16th Century

Earliest known British architect portrait at NPG

July 13 2016

Image of Earliest known British architect portrait at NPG

Picture: NPG

The National Portrait Gallery in London has acquired a newly discovered portrait of Ralph Simons, the 16th Century architect. Painted in c.1595, the painting is the earliest known portrait of a British architect. It was discovered in an Italian auction by the sleuthing Lawrence Hendra, of Philip Mould & Co in London. More here.

'Giorgione' at the RA (ctd.)

April 26 2016

Image of 'Giorgione' at the RA (ctd.)

Picture: San Diego Museum of Art

I greatly enjoyed the Royal Academy's new exhibition, 'In the Age of Giorgione'. The catalogue is excellent, and is largely free from modern art history speak. Instead, we get for each picture an overview of what evidence there is for an attribution, and how opinions have changed over the centuries. All of which is useful for an exhibition centred around Giorgione, for whom we have only a handful of securely attributed pictures. (One of these is an exquisite portrait of a man from San Diego Museum of Art, above). It's a shame that in the exhibition itself, the thorny question of who painted what is almost completely unaddressed in the wall text and labels, so that the casual visitor comes away thinking pictures are far more certainly attributed than is really the case. In many cases, wall labels simply state artist and title.

There's a fascinating review of the exhibition in the London Review of Books by the art historian Charles Hope, which is well worth reading. Hope (and I hope he doesn't mind me saying this) is known amongst some parts of the art trade as 'Charles Nope', such is his (alleged) tendency to doubt attributions. I think it's fair to say that in general he prefers to look for certainty of attribution in documentary sources, and in the uncertain world of Giorgione attributions this approach is essential. I think also that in the Giorgione exhibition his scepticism over many of the attributions is well founded. He writes:

Although the term connoisseurship normally carries associations with discernment and a certain rigour in aesthetic judgment, when applied to the study of Giorgione these qualities have been and remain conspicuously lacking. Optimistic guesswork would better describe the process.

Hope's central charge against the world of Giorgione scholarship - that many Giorgione attributions are only arrived at because we can't think of an alternative name:

None of the other six pictures in the exhibition accepted as by Giorgione looks like his secure works, and the only significant reason for attributing them to him is that no one can agree on an alternative candidate. As almost all the experts are convinced, on the basis of no evidence at all, that, apart from Titian and Sebastiano (who soon left for Rome), there were no other painters of real talent working in this general idiom in North Italy in the years around 1510, it is not surprising that Giorgione and the young Titian are now each commonly credited with unrealistically vast numbers of paintings in a remarkable variety of styles.

I am far from an expert in early Italian Renaissance art, but I do agree with Hope about the wide variety of works we now call early Titian. Although we are told in the literature that Titian, when young, was a talented mimic of other artistic styles, I still found it hard to entirely believe everything presented to us in the RA show as early Titian. And I agree particularly with this point of Hope's:

In the case of Titian this is well illustrated by a couple of large pictures on the two end walls of the third room. One, Jacopo Presented to St Peter, is said to be c.1508-11, the other, Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery [below], c.1511, yet in style and technique they look utterly different. The attribution of the second of them is justified by a comparison with some frescoes in Padua that Titian painted in 1511, with which it does have something in common – but many artists could have seen those frescoes. In the previous room there is a painting from the Uffizi said to be by Giorgione, The Trial of Moses, which was first attributed to him in 1795, when nothing was known of his style, and which resembles none of his secure pictures. However, the figures are very similar, and in one case virtually identical, to those in another set of frescoes in Padua dating from after Giorgione’s death. One would have thought that, by the logic used for the Titian attribution, the Uffizi picture ought to be by the painter of the frescoes it resembles. But this possibility is seldom even discussed.

As I've remarked before on AHN, there has been an art historical tendency over the last century or so to take pictures away from Giorgione's oeuvre and give them to early Titian. For what it's worth, the Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery was the one picture not attributed to Giorgione in the exhibition that I came away wondering if it might indeed be by him. It is, as another art historian said to me, too poetic and lyrically drawn to be early Titian, and sculptural enough to be by Giorgione. These are subjective notions I know, but I also thought the handling was different from early Titian, and close to those few examples of Giorgione that we can confident of. (Another consideration in all these questions, of course, is that of condition, and it's clear from the literature that not enough consideration has been given to condition issues when assessing attributions - often, a 'badly drawn hand' can just be a knackered one).  

And just to confuse matters even further, I thought that the 'Giustiniani Portrait' of a young man (above), which (regular readers will remember) was to be made the subject of a debate as whether it was by Titian or Giorgione, was more likely to be by Titian, even though it is labelled in the exhibition without caveat as being by Giorgione (and despite one of the show's curators, Per Rumberg, also believing it to be by Titian).

Anyway, it's all good attributional fun, and the RA is to be applauded, in these connoisseurship-phobic days, in putting the exhibition on. 

Update - a reader writes:

[...] you gave a very judicious response to Charles Hope's LRB piece on the RA's Giorgione show. Charles [...] is a formidable archival and analytical art historian. There is no one who knows more about the documents relating to Titian. And he deserves to be one of your heroes of art history, for saving the Warburg Institute and Library from the misguided machinations of the University of London a few years ago. He wrote a brilliant account of that whole sorry saga, in the LRB about two years ago.

This is quite true - saving the Warburg was a heroic act, and so Charles Hope is formally declared an art history hero.

A new 'lost' portrait of Anne Boleyn?

April 13 2016

Image of A new 'lost' portrait of Anne Boleyn?

Picture: Mail

There was a story in the newspapers (The Sunday Times and the Mail on Sunday) over the weekend about a 'newly discovered' portrait of Anne Boleyn. Actually, what has been discovered is an old reproduction (above) of an apparently lost painting - and the fact that it was found on eBay has given the story added legs (although just to be precise, what was being sold on eBay were modern reproductions - for £70 - of a print found in a print shop near Oxford by a former farmer and Tudor portrait enthusiast Howard Jones).

The identity of the sitter as Anne Boleyn has been endorsed by the Tudor historian Alison Weir, and also by Tracy Borman, who is joint Chief Curator at Historic Royal Palaces. Borman says:

I'm very convinced by this. It is hugely exciting. This could well be a Coronation portrait.

The whereabouts of the original painting are reported as being unknown:

The original painting was sold in 1842 from Strawberry Hill, the Twickenham castle to a London art dealer. 

He in turn sold it to Ralph Bernal, a British politician and collector who died in 1854. 

Then the trail goes cold. Weir said: 'Someone might come forward and say they've got it. They don't realise it now because it's bound to be labelled Lady Bergavenny.' 

