The 20 x 18in (51 x 45.5cm) oil on canvas, on sale from an anonymous source by private treaty, is claimed to be the only signed and dated picture of the playwright created in his lifetime. Inscribed in gold at the top of the picture are Peake’s RP signature mark, the date and the sitter’s age of 44 – Shakespeare’s own in 1608.
It last appeared on the open market in 1975 when it went under the hammer at Christie’s during the sale of contents at Swinton Hall, Masham in Yorkshire (at which time the signature was obscured by the position of the inner frame and the painting was ascribed to ‘Van Somer’). It has since been in private ownership, coming to its current owner in 2014.
An inner frame, thought to date to the late 18th or early 19th century, asserts the sitter’s identity as Shakespeare.
But could it really be the Bard?
What does seem certain is that this is a period picture created and owned by those with links to the poet.
In 2016 the picture was examined by The Courtauld Institute. The inner frame was removed, uncovering the RP mark. The report concluded that the work is a period picture with minor restoration, suggesting that it had been kept in the same location for many years. It was subsequently cleaned.
Further research efforts were led by Duncan Phillips, an art and antiques writer, researcher, PR professional and dealer, who has compiled a dossier that aims to support the identity of the sitter as Shakespeare.
In the world of alleged Shakespeare ‘portraiture’, evidence is scant. Art history is littered with posthumous portraits, misidentifications, forgeries and hopeful attributions.
Notable exceptions are the Droeshout portrait, an engraving used as the title-page of the First Folio, published in 1623. This likeness was praised by Ben Johnson in the Folio’s introductory poem.
Also, a funerary monument in Stratford-upon-Avon is believed to have been commissioned by Shakespeare’s son-in-law within six years of his death.
Otherwise, all images of the Bard are linked to him through circumstantial – if scholarly – evidence and surmise, including the National Portrait Gallery’s Chandos portrait.
Outside scholars have yet to weigh in on the Peake portrait. However, supporting evidence for it hangs on several points.
Shakespeare and Peake were linked by their shared geography and their professions. Peake worked for the Office of Revels in the building where several of Shakespeare’s plays were rehearsed and performed during the same years. Both men were also based around Holborn Conduit. Martin Droeshout, who made the First Folio image, had works printed by William Peake, Robert’s son. In the portrait itself, similarities in the dress and left eye have been compared between the Droeshout and Peake portraits.
Finally, the portrait seems to have long resided with the Danby family, owners of Swinton Hall, where the painting hung until 1975.
The lives of the 16th century Danbys and Shakespeare overlapped at points, though the picture is thought to have been added to the family collection by William Danby (1752-1833), who enlarged the family’s painting collection and seems to have been a Shakespeare enthusiast. A number of frames were made during his ownership of the house in 1795. The inner frame of the Peake portrait may have been among them.
With a £10m price tag, the picture is unlikely to land in a national museum. However, the owner has indicated a wish that it will stay in the country.
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