Robert Bearman’s review of Shakespeare Found! A Life Portrait at Last

Dr. Bearman’s review of Shakespeare Found! has just appeared inSurviving Hamlet,” the latest issue of Shakespeare Quarterly. We’ve reprinted Dr. Bearman’s review here in its entirety for SQ Forum readers.

You can learn more about “Surviving Hamlet,” guest-edited by Jonathan Gil Harris, on Shakespeare Quarterly’s Project MUSE web page.

Copyright, The Folger Shakespeare Library.

Shakespeare Found! A Life Portrait at Last: Portraits, Poet, Patron, Poems. Edited by Stanley Wells. Revised edition. Stratford-Upon-Avon, UK: Cobbe Foundation / Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, 2011. Illus. Pp. xiv + 118. $55.00 cloth.

I reviewed a first edition of this book, published in 2009;1 readers are referred to that review for a general description of its contents. The book’s main point of interest to biographers was the bold claim that a portrait now in the collection of the Cobbe family is of William Shakespeare; and moreover, that it once belonged to the third earl of Southampton, Shakespeare’s “patron,” said to be the subject of a portrait in the same family collection. This revised edition was produced to accompany a recent exhibition of the “Cobbe” portrait at the Morgan Library, New York, and incorporates recent research that it is hoped will strengthen the case for the authenticity of the Shakespeare image.

Certainly one development is of considerable interest. At the time of original publication it was argued that the Cobbe portrait was the “master” from which, at an early date, several copies (or copies of copies) were made. At that point, one of these copies was only known in the form of a black-and-white photograph but in recent months the original has not only resurfaced but has been acquired by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Scientific examination, we are told, has shown it to be an early copy, perhaps even contemporary with what is taken to be the original.

This, however, does not do much to buttress the claim that it is a portrait of Shakespeare. An effort to strengthen the attribution has been made by additional documentary research into the original portrait’s alleged transmission from the third earl of Southampton, who died in 1624, to Charles Cobbe, in whose possession it (and the Southampton portrait), is recorded in the 1740s (although not, it must be added, under that name, it having been assumed by Charles Cobbe, presumably on information supplied to him, that it was Sir Walter Raleigh). No material, or circumstantial, evidence was produced in the first edition to substantiate this descent, only a genealogy to demonstrate that the earl’s great-granddaughter Lady Elizabeth Noel (a third daughter of a granddaughter) married Richard Norton of Southwick, third cousin of Charles Cobbe, whose grandfather had married Honor Norton, of a senior branch of the family settled at Rotherfield. This I thought insufficient to justify such a bold claim, especially as no evidence was provided that any other artifact followed such a route. Chapter 4 has therefore been revised to address this issue.

It is argued, first, that Richard Norton can be shown to have been in possession of heirlooms belonging to the Wriothesley (that is, Southampton) family as the result of his marriage to Elizabeth Noel, the great-granddaughter of the third earl. These heirlooms, however, turn out to be nothing more than what sounds like a miniature “in an ivory case” of her grandmother, the countess of Southampton, and a lock of her mother’s hair, items known to have been in Elizabeth’s possession and which are said to have passed on her death to her husband, Richard Norton, even though they had been living apart for some years.2 From this the authors argue that the case for Elizabeth having brought Wriothesley portraits to Southwick has been strengthened: indeed, in their minds, it “confirms the route.” Others, however, may not be so easily persuaded that the resurfacing of two minor items clearly of immediate personal importance to this one family member would automatically imply that a significant transfer of earlier family portraits had taken place.

Another piece of new evidence is cited to support the claim that the portrait (indeed, portraits), having reached the Southwick Nortons, then migrated to the distant Rotherfield ones, into whose family the Cobbes had married. But again, this proves to be highly circumstantial; namely that one picture, of a mother with her child, once thought to be Honor Norton of the Rotherfield branch (died 1703) has now been re-identified, on the grounds of costume, as Honor Norton of Southwick (died 1648), thus demonstrating that one picture at least passed from one branch of the family to the other. This, of course, is not impossible but we are not told when the “Rotherfield” attribution had first been made and on what evidence, only that it had been “historically identified.” But if, as one suspects, there was no intrinsic evidence to identify it in the first place as Honor Norton, either of Rotherfield or Southwick, then the argument that any portraits of anybody, let alone of Shakespeare and the earl of Southampton, crossed the divide between the two families surely remains largely a matter of speculation based only on tenuous family links.

The authors have also had to address what has come to be known as “the Overbury issue”: the suggestion first made by David Piper that one of the copies of the Cobbe portrait (formerly owned by Lord Ellenborough and since acquired by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust) might in fact be of Thomas Overbury. This proposal was based partly on a likeness that he (and others) have detected between that copy and an authentic portrait of Overbury now at the Bodleian Library Oxford, but also on a mention of a portrait of Overbury listed in the 1790s as hanging at Southam Delabere, the house later acquired by Lord Ellenborough. As this Overbury portrait had never resurfaced under that name, Piper suggested that, when the Ellenborough collection of paintings came to be sold in the twentieth century, the Overbury portrait could perhaps be identified with the “portrait (said to be Shakespeare)” which turned up at the 1947 sale of part of that collection. This argument was dismissed in the first edition of Shakespeare Found on the grounds that in the 1790s Southam was in the hands of a different family and that, of the nineteen paintings then listed as hanging there (of which the Overbury portrait was one), only one later resurfaced at the 1947 sale. However, as I then pointed out, even a limited examination of the 1947 catalogue revealed that it included at least five of these paintings. Moreover, the authors’ recent discovery of a detailed inventory of the Ellenborough paintings at Southam has now led them to conclude that eleven of the paintings from the 1790s were still in the house in 1926. To this can presumably be added another (of Jane Shore) sold off in 1908.3

The balance of probability would therefore now seem to be clearly in favor of all nineteen paintings having passed to Lord Ellenborough when he acquired Southam, and that the one of Overbury would therefore have been amongst them. No such portrait is listed in the 1926 inventory but this need not mean that it was not there, only that by that date it may have been wrongly attributed. Thus, the cautious description of the portrait in 1947 (‘said to be Shakespeare’) could still be significant. If the inventory had listed both a portrait of Overbury and a portrait of Shakespeare, then Piper’s original suggestion would, of course, have become invalid. But it lists only Shakespeare, leading the authors to propose that the Overbury portrait, and other family items linked to it, must have been withdrawn from the house earlier-though they do not mention that the 1926 inventory does include a panel exhibiting the arms of the Overbury and related families which remained at Southam until the 1947 sale.4 Thus, far from discrediting the Overbury connection, this new evidence now makes it more