As far as I can make out, the only evidence here to suggest that the sitter is Anne Boleyn is the letter 'A' at the centre of the necklace, and the repeated 'A's in the headdress, and a 'B' and an 'R' at the left and right of the necklace. These apparently point us to 'Anne Boleyn' and 'Anne Regina', hence the portrait being a coronation portrait. The fashion is also right for a portrait of the 1530s.

But of course, Anne Boleyn was not the only Anne in Tudor Britain, and we might even have to allow the possibility that the sitter was called Alice, or Angela, or some such name. Monogrammed jewels were all the rage in the 1530s, as the many surviving designs by Holbein show. And I think probably we would expect Anne, in a coronation portrait, to have either 'AR' for Anne Regina (as we see in the 1534 coronation medal) or 'HA' for Henry & Anne, which again we know was used by the couple thanks to Holbein's designs, and also from some surviving architectural elements. The use of 'AB', or even just a 'B', in the jewels some Anne Boleyn portraits come from posthumous portraits which we cannot take as reliable indicators of either likeness or what jewels she wore. 

The image is not unknown, for it was engraved at least twice in the 19th Century (here and here). Then, the sitter was thought to be Joanna Fitzalan, Lady Bergavenny. This Lady Bergavenny, however, died some time before 1515, and the fashion would appear to rule her out as the sitter in this portrait (though one never knows in Tudor portraiture, and we cannot exclude the possibility that it shows another member of the family). The picture was once at Strawberry Hill, and we must tempted to assume that if there really was any historical chance this sitter might have been Anne Boleyn, then those old iconographical optimists of the 18th and 19th Centuries would have labelled it such.

Anyway, AHNers, I can tell you that the original portrait is not lost, for some years ago I saw a good colour photograph of it. I was shown the photo in strictest confidence by someone who had been asked to look into the possibility that the sitter might be Anne. That person, incidentally, certainly knew their Tudor portrait onions.

Our belief at the time was the sitter was most likely not Anne Boleyn, though the tedious thing is I can't now remember all of our conclusions. There was nothing in the way of provenance, or traditional identification, to lead us down that path. As far as I recall, there was no mathing necklace in any Royal Tudor jewel inventory. But I do remember paying attention to the other motifs in the headdress, and not being able to connect any of them to Anne Boleyn. It's much clearer in the photograph of the actual painting, but the other letter given equal prominence in the headdress alongside the 'A' is what is most likely an 'I' (to see a similar Tudor decorative 'I' see here). It is therefore likely that the sitter in the original portrait is someone called 'AI' or 'IA', with some other initials 'B' and 'R' elsewhere in her or her family's name.

If anyone has any better ideas as to who she is, let me know!

Of course, it's worth remembering that we do in fact have a life portrait of Anne Boleyn by Holbein...

Update - the print itself is now being offered for sale by Howard Jones on Ebay for £1,000. Which is a lot of money for a print of an unknown 16th Century sitter.

Update II - here's a long analysis of the claims (and a sceptical one) from Claire Ridgway, on her blog The Anne Boleyn Files, including a view that the costume is in fact from the 1520s.

Update III - and here's a blog post from Alison Weir (scroll down the page) on why she thinks it might be Anne. I'm afraid it displays some basic misunderstandings about Boleyn's iconography.

National Gallery acquires Signorelli

April 13 2016

Image of National Gallery acquires Signorelli

Picture: National Gallery

The National Gallery in London has acquired a new picture by Luca Signorelli through the Acceptance in Lieu scheme. Man on a Ladder, painted between 1504-5, was (says the NG website):

Originally part of a vast altarpiece depicting the 'Lamentation at the Foot of the Cross' commissioned in 1504 for the church of Sant’Agostino in Matelica, a town in central Italy, the large panel was subsequently cut into separate pieces for sale to different purchasers. 'Man on a Ladder' is one of six known fragments of this altarpiece. The others are currently housed in museums and collections around the world, including the Museo Civico, Bologna, the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, and private collections in Genoa, Rome and England. 'Man on a Ladder' is the only fragment that can be seen in a UK public collection.

A new Caravaggio discovery?

April 4 2016

Image of A new Caravaggio discovery?

Picture: La Tribune de l'Art/Didier Rykner

Didier Rykner at La Tribune de l'Art reports that the French government has declared a 'national treasure' (and thus carrying certain export constraints) a possible new discovery of a work by Caravaggio. There is alas no photo available, but it is said to be Caravaggio's original version of Judith and Holofernes, which composition has been known until now through a copy by Louis Finson (above). Caravaggio's original is recorded as being in Finson's studio in 1607. The discovery has been hailed by Dr Mina Gregori. Let's hope some images are available soon.

Who will save Nonsuch Palace?

March 2 2016

Image of Who will save Nonsuch Palace?

Picture: DCMS

The best known depiction of Nonsuch Palace, one Henry VIII's most extravagant creations, is at risk of leaving the UK. The Culture Minister Ed Vaizey has placed a temporary export bar on the drawing, in the hope that a UK institution will step in to save the work. The amount needed is £1m. 

This is an extremely important picture, and I hope we can keep it here. It is not just a rare and beautiful object (painted by Joris Hoefnagel in 1568) but an important record of Tudor architecture at its best. The palace was demolished in the late 17th Century, after it was sold to pay the debts of Barbara Villiers, Charles II's mistress.

The picture was last seen at auction in 2010, where it went unsold (to my surprise) against an estimate of £800,000 - £1.2m.

Update - a reader writes:

The press releases don't mention that there is an almost identical watercolour in the British Museum.

It would be difficult for an institution to justify buying the other version!

Louvre to clean another Leonardo (ctd.)

February 12 2016

Image of Louvre to clean another Leonardo (ctd.)

Picture: Louvre

Last month the Louvre announced that they would clean Leonardo's late work, St John the Baptist. Cue much outrage. Now, Leonardo 'expert' Prof. Carlo Pedretti has waded into the story, saying the Louvre shouldn't touch the picture

Regular readers will know that AHN holds Pedretti in rather low regard (put 'Pedretti' into the search box to see why). The minute he rallies to a cause, I feel myself taking the opposite side. But the case of the St John is a difficult one, and I'm not entirely sure what the answer is. Like the Great Waldemar, speaking about the matter here on BBC Radio 4's Front Row, I am 'conflicted' about whether the restoration should go ahead.

As Waldemar says, this is now a picture so dark you almost cannot see it. And he's right to say the Louvre should spend the money simply fixing the Italian gallery in which it hangs with better lighting (I would also add some feather dusters). But Waldemar says that if we were to clean one picture in that Italian gallery at the Louvre it should probably be this one.

