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Of all the history we know about William Shakespeare and what it was like to live in turn of the 17th century England, one of the hardest things to know for sure about the bard is what he looked like. There are only two verified portraits of William Shakespeare, one is the bust available at his funerary monument in Stratford Upon Avon, and the other is known as the Droeshout portrait, which is an engraving on the title page of the First Folio that was published in 1623. Aside from these two depictions, there have been at least 9 paintings that claimed to be life-like representations of William Shakespeare, all of which were hotly contested, and a few that were outright disproven. One painting, however, has risen to the top through rigorous investigation as a contender for another verified portrait of the bard and it’s known as the Danby Portrait. The Danby portrait was owned by the Danby family for years, until it was sold by Christie’s in a house contents sale in 1975. At that time the painting was misattributed and has since been shown to be a painting by Robert Peake, a professional artist from Shakespeare’s lifetime who not only knew about William Shakespeare, but actually worked with him directly in theater. Our guest this week, Duncan Phillips, is the art gallery owner who recently displayed the Danby Portrait, and he joins us to share about the history of the Danby Portrait, it’s connections to Shakespeare, and the recent evidence that’s been uncovered that suggests the portrait is not only of William Shakespeare, but that it was likely painted from life.
Duncan Phillips has a background in education and journalism. He has worked in the art and antiques market since the early 1980’s. During that time, Duncan has been a regular writer and commentator on the art market, a researcher and occasional buyer and seller of paintings. In addition, he has worked extensively in communications, providing marketing support to major art and antiques fairs in the UK and overseas. Among the publications Duncan has contributed to include The Antique Dealer & Collectors Guide, The World of Antiques, Antiques Trade Gazette, The Western Daily Press, The Daily Express, Business AM, The Birmingham Post, The Glasgow Herald and The Scotsman. He has spoken on numerous TV and radio programmes. In recent years, he has been approached to provide research on several projects including the history of this newly revealed portrait of Shakespeare.
Read More about Duncan Phillips and his work here
BA (Hons) English & History.
Cert. Of Education (qualified teacher 12-18s)
With a background in education and journalism, Duncan Phillips has worked in the art and antiques market since the early 1980’s. During that time, Duncan has been a regular writer and commentator on the art market, a researcher and occasional buyer and seller of paintings. In addition, he has worked extensively in communications, providing marketing support to major art and antiques fairs in the UK and overseas.
Among the publications Duncan has contributed to include The Antique Dealer & Collectors Guide, The World of Antiques, Antiques Trade Gazette, The Western Daily Press, The Daily Express, Business AM, The Birmingham Post, The Glasgow Herald and The Scotsman. He has spoken on numerous TV and radio programmes.
In recent years, he has been approached to provide research on several projects including the history of this newly revealed portrait of Shakespeare.
A few months before Covid arrived, Duncan was approached by a close friend in the art trade to research the history of a painting. The friend was a collector and occasional dealer and had been bequeathed the Shakespeare painting from another collector who had passed away a few years prior. With the pandemic making much more time available away from life’s daily tasks, the investigation began.
I’ll be asking Duncan Phillips about:
- Why is the Danby Portrait only now being investigated as a potential portrait of the real William Shakespeare—where has the painting been all this time?
- What tests have been done on the painting itself to test things like the pigment to determine if the painting dates to within Shakespeare’s lifetime? And what did those tests discover?
- In 1608, William Shakespeare was at the height of his celebrity in England, does his status lend credibility to the idea that the Peakes would have wanted to paint Shakespeare’s portrait?
- …and more!
Resources Recommended by Our Guest
Additional Links That May Be Of Interest:
Shakespeare, Serlio, and Giulio Romano (JSTOR article)
Giulio Romano by Manfredo Tafuri (Cambridge book page)
The Danby Portrait Hung in Swithon Hall for Centuries
It has long been said by scholars of Shakespeare that they expected to find, one fateful day, that a portrait of William Shakespeare would be discovered in some family estate, having hung their for centuries unnoticed by the world at large. One such family had one such portrait and Duncan Phillips believes we’ve finally uncovered a painting from life of the bard.
In a clearance sale of the Hall, the painting was listed in a Christie’s catalog. Duncan describes the painting for us in detail:
Performing Tests to Determine Authenticity
In order to determine if the painting was legitimately a portrait of the actual William Shakespeare, tests needed to be performed on the painting to establish the age of the painting, the date the work was done, and to try and verify the artists to who painted it. Duncan describes how all of these tests were done:
About the Danby family who owned the painting
The family who owned the painting of William Shakespeare are named Danby, hence the title of “The Danby Portrait” for this work of art. Duncan describes the patriarch of the family, William Danby, as having been an avid collector of art pieces, having many works of art worth several thousand pounds in his collection.
Many details about a painting’s origins and attribution can be found behind the frame that is used to house the artwork later. The Danby portrait was no different. In order to establish a year and an artist, the conservationists looked behind the frame. Once the frame was removed from the painting, there were several details discovered behind the frame that provide evidence towards this painting being of William Shakespeare.
Who was Robert Peake, the artist?
The Danby portrait is both signed and dated. It is listed as having been completed in 1608 by Robert Peake, with a signature attributing the work to Robert Peake. Robert Peake was a high ranking artist in Shakespeare’s lifetime, with direct ties to royalty as well as to William Shakespeare directly.
Robert Peake is known to have been a painter of scenery as well, commissioned to paint the stage scenes for theaters that Shakespeare is known to have worked at, with, and for. It’s highly plausible that Robert Peake would have known Shakespeare professionally, working with them through the King’s Men. Robert Peake very likely was witness to some of Shakespeare’s plays.
About the Peake Family Business
William Peake, and his son another Robert Peake, they ran printing presses. William Peake worked with Robert Droeshout, the man who printed the image of the first Folio of Shakespeare. It’s very likely that the Droeshout family would have used images from the Peake family for their printed engravings.
Learn more about Italian influence on theater and the role of architecture in Shakespeare’s lifetime with these related episodes from our back catalog on Patreon:
Explore the unique and often overlooked life of John Florio, how he came to be in England, and the unlikely friendship he seems to have had with Ben Jonson and William Shakespeare, is our guest Marianna Iannaconne
Explore what contraptions and engineering took place to perform feats of daring, storms, and other special effects with Frank Mohler.
Learn how things like turrets, moats, and galleries were a reflection of status quo in Shakespeare’s lifetime with Matthew Johnson.
In looking at the play, The Winter’s Tale, we see that Shakespeare was influenced by Sebastiano Serlio’s book in which he mention’s Guilio Romano’s work as a sculptor. It is a well known book featuring architecture of Italian Theater, Roman theater. Looking into the history of the publication of this book and how it would have been made available in England provides a direct link between the Peake family and William Shakespeare.
In 1608, William Shakespeare was at the height of his celebrity in England, and his status lends credibility to the idea that the Peakes would have wanted to paint Shakespeare’s portrait. Queen Anne commissioned Peake and William Peake was a celebrity portraitist. So when William Shakespeare was enjoying celebrity in London as a playwright, it only makes sense that the portraitists known for painting those kinds of portraits would have done one of the bard.
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That’s it for this week! Thank you for listening. I’m Cassidy Cash, and I hope you learn something new about the bard. I’ll see you next time!