Canadian-owned painting purported to be only life-likeness of Shakespeare changing hands

A Canadian-owned portrait of William Shakespeare that supporters claim is the only true likeness of the immortal bard painted in his lifetime is passing out of the family that's held it since it was created four centuries ago.

The Sanders portrait, as it is known, is owned by Lloyd Sullivan of Ottawa, who inherited it from his mother more than 40 years ago. It's resided in Canada since the end of the First World War.

Although details have not been finalized, the Globe and Mail reports Sullivan is selling the portrait to a Canadian family, who in turn will donate it to a Canadian public art institution for display. No price has been mentioned.

“It’s a great thing for Canada,” Sullivan told the Globe, who has spent about one million dollars researching the claim that the Sanders portrait is an authentic life image of Shakespeare.

“I’m 80. I’ve got arthritis. Everything else is okay but it’s like being crippled and I’ll be walking around with a cane all the time in the future.”

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The debate over what Shakespeare really looked like is almost as furious as the one over whether he really wrote some of the greatest works in the English language. His plays, today performed around the world in every language, including Klingon, have been attributed to everyone from Sir Francis Bacon to Christopher Marlowe and even Queen Elizabeth I.

There are a number of different images purported to be of Shakespeare, a Stratford-Upon-Avon-born actor, poet and playwright whose works were not widely published until after his death in 1616.

In fact, for a long time Shakespeare is thought to have looked like the engraved portrait by Martin Droeshout on the front of of the First Folio edition of his collected plays, published in 1623. Another image is the bust on the Shakespeare funerary monument in Holy Trinity Church, where he's buried. Both those likenesses were created after his death.

Several paintings lay claim to being of Shakespeare in life, most notably the so-called Chandos portrait that hangs in Britain's National Portrait Gallery, which acquired it in 1856.

"This is the only portrait of him that has any claim to have been painted from life," the gallery states in its description of the painting.

The gallery has had to defend that claim against various challengers, including the so-called Cobbe portrait (named after the family that owns it), which has been put forward in recent years. Skeptics think the sitter is too young and duded up to be Shakespeare and is actually an English nobleman.

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The Sanders portrait came to prominence in 2001 after a feature story in the Globe. It's thought to have been painted by John Sanders, a member of Shakespeare's theatre company in the late 1500s who also dabbled in painting.

Sanders, who is Sullivan's great grandfather 13 generations removed, is thought to have painted the oil-on-oak panel portrait in 1603, when Shakespeare would have been 39.

But even though the portrait is labelled Shakespeare in spelling the author himself used, skeptics say the image appears to be that of a much younger man, the University of Guelph's Shakespeare Project website notes.

The university has backed research into the portrait's authenticity and has held it on Sullivan's behalf, the Globe reported. It recently hosted a symposium where a parade of experts attested to its authenticity.

Plans for the sale were confirmed to the Globe by Guelph's president, Alastair Summerlee.

The new owners are “very keen to continue supporting demonstrating that the work really is a portrait of Shakespeare," he said.

Sullivan has been trying to sell the portrait since 2011, to defray the "huge financial burden" created by research and testing to establish its authenticity. He initially placed it with Sotheby's in New York but took it back last year, feeling the auction house was undervaluing the work and could not guarantee it would be sold to a Canadian.

The sale could set the stage for a final showdown among the contending works to determine which is the real Shakespeare.

Canadian art dealer David Loch, who helped facilitate the sale of the Sanders portrait, told the Globe that the National Portrait Gallery, which champions the Chandos, and the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, which backs the Cobbe, could stonewall any attempt to put forward the Canadian upstart.

The British need to be persuaded, Loch advised.

“You can’t go after them with a baseball bat . . . It’s got to be really tactfully done.”