And yet the Louvre's previous Leonardo restoration, of the Virgin with St Anne, was not considered a success. Hence the latest hoo ha. I have been to see that picture since it was cleaned, and it is indeed disappointing.

But the conservation debate has taken a curious turn of late. In my view, I don't think the Virgin with St Anne was 'over-cleaned' a great deal, as everyone says. Rather, the masking qualities of centuries of old varnish and dirt was removed, leaving visible all the damages that were inflicted on the picture in previous campaigns of 'cleaning', from past ages that thought it was ok to scrub pictures with urea, a potato cut in half, a rough sponge, and so on. 

Now, the problem comes because many of today's museum staff, and much punditry, has taken the view that we should leave such damages visible, and that these damages should not be retouched by a competent conservator. In other words, damage to a picture is 'part of its story', and we should just live with it. Consequently, the Virgin with St Anne looked like it had been 'over-cleaned' because suddenly the old damage was much more visible.

But this approach means that we end up celebrating the clods who have damaged pictures as equally as the geniuses that created them. And I don't see why we should do that. If you've done it, as I have, judiciously restoring pictures is actually not impossible. You just need the combined talents of a good conservator and the connoisseurial eye of someone who knows their way around an artist's oeuvre. The former is far more important than the latter of course, but it is best done as a team effort. It's not really that hard to identify the areas where, for example, a dark glaze has been abraded in the past, and to recreate where it went with the use of entirely reversible modern re-touching media.

Some people getting their ethical antenna in a twist about this approach, but it didn't stop Van Dyck happily re-touching damaged Titians. If the alternative, today, is looking at a wrecked picture, or making some effort to understand that a 400 year old picture has inevitably been damaged at some time in its life, and that we ought to be brave enough to aesthetically (but non-permanently) reverse that damage, then why shouldn't we? There is nothing dishonest about it. And if you went around most major museums of the world deliberately removing the efforts of past restorers, you would soon end up with collections in which about 80% of the works looked like they'd been given a good going over with sandpaper. If we wouldn't take that approach retrospectively, then why do it all? 

Update - a reader writes:

With no expertise at all, just as someone who loves looking at great (and not so great) art, I find your reasoning makes sense.  But what do others think, and why?  Preferably without 'anthropologizing' artworks…

Sleeper Alert

December 2 2015

Image of Sleeper Alert

Picture: Liveauctioneers.com

The above small canvas (50 x 31.5 cm) came up in Austria the other day as 'Attributed to El Greco'. As such, a price of €54,000 wasn't too unusual. But the estimate of €400-€800, with a starting bid of just €200 certainly was cheap.

Much ado about nothing

May 21 2015

Video: Country Life

Country Life is a UK weekly magazine which normally focuses on, well, country life. It's an essential staple of the well-to-do, and the place to go for articles on garden history, phesant fricassé recipes, and advice on how to stop your spaniel crapping in the car. I sometimes buy it, if only to fantasise about buying a stately home (this week, Wentworth Woodhouse for £8m).

But now it seems to have gone extremely off-piste, and has issued a special gold-embossed 'Special Historic Edition' (see the cover above) to promote a new theory about Shakespeare's likeness: 'His True Likeness Revealed at Last', shouts the front cover, 'The Greatest Discovery in 400 Years'. In a breathless editorial, editor Mark Hedges talks of being 'at a loss for words - and sleep' as he tried to come to terms with the significance of the discovery first presented to him some months ago; 'a new portrait of Shakespeare, the first ever that is identified as him by the artist and made in his lifetime from the life'. This week's triumphant edition of a magazine that has been steadily going since 1897 is meant to mark one of the glorious highlights in the magazine's long history.

Unfortunately, Country Life has instead made itself a laughing stock. The 'greatest discovery for 400 years' is alas little more than a convoluted theory based almost entirely on speculation. It's a Tudor Da Vinci Code, and makes about as much sense.

The last time a major 'Shakespeare' portrait discovery was announced, I got into a certain amount of bother for daring to say that I didn't think the sitter was, in fact, Shakespeare. Legalistic missives were sent to me, amongst other things. So when I first saw this latest story, I was initially reluctant to get involved. But happily you can't libel a portrait, or indeed a theory. So here goes.

This latest Shakespeare discovery is the work of the distiguished horticulturalist and botanist, Mark Griffiths. About a decade ago he began to work on a biography of John Gerard (d.1612), a celebrated Elizabethan botanist and surgeon who in 1598 published a book called 'The Herball', an illustrated book on plants. The book, which was printed by John Norton, had an elaborate frontispiece (below) by William Rogers (d.1604), in which the title was surrounded by numerous plants, four male figures, a smaller pair of figures in a garden, and, at the base, two small motifs which resembled coats of arms.

After years of research, Griffiths decided that the plants and other symbols were part of a complex Tudor code, and by cracking it he could prove the identities of the four figures. The identity of the classically-attired 'fourth man' was the hardest to establish, but on a midsummer night no less (as he says in Country Life) Griffiths had a revelation; it was Shakespeare.

As Griffiths says, previous scholars had always understood that the four male figures were merely allegorical or historical figures, such as Dioscorides and Theophrastus who were a claissical botanists. Other frontispieces from the period show similar figures, and indeed a later 1633  edition of Gerard's Herball (published by John Norton's widow, Joyce) shows two figures similar to those seen in the 1598 edition, only this time actually identified as Dioscorides and Theophrastus (below, click here for a larger image).

But Griffiths is convinced the four figures in the 1598 edition were actual people merely 'acting out' the roles. The figure bottom left was Lord Burghley, Gerard's patron; above him was Gerard himself; then came another botanist, the Dutchman Rombert Dodoens; and finally Shakespeare. Griffiths also believed that the minute lady seen walking a garden was Elizabeth I (on account of a Tudor Rose and an eglantine - Elizabeth's symbols - in the frontispiece) and that the presence of the royal coat of arms denotes the Queen's special royal favour of Gerard.

But even here we can quickly see Griffiths optimistic interpretation of the design of the frontispiece. The inclusion of the royal coat of arms need not necessarily denote anything, and while the Tudor rose and eglantine were indeed Elizabeth's symbols (or some of them anyway) they were readily adopted in other uses to declare general loyalty or support. The presence of a Tudor rose or a royal coat of arms in a book or building does not indicate the personal approval of Elizabeth I, just as the Queen's head on stamps today does not mean she sent the letter.

