Will cleaning of Chandos Portrait reveal what Shakespeare really looked like?

A portrait of William Shakespeare which was the first ever painting donated to London’s National Portrait Gallery could hold the key to knowing what the Bard actually looked like.

The Chandos Portrait was painted circa 1600-1610 possibly by John Taylor, an important member of the Painter-Stainers’ Company who was thought to be a friend of the celebrated dramatist and poet. Though there are several Shakespeare portraits in existence it is considered the painting which is most likely to portray the Bard from life. Now the trustees of the National Portrait Gallery are in discussion over whether to allow the work to be cleaned, a proposal which was considered at a seminar with outside specialists

Displayed in the Duke’s Theatre in London in the 1660s, the painting was subjected to several attempts to clean it in the 17th and 18th centuries. In 1789 it was acquired by the Duke of Chandos after whom the portrait is named and arrived at the National Portrait Gallery on its formation in 1856. Since first entering the gallery no extensive conservation work has been undertaken on it. With only a thin layer of paint remaining, the National Portrait Gallery’s curatorial director, Tanya Cooper, described the work as now “almost a relic”.

Supporters of the conservation proposal believe cleaning the portrait may reveal an even more accurate depiction of Shakespeare hidden under later additions to the painting. During early restoration work, the Bard’s beard and hair were lengthened and retouches made to his forehead, which have now discoloured. The deterioration of the old varnish has also given the work a dark yellow colour. If conservation work proceeds, the varnish would be removed but the question remains as to how to treat the later additions.

The trustees of the National Portrait Gallery are expected to reach a final decision on the proposal next year.

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