in order to complete the painting quickly. No time-consuming extras. Smaller, portable. Not intended for close viewing, able to be seen and understood from the back of a crowded hall. Literacy not required. Made to show a happy, or at least relieved, nobleman in his home shirt. More like a poster. More like a billboard. In 1559.

So why alter the portrait? Falsify its identity with a bogus inscription, shove its date forward like Shapiro’s Lear, perhaps even chop off its sides? This is where Shake-Speare gets to create a story. I’ve done this before.

No pentameter in this draft, sorry. Verse comes later.

In the early eighteenth century, the Beauclerk family inherited the painting. It is their St Albans title which now titles it. The first Duke of St Albans, Charles Beauclerk (1670–1726), was one of the multitude of illegitimate offspring sired by Charles II. His mother was the actress Nell Gwyn. In 1694 Beauclerk married Diana, the daughter and eventual heiress of Aubrey de Vere, 20th Earl of Oxford. Aubrey was the last of us. His death in 1703 ended the earldom’s unbroken line after 562 years. The Beauclerks to this day descend from the de Vere earls through Diana [2].

Someone could have wanted to turn the painting of my father into one of me, when nobody was still alive who would know the difference. Whose ancestral visage would you rather visit in your long gallery, the 16th Earl of Oxford who sent souls to the stake, or the 17th, who you knew to be the soul of the age? Would you rather own a mid-16th-century billboard daubed by an unknown hand, or a portrait you can claim is an early Gheeraerts the Younger, even if it looks nothing like one?

It’s one more plot from a man who has written a pile of them. I could write this one and make it work. The St Albans dukes are a plotter’s dream. #5 was an art collector who ran away to Italy with his wife (there’s a switch) and her lover too. That’s just for starters.

Did one of the Beauclerks do some creative post-Restoration restoration to an old painting that didn’t have much to say for itself? Was it the Duke of St Albans, in the Hall, with the handsaw? I have no clue.

I don’t care, either. Doesn’t matter who painted it, whose name is at the top, or how it got there. The man in the portrait is John de Vere, 16th Earl of Oxford. My father, his likeness taken for all in all.

Accompanying post: Thomas Hawkes, The Martyr I Almost Knew

All Happinesse to my occidental chevalier, giver of wisdom, given with grace.

[1] I was only at Cambridge for five months over the winter of 1558-59, when I was eight years old. It wasn’t a regular undergraduate’s stay. I was looked after by a hired tutor, Thomas Fowle. Much fuss is made over the MAs that were awarded to me later at Cambridge (1564) and Oxford (1566), during my visits to the universities with Elizabeth and the court. The degrees may have been honorary but they weren’t gratuitous. Statements and references were required beforehand to verify that I possessed the knowledge that a holder of the degree would be expected to have. I didn’t have to sit exams, but they wouldn’t have been a problem.

[2] The son and heir of the incumbent 14th Duke of St Albans is another Charles Beauclerk, currently Earl of Burford though he eschews the title for political reasons. This Charles, born in 1965, is an author, and not too surprisingly, an Oxfordian. His views about me are perhaps less expected: his 2010 book Shakespeare’s Lost Kingdom espouses the Prince Tudor scenario including all of the incesty bits. Here is a review of the book by the always entertaining Michael Delahoyde, which begins with an explanation of Prince Tudor if you need it.

Prince Tudor is considered by most of my partisans to be beyond the pale, even for royal/noble misbehaviour. Twenty years ago Beauclerk made the papers with his own bit of noble misbehaviour, so he seems to be comfortable in the role of contrarian. Whether or not you agree with him, the book is extremely well written and full of insight. I would enjoy a good chat over a flagon or four of Rhenish with Charles. Find out what he can tell me about the painting, catch up on family gossip. If I’ve counted correctly, he and I are first cousins eleven times removed.

[3] Slight hyperbole by Roger Stritmatter, PhD, Professor of Humanities, Coppin State University, Baltimore, Maryland. Interviewed in the 2018 documentary Nothing Is Truer Than Truth, by filmmaker Cheryl Eagan-Donovan. It’s about me.

Captions, 1560s-90s portraits

  • 1. Edward Seymour (1539–1621), 1st Earl of Hertford. Oil on panel, 1565, attributed to Hans Eworth. Public domain.
  • 2. Edward de Vere (1550–1604), 17th Earl of Oxford. Oil on canvas, 17th century copy of lost 1575 original, unknown artist. Known as the Welbeck portrait. On loan to the National Portrait Gallery.
  • 3. Henry Palmer (c1550–1611), Comptroller of the Navy. Oil on panel, 1586, Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger. ©National Trust Images, Buckland Abbey.
  • 4. James VI (1566–1625), King of Scotland. Oil on panel, circa 1590 (he wasn’t King of England yet), unknown artist. ©National Portrait Gallery, London. [CC BY-NC-ND 3.0]
  • 5. Gilbert Talbot (1552–1616), 7th Earl of Shrewsbury. Oil on panel, 1596, workshop of William Segar. Public domain. Gil was Bess of Hardwick’s stepson and son-in-law. Take a better look at the full-frame image. That is a handsome portrait.
  • 6. Brereton family member, possibly William Brereton, 1st Baron Brereton (1550–1631). Oil on panel, 1598, attributed to Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger. Public domain.

Artwork/Sources/Additional Reading

  • Elizabethan Painting: An Approach Through Inscriptions – III Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger
  • · jstor.org (subscription/institutional access required, or purchase), or burlington.org.uk (purchase from archives)
  • · by Roy C Strong
  • · The Burlington Magazine, Vol 105, No 721, April 1963
  • · pages 149-150, 152-157, 159

There is also a followup article by Oliver Millar covering Gheeraerts’s later work (1602–1629), Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger: A Sequel Through Inscriptions, in the December 1963 number (729) of the magazine. If you want a good handle on the palæographic distinctiveness of Gheeraerts’s inscriptions throughout his career, these two articles will get you there.

If you don’t have JSTOR access, you can purchase the PDFs from Burlington’s website. Search their archives for the exact phrase Through Inscriptions, and all three of Strong’s articles plus Millar’s sequel will come up, with purchase buttons. £16.50 ea, but better than $39.00 ea for non-subscribers at JSTOR.

Pages 20 and 21 mention Sir Roy Strong’s evaluation of the St Albans portrait, within a larger investigation into the complicated history of the Ashbourne, owned by the Folger. If you feel I’ve given the Ashbourne short shrift in this post, it’s because I have. This isn’t the place for it. Read the linked article.

Strong’s evaluation of the St Albans can also be found in the descriptive information below the terrible reproduction at Wikimedia Commons. My father deserves better than that image. So would I, if it was me. The tattoos of Willy look better.

The Tate’s information includes a feature by Rica Jones and Joyce Townsend from 2004 about technical analysis and conservation work done on the portrait. Dendrochronology, x-rays, microphotographs of the paint layers, how Gheeraerts physically applied paint to achieve his desired effects. Next best thing to being An Art Expert.

  • Dictionary of National Biography [archive.org]
  • · Volume 58, 1899, edited by Sidney Lee
  • · entry for John de Vere, 16th Earl of Oxford, pages 242-243
  • · page 242, highlighted re Mary’s suspicion of John’s attitude