And nor, alas, can we be at all certain that Griffith's most readily identifiable figure is Lord Burghley. It is true that Burghley was Gerard's patron, but the means by which Griffiths identifies him in the frontispiece are shaky, to say the least. He gets into a muddle over the imagined presence of a 'wart' in the frontispiece, which he believes links the bearded figure to Burghley, while the 'distinctive jewel' he sees in the bearded man's hat just is nowhere near close enough to that seen in many of Burghley's portraits for us to say, 'this is the same jewel, and thus the same man'. Really, the bearded man is just a generic bearded man, and we could choose any number of Tudor portraits of old bearded men, and say, 'Aha! here he is in Gerard's frontispiece'. William Rogers, the engraver, was one of the best in England at the time, and was quite capable of making accurate portrait engravings. Instead, these figures follow the design and conception of the more generic figures we see in his work (of which here is an example).

Of course, as a botanist, Griffiths sees various meanings in some of the plants around Burghley. The bearded man in a frontispiece is standing beside an ear of wheat. Wheat appears in the Cecil coat of arms. In the middle of the frontispiece we are told we see an olive tree. Burghley apparently grew olive trees. But the problem with this interpretation (which is the means by which Griffiths begins to identify the three other figures in the frontispiece) is that it selectively chooses from only a few of the vast array of plants seen in the whole picture. And with so many plants, latin names, visual puns and supposed meanings to choose from, it's possible to make up just about any theory, if you believe that the frontispiece is indeed some giant 'Tudor code' waiting to be cracked.

The trouble is, there is no firm evidence whatsoever that the frontispiece was meant to be interpreted as a 'code'. Because Griffiths believes it to be a code, we are asked to assume that it is. Instead, there are far simpler interpretations, as we shall see. It is true that the Elizabethans loved imagery with symbols and puzzles, but generally these were there to support the illiterate interpret such images, and not to be on the level of an ultra-fiendish Sudoku, unsolveable for 400 years. If there was just one contemporary record of someone thinking Gerard's frontispiece was such a code, Griffiths would be on firmer ground. But there is not, and the fact that the later edition of Gerard's book contains a similar design, but with the figures specifically identified, makes it far more likely that the traditional interpretation of the frontispiece is correct.

But - putting aside the question of whether the four figures are in fact identifiable Elizabethans - let's move onto the evidence which Griffiths says identifies the fourth figure as Shakespeare.

The main evidence is in two parts. First, the 'code' in the armorial shield beneath the fourth man (above). And second the flowers and plants that the fourth man is holding. Both elements are, to my mind, rather fanciful.

The shield contains, as Griffiths points out, what is known as a 'sign of four', due to the number '4' you can see at the top. These were commonly used, in this field at least, as printers' marks; identifiable sequences of letters, puns or numbers arranged in a symbol, which acted as a sort of trademark or signature. The below print from the British Museum has other examples of English printers' marks - as you can see, some are very close to the symbol in the frontispiece.

In the case of the Frontispiece, the sign has traditionally been interpreted as the printer's mark of John Norton, hence the 'N', the 'OR', the 'I' (for 'J') etc. As Ames 'Typographical Antiquities' says in 1749*;

'This curious Folio has the mark of William and John Norton together in a cypher [...]'

John Norton had been apprenticed to his uncle William Norton, also a printer. Though William Norton died in 1593, I suppose it is conceivable that at this stage in his career he retained a 'W' in the mark, hence the 'W' at the bottom of the symbol. Either way, we know little about how these printers and publishers identified themselves - certainly, not enough for us to be able to simply accept Mr Griffith's assertion that the symbol is nothing to do with a printer at all, even though it looks like it is.

Instead, Griffiths contends that the symbol is an elaborate code. Here is the relevant passage from his essay in Country Life:

The numeral in genuine specimens of the Sign of Four was always an unambiguous figure 4 - no messing with the hallowed symbol. But Rogers had turned this example into a roughly equilateral triangle with the number's stalk running down its midline. I wondered if it might, in part, be a rebus. I had a triangle atop a stalk - an arrow. Attached to it was E, as close inspection and other examples of Rogers's lettering confirmed. The triangle was engraved with slight asymmetry, to convey both an arrowhead and 4. Clearly, the numeral was key, but how in this context to read it? I decided to try Latin.

Quater is Latin for four in the adverbial sense of 'four times'. It was also a good Elizabethan term for a four in cards and similar contexts [...] Then this is quat., a standard abbreviation for quattor, 'four', which Gerard and his peers often used in recipes for herbal medicines [...]

The device is asking us to add the E linked to the 4 to either quater or quat. The first produces the infinitive of the Latin verb quatio; quatere, meaning 'to shake'. The second produces the imperative; quate, 'shake!'. The rebus is not an arrow, but a spear. The 'Fourth Man' [...] is William Shakespeare'.

On this piece of precarious symbology the whole thesis stands. And I'm afraid it seems to me to be bordering on the ridiculous. I have every respect for Mr Griffiths' integrity and expertise in horticulture. But he is asking us to accept too much here. First, that the symbol is not a printer's mark for 'Norton', as has been previously believed, and which it looks like. Second, that the '4' is some kind of strange and hitherto unnoticed Latin clue. Third, that we have to conjugate this Latin clue in a convaluted manner (why must we add an 'E' from the symbol, and not say the 'N'?). Fourthly that somewhere in this array of lines and letters is a spear. And fifthly, that we must intepret the first part of Shakespeare's name in Latin, but the last part in English. Why?

But there's more. Griffiths asserts that the 'OR' is a reference to Shakespeare's father's new coat of arms, which was on a gold shield. The Latin for gold is 'Or'. And then we move onto the flowers that the fourth man holds or is standing near to. Some of these crop up in Shakespeare's plays and sonnets, which I suppose is not unusual given his enormous output. Unfortunately for Griffiths' theory there is one plant, the Gladiolus italicus, which does not appear to have any connection with Shakespeare. But no matter! For Griffiths says he has discovered a previously unknown work by Shakespeare - which does indeed contain a reference to this plant.

By now we are of course really pushing at the boundaries of credulity. But to demonstrate Griffiths apparent misunderstanding of visual imagery in the 16th Century, the Country Life essay then treats us to a visual comparison between the head of the 'fourth man', and two other known portraits of Shakespeare, the Droeshout engraving and the memorial bust at Stratford. Griffiths maintains that the 'fourth man' shows a 'strabismus', or squint, in the left eye, and that this can be seen in the bust and Droeshout engraving. The 'fourth man', says Griffiths:

[...] corresponds well to the face in the Stratford monument, allowing for the ten year difference in their subject's ages and for damage to the effigy's nose - and both correspond to the Fourth Man, allowing that he is only 33 years old and has much hair to lose. All three likenesses exhibit the same cranial proportions, facial structure and details such as fine, arching eyebrows, narrow, prolonged earlobes and strabismus of the left eye.'

Come on. The 'fourth man' in the Gerard frontispiece is just a tiny print, from which none of the above physical features can be certainly identified. As with the whole of Griffiths' argument, it seems to be little more than (well intentioned) wishful thinking. I'm sure that with enough time, you could probably identify any of the figures in the frontispiece as any famous Elizabethan; a Latin clue here, a floral symbol here, and a blurry likeness - hey presto, there's - I dunno - Sir Walter Raleigh. Didn't he go to the Americas to find gold - aha, the 'Or'! And there's a 'W' in the symbol, for Walter! The 'fourth man' also has a moustache, like Walter! And he's holding a cob of American maize! Etc. etc.

So it seems to me that there is nothing in the Griffiths' theory that allows us to say, as Country Life attests, 'here is Shakespeare, drawn from the life'. Even if all that Mr Griffiths says were true, where then is the evidence - as opposed to a theory - that Shakespeare actually sat down to William Rogers, the engraver, for a life portrait, which resulted in little more than a doodle? There is none. Why would Rogers not pass down to us some other, more elaborate portrait of Shakespeare, if he was treated to a life sitting? It is yet more wishful thinking. I cannot quite believe that Country Life has embraced all this so enthusiastically.

And inevitably, the story has flown around the world's media - 'the true face of Shakespeare found at last!'. So now we have yet another non-Shakespeare portrait to contend with. Indeed, some papers are illustrating the latest story with the 'Cobbe' portrait as the 'true' Shakespeare.

Anyway, the nit-picking naysayers like me are now lining up. I hope Mr Griffiths doesn't take it personally. Here's Jonathan Jones in the Guardian doubting the new identification. And Griffiths' theory has already been questioned already by some Shakespeare scholars, as reported here:

Professor Michael Dobson, director of the Shakespeare Institute at the University of Birmingham, dismissed the picture, even saying that he ‘wasn’t sure that Country Life’s reputation will recover.’

‘One has seen so many claims on Shakespeare based on somebody claiming to crack a code,’ he said.

‘I can’t imagine any reason why Shakespeare would be in a botany textbook. It’s a lovely picture.

‘It’s nice that people are so fond of Shakespeare that they see him everywhere, even in the pages of a botany textbook. But it’s hallucination.’

Paul Edmondson, head of research and knowledge for the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, added: ‘I see there a figure who is dressed like a Classical poet, with a green bay on his head, but that doesn’t make him Shakespeare.’

In his defence, Mr Griffiths has said that the theory must be correct, because:

“What we have here is a series of incontrovertible facts. I dare say people will think: ‘Oh no. it’s not him.’ But there is no other construction that can be placed on these facts. It is not an assumption that he is Shakespeare, it is algebra ... it is an equation.”

I won't here try to set out everything in Griffiths case - if you're interested in the details, then you need to read the full 20 pages of his argument in Country Life. And most importantly, let me know what you think!

Update - here's someone who thinks the 'fourth man' is actually Francis Drake. It probably isn't - but the point is the 'clues', if interpreted differently, allow you to make a claim that it is.

Update II - Shakespeare Magazine wonders (on Twitter) is this might be the great man too:

Update III - Mark Griffiths has a lengthy response to the point about the symbol beneath the 'fourth man' being a printer's mark, here on the Country Life website. The post is titled 'more evidence', but in fact it's just a rebuttal. He goes into a long explanation of why it cannot be a Norton mark, because he has looked at all the other known examples, and it doesn't match. But of course, he has only looked at those which survive, and which are known about.

And he also assures us that the '4' in the symbol is not a real '4', but a triangle. (A quick look at the printers' marks I reproduced above shows - to me at least - that the '4' could be arranged pretty much any way you liked.) And nor, says Griffiths, is the 'N' actually an 'N', because "William Rogers was remarkably consistent with N: he always engraved its diagonal with a heavier line than its verticals, and he would certainly have done so here had it been the all-important initial letter of Norton." So there you have it - we can discount the 'N' standing for Norton, because it's not quite the right 'N'. Instead, it must be something to do with a Latin imperative clue that nobody has ever noticed before - because that's the way William Rogers always did his special Tudor code 'N's.

At every turn, Mr Griffiths has a cunning explanation as to why the clues fit his interpretation, but not everyone else's.

Update IV - in the post above, I suggested, entirely in jest, that the 'fourth man' might in fact be Sir Walter Raleigh. Two historians have, however, wondered if it might be; the Shakespeare scholar Stanley Wells (here), and (here) Raleigh's biographer Mathew Lyons. Personally, I don't think the 'fourth man' is anyone, merely a generic Roman-esque figure. The art historian, Mark Gray alerts me (via Twitter) to another plant book also published in Frankfurt in 1598, which has a very similar frontispiece, though it is clear that the figures are classical ones.

Anyway, Stanley Wells' view of Griffiths methodology is rather damning; he calls the whole code thing 'inherently improbable'. And as to the claim that Griffiths has found a whole new Shakespeare play, well:

In fact the ‘play’, identified in the article, is a really rather boring speech of welcome delivered by a hermit along with a dialogue between a gardener and a molecatcher, both long known to scholars, and both of unknown authorship, which formed part of an entertainment given before Queen Elizabeth I at Theobalds in May 1591.

Mathew Taylor makes an entertaining allusion to Griffiths' midsummer moment of revelation:

Griffiths begins his piece with the revelation that he made the discovery on Midsummer’s Night. He might have paused at some point to reflect that if Shakespearean comedy teaches us anything, it’s that midsummer night is when hobgoblins and sprites famously plant foolish conceits in human heads to make them seem ridiculous in the morning.

Update V - a reader writes:

My feeling about it is that even if it could be shown to be an image of Shakespeare, it is clearly a generic 'heroic man' figure and would be of very limited, if any, value as a true portrait of the man. We know all too well that it is a loosing game to say - this man looks like that man only 10 years younger - so Griffiths's arguments that the 'facial structure' and 'cranial proportions' match the Stratford monument add nothing useful to his case.

Another reader, Dr Alexander Marr of the University of Cambridge, kindly alerts us to a similar-looking merchant's symbol in the Judde Memorial portrait (detail below).

Update VI - the valiant Mr Griffiths has had yet another go at defending his theories on the Country Life website, which now resembles a Shakespeare portrait blog.

First, he rejects any connection whatsoever between the first 1598 frontispiece to the Herball, and the second, published in 1633 (and reproduced above, and here). The clear identification of two figures as Theophratus and Dioscorides in the second frontispiece does not, Griffiths says, mean that the very similar looking, generic figures in the first frontispiece were the same figures:

"[The editor of the second edition], Thomas Johnson, despised Gerard and did everything in his power to distance his 1633 edition from that of 1597/98. This included suppressing many of the poetic translations in which Gerard and Shakespeare had collaborated and replacing the original title page with a wholly new design.

The 1597 Rogers engraving was too frivolous for Johnson’s tastes and it reflected a collaboration in which he’d played no part. He knew that the four men it portrayed had been alive and active not long ago. Now, they were yesterday’s men, and they had to go. In commissioning the new title page, Johnson reverted to the convention that Rogers had subverted. It does indeed show Dioscorides, in correct Roman dress and wearing no laurel wreath. In identity, iconography, portrayal and purpose, this image of Dioscorides has no connection whatsoever to the Fourth Man."

This makes no sense at all. And in any case, critics of Mr Griffiths' theory like me are not saying that the 'fourth man' in the first frontispiece is Dioscorides, we're just saying it's a classical figure, and not Shakespeare. And if the editor of the second edition despised Gerard so much, why did he put a portrait of him on the second edition's frontispiece? Finally, how can Shakespeare be considered 'yesterday's man' in 1633? Griffiths is, again, simply presenting his theories as fact, asserting motives on the part of people who lived 400 years ago, and for which we have no proof.

Mr Griffiths also makes a leap of logic in his latest piece, saying that the frontispiece contains an 'unquestionable portrait of Lord Burghley'. But the Burghley identification is really very questionable, and relies, I would say, on the same flawed interpretation of 'clues' in the frontispiece that allows Griffiths to believe that Shakespeare is the 'fourth man'.

And nor does Mr Griffiths answer any critics who claim that the relationship between Burghley and Shakespeare was not nearly as close as he believes it to be (and has to in order to make his theories work).

What Griffiths really needs to demonstrate - but it appears cannot - is some actual proof that Rogers' engraving, and the clues it contains therein, were intended to be a solveable riddle. We need just one jot of contemporary evidence that Rogers or Gerard, or even the printer John Norton, were in the habit of making puzzles that looked extremely like printers' marks, and were designed to be solved by mixing Latin with English symbology. If Mr Griffiths produces a rare 1598 edition of 'Ye Tudor Puzzler - curious Trickes for all ye Trippes', then he'll make some progress.

Update VIII - more AHN on this here.

*I'm grateful to John Overholt of Harvard University for drawing this to my attention via Twitter.

Sleeper Alert!

April 9 2015

Image of Sleeper Alert!

Picture: The Cobbs Auctioneers

This picture was up for sale in the US over the weekend, catalogued as 'School of Veronese', and with an estimate of $2,000-$4,000. The subject is Sultan Bajazid I. It made $390,000!

More images and details here.

Update - a reader alerts me to the original, byVeronese (below), which is in the Collection Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, in Munich. The condition of the picture at auction is such that I wouldn't like to be sure of hazarding an attribution. But it certainly looks like a brave purchase.

Castle Howard pictures on the block

March 30 2015

Image of Castle Howard pictures on the block

Picture: Castle Howard

The trustees of Castle Howard have consigned up to £10m worth of art to Sotheby's for sale. Among the pictures is the above 'Studio of Holbein' portrait of the portly and aged Henry VIII, in which he is seen holding a staff. It has an upper estimate of £1.2m. 

There's also a Bernardo Bellotto on offer. I would link to the Sotheby's press release, but there's some sort of tedious registration form for access to that.

More here in The Guardian. I didn't know that there were now two Howard brothers in charge of the house. Apparently they live in seperate wings. 

Update - here is the full Sotheby's press release.

Update II - a reader writes:

A big house with increasingly little to see in it.  What after the dispersals at the start of the 20th century, in the 1940s – including Boston’s superb Canaletto – and, relatively recently, the Guercino and Bernini to Edinburgh and the great Gentileschi painted for The Queen’s House now on loan to the National Gallery.

Also, I wonder if the Castle Howard trust will try and claim these sales at 0% Capital Gains Tax, following their victory against the UK government over a similar case

Re-framing Titian (ctd.)

February 19 2015

Image of Re-framing Titian (ctd.)

Picture: National Gallery

The National Gallery's campaign to buy a new frame for the above picture by Titian has been a success. Hurrah. The £27,000 target was the NG's first online fundraising initiative. Well done to all involved. Now do more.

New Veronese drawing discovered? (ctd.)

February 3 2015

Image of New Veronese drawing discovered? (ctd.)

Picture: The Saleroom

A quick update on a 'sleeper' story I featured last year. The above drawing came up for sale in the shires here in the UK catalogued as 'attributed to Veronese', and made £15,500. 

At the time, a sharp-eyed reader (who underbid it) wrote in to say he thought it was by Jan van der Straet, and related to an engraving in the British Museum. Well, he was right, for now the picture has been acquired by the Metropolitan Museum in New York, as by van der Straet. The provenance on the Met site reveals that it was acquired through the Old Master drawings dealer Katrin Bellinger.

'The flowers are all wrong'

December 10 2014

Image of 'The flowers are all wrong'

Picture: Guardian/Louvre/National Gallery

Good story in The Guardian about some new views on the attribution of Leonardo's 'Madonna of the Rocks' in the National Gallery. The attribution to Leonardo is questioned on the basis of the flowers being 'wrong', and also the geology:

“The botany in the Louvre version is perfect, showing plants that would have thrived in a moist, dark grotto,” says Ann Pizzorusso, a geologist and Renaissance art historian. “But the plants in the London version are inaccurate. Some don’t exist in nature, and others portray flowers with the wrong number of petals.”

She concludes: “It seems unlikely the same person could have portrayed rock formations so accurately in the Louvre work and so incongruously in the National Gallery one – especially considering Leonardo’s faithfulness to nature. There is absolutely nothing in his body of work that is not true to nature.

Her conclusions are supported by John Grimshaw, a leading horticulturalist, who is struck by the realism of the Louvre painting, unlike the National Gallery version. In the French painting, he can easily identify iris, polemonium and aquilegia. He says: “There’s a very recognisable iris, a Jacob’s Ladder, a nice little palm tree, all sorts of well-observed bits of vegetation there – and proper plants.”

In my review of the Leonardo exhibition in London in 2012 I wrote about the relative weaknesses of the London picture compared to the Paris one, but based purely on a visual reading of the two paintings hung close together. So I find these latest observations very interesting. I can well believe that the plants in the London version might have been painted by someone without Leonardo's attention to detail.

Update - a reader who I know has a good 'eye' writes:

This argument against the NG painting sounds quite plausible.

It might be condition, but the Louvre Christ child's profile is better too - the hint that the face is turned away a fraction, exactly the sort of thing that rarely translates into copies. 

Mona Lisa theory no. 742

December 3 2014

Image of Mona Lisa theory no. 742

Picture: BG

She was a chinese slave who was Leonardo's mother. Or something like that. More here

Update - a reader writes:

Ah, but the individual numerals of 742 add to 13, which is the unlucky number of Christ and the apostles, including Judas, at the last Supper, and Leonardo's is the most famous painting of the Last Supper, so Mona Lisa theory number 742 must be true!!

O.

M.

G!

Caravaggio's lost 'Card Sharps'?

October 27 2014

Image of Caravaggio's lost 'Card Sharps'?

Picture: The Art Newspaper

As the old saying goes, Caravaggio attribution stories are like London buses...

Hot on the heels of last week's news that Caravaggio scholar Mina Gregori has, she claims, found Caravaggio's lost 'Penitent Magdalene', we have today another Caravaggio attribution case, this time in the High Court in London.

Regular readers will probably be familiar with the tale of a disputed version of Caravaggio's 'Card Sharps', (above) which sold at Sotheby's in London for £42,000 in 2006 as 'Follower of Caravaggio'. It was bought by the renowned collector and Caravaggio scholar, the late Sir Denis Mahon, who promptly declared that it was in fact by Caravaggio himself, being an autograph replica of a picture in the Kimbell Art Museum in Texas. As such, it would be worth in the region of £10m. Mahon's opinion was endorsed by Mina Gregori.

Sotheby's, however, stuck to their guns, and said that the picture absolutely wasn't by Caravaggio, and cited their own experts. Vested interests all round, I hear you say...

Today, a long-threatened court case about the picture begins in the High Court. The vendor in 2006, Lancelot Thwaytes, is suing Sotheby's, claiming that they should have spotted the fact that it was by Caravaggio. He wants compensation to reflect the fact that he did in fact own a Caravaggio.

The case promises to be a battle of the experts, reports the Independent:

Sotheby’s has robustly countered the claims and said that the version it sold was “clearly inferior” in quality to the original painting in the Texas gallery. In the 2006 sale catalogue, Sotheby’s listed it as being by a “follower of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio”.

“The Kimbell Cardsharps was painted by Caravaggio with the striking virtuosity and realism for which his early works are famous,” according to papers filed by the auction house. “The quality of execution on display in the painting falls far short of the Kimbell original.”

 

It said that it would not have consulted any of the experts cited by Mr Thwaytes as leading Caravaggio scholars and said that its own team was competent to judge that it was a copy.

The experts cited by Mr Thwaytes included Mina Gregori, an author of several books on Caravaggio, who claimed last week to have solved a centuries-old mystery by identifying a previously unknown work in a private collection as a Caravaggio. Other experts Mr Thwaytes claims have backed the painting as a genuine Caravaggio include the director of the Vatican Museums, Antonio Paolucci.

So who is right? If the court decides against the attribution, should we view this as context for Mina Gregori's recent Magdalene discovery? If Sotheby's loses, what does it mean for their reputation?

Either way, I feel rather sorry for the judges. Attribution is a notoriously difficult thing to prove in a court of law, for judges and juries are of often wholly unfamiliar with the rubric of art history, to say nothing of connoisseurship.* Other factors can come to the fore. For example, some readers may be familiar with the story of Joseph Duveen losing a libel case in the United States, when he said that a copy of Leonardo's 'La Belle Ferroniere' was not by Leonardo, despite the fact that he was absolutely right. It seems the jury's decision was influenced by a stuffy English art dealer criticising the plucky US owner. 

Anyway, this particular case throws up all sorts of related questions. For example, when Sir Denis Mahon died, his Card Sharps must have posed all difficulties for his heir, since for inheritance tax purposes it was 'worth' millions. And yet, having potentially paid millions in tax, it is likely that the heir might have found the picture impossible to sell, for it may be that 'the market's' view would be that the picture is not by Caravaggio. Indeed, is it possible that fellow scholars endorsed Mahon's attribution largely out of feelings of friendship? Mahon was a giant of the art world, but also at that time an aged collector who, it turns out, was asset rich (in terms of the pictures he had very generously promised to bequeath to the National Gallery and other institutions) but cash poor. And so on and so forth. 

By the way, if readers detect an unusual reticence in any of the above, it's mainly because I don't want to be called as a witness...

*At this point, of course, critics of connoisseurship say - 'Aha! Attribution by connoisseurship is always impossible to prove'. To which the answer is... well, I haven't got time.

Titian's toes

October 15 2014

Image of Titian's toes

Picture: Museo Prado

One of the reasons I go on about connoisseurship so much is that it's not just about working out who painted what, but knowing how they might have painted it. This is particularly important for conservators. Putting a damaged picture back together is not just a technical exercise in joining up the dots - that is, filling in the holes, retouching some abrasion - but having an insight into how a painter would have approached a certain area.

Here is an example of a work by Titian which has been ever so slightly misunderstood during conservation. Titian, like most of his Venetian colleagues, was an artist who liked to work quite freely on the canvas, and as a result you get a lot of changes, or as the arty lingo calls them, pentimenti, in his paintings.

In the picture above, we see a foot from his Danaeë receiving the Golden Rain in the Prado. Clearly, Titian would never have let such wonky toes leave his studio, even if they were painted by an assistant. So what's happened? As you can see from the image, there is a faint outline of an earlier, slightly lower position of the foot - it's that differently coloured 'halo' between the white sheet and the dark outline of the base of the foot. At some point in the past, the picture has been overcleaned, exposing this alteration, and the ends of the toes as they were originally drawn in. And then, probably at a later date, a conservator has got into a muddle as to where each of the toes should end. As a result, two toes look unnaturally long, and the foot looks out of balance. Small errors like this can then make us question the whole painting. 

I recently went to see a conservator with a view to seeing if they could clean one of my pictures. But when I heard that they didn't know who painted a (reasonably well known) portrait they were already working on (which belonged to a museum), I made my excuses and left. Some conservators approach pictures as a purely technical exercise, with an identikit, one-size-fits-all approach. But of course different artists used different techniques, and it is essential to know these things when cleaning a picture - some pigments and techniques are much more vulnerable to solvents than others, for example. And as Titian's toes show us, there needs to be and element of artistry involved too, when it comes to re-touching. 

Moroni - 'unsung genius' of the Renaissance

August 4 2014

Image of Moroni - 'unsung genius' of the Renaissance

Picture: RA

I haven't noted that the Royal Academy is putting on an exhibition on Giovanni Battista Moroni, whom it's billing as the 'unsung genius of Renaissance portraiture'. Here's the blurb:

Giovanni Battista Moroni was one of the greatest portraitists of 16th-century Italy. Famed for his gift for capturing the exact likeness of his sitters, he created portraits that are as penetrating and powerful now as they were more than 400 years ago. You will be transfixed by their psychological depth and immediacy.

This is the first comprehensive exhibition of the artist’s work in the U.K. We have selected not only his remarkable portraits but also his lesser known religious works, which will be shown side by side. Among them will be never-before exhibited altarpieces from the churches of Bergamo and paintings made for private devotion that reflect the new religious ideals of his time.

Moroni’s portraits depict the people of the world and time in which he lived, from elegant men and women of high society shown in glittering dress to members of the middle class engaged in their trade. One such work is The Tailor, as highly praised in its time as it is now (“revolutionary” - Jonathan Jones, The Guardian). What all of his works share is a startling naturalism and vitality, rarely matched by other artists of the period and anticipating the realistic style of Caravaggio and, later, Manet.

Encompassing his entire career, this exhibition is a long overdue celebration of an artist ahead of his time and ripe for rediscovery.

I'm very much looking forward to this. Of course, there was a time when Moroni was very much 'sung', as the National Gallery's superfluity of Moroni portraits attests (they have 11, which were all acquired between 1862 and 1916).

Update - a reader writes:

What twaddle from the RA blurb and Jonathan Jones [in a 2007 article in The Guardian, from which the RA has adopted as a flagbearing quote] - there really has never been a time when Moroni was forgotten or undervalued.  I have a catalogue of an exhibition of Moroni's works - mostly portraits - held at the National Gallery in the 1970s and there was a sizable group in the RA's own Genius of Venice show in the 1980s. And as for being a precusor to Caravaggio, Moroni was only one of a number of artists working in a realist manner in Northern Italy and the Veneto. It has to be said though, his religious works have tended to be overshadowed. And the Tuccia in the National Gallery is a truly dreadful thing.

Update II - here's more context on the National's Moroni acquisition streak from Neil Jeffares. 

A new Holbein in Pittsburgh?

June 29 2014

Image of A new Holbein in Pittsburgh?

Picture: CMOA

They've broken out the acetone at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh for a new exhibition, Faked, Forgotten, Found. A previously 'tarted up' portrait of Isabella de Cosimo de Medici (below) has been making the headlines (e.g., in the Daily Mail here), but more interesting I think is the above portrait of Lord Bergavenny (1469-1535). Long thought to be a fake 'Holbein', due to rancid-looking later overpaint in the background, new analysis has revealed under-drawing and a much earlier background (left hand top corner) perhaps painted with smalt. I'm going to ask the CMOA for an image of this under-drawing (often crucial in Holbein attributions, as we're looking for signs of originality), and will report back if I get one. In the meantime, you can see a high-res image of the partially cleaned picture here. No panel painting by Holbein of Bergavenny is known. There is a drawing of the same sitter by Holbein at Wilton house, image here, and a miniature is also known.

Update - the CMOA have very kindly sent me this IR photo. 

Update II - a painter writes:

The partially cleaned ' School of Holbein' portrait of Lord Bergavenny is definitely based on the Wilton drawing or an exact copy of it, because it reproduces a slight error of draughtsmanship in the original drawing. There is also a miniature based on the same drawing, claimed to be by Holbein.

One of the characteristics of Holbein's (alleged) use of a form of Camera lucida (like Ingres) is the occasional misplacement of  one of the eyes, usually the one furthest from the picture plane. This can be caused by the sitter slightly changing the angle of his/her head, during the creation of the drawing.

This phenomenom can seen very clearly in the painting of Jane Seymour where her right eye (further from the picture plane) appears larger than the nearer, left eye. Surprisingly this has been transferred, apparently unnoticed by Holbein, from drawing to painting.

In the case of Bergavenny, the sitter's left eye in the Wilton drawing is very slightly too high up, in relation to the nearer eye, which Holbein will have drawn first and this has been reproduced in the painting, now being cleaned.. 

In other drawings, the sitter has turned slightly towards Holbein so one sees more of the eye than the strict rules of perspective  allow-( I believe this is what happened with Jane Seymour). 

The drawing looks immensely more powerful than the painting in its present state and I much look forward to seeing if it improves with cleaning.

I don't buy the camera lucida theory myself.

This is not Christopher Marlowe

June 23 2014

Image of This is not Christopher Marlowe

Picture: Corpus Christi College, Cambridge

So says the historian and Marlowe scholar Dr. Peter Roberts, who has deduced that the age of the sitter and the flamboyance of the clothing don't work for the famous playwright (The Times reports). Nor, says Roberts, is it likely that Marlowe would have commissioned a portrait.

To be honest, the clothing and the 'he wouldn't have sat' theories don't really mean much. How do we really know what he wore, or who might have wanted his portrait? But the age thing is obviously important.

The 'Aetatis Suae' in portraits is often mistakenly taken to be mean the age - in this case 21 meaning he was aged 21. In fact it means he was 'in his 21st year', and so aged 20 in the modern sense. Marlowe was baptised (says says the DNB) on 26th February 1564, and we don't know exactly when he was born. But in those days babies were generally baptised very soon after birth. In relation to the portrait, therefore, you might think there is still a two month period at the beginning of 1585 (January and February) when Marlowe would have been 'Aetatis Suae 21'.

However, you must remember that we're dealing with a different calendar here, when the new year, confusingly, began on 25th March (Lady Day). We still operate more or less to this 'Old Style' in our business and financial calendar. So Marlowe's baptism actually took place in February 1563 according to the Elizabethan's style of dating, and the date in the picture must mean that it was painted after 25th March 1585 in the New Style. Therefore, that two month window of opportunity when Marlowe might have been in his 21st year in early 1585 no longer exists. This analysis comes with the caveat that working out dates like this makes my brain hurt, and I may well have got it all wrong (there was no further information in The Times).

In any case, there has always been little proof for the identification of the portrait as Marlowe, except that it was found (in seemingly the most curious circumstances) in 1952 at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, where Marlowe went, and that 1585 was the year Marlowe received his degree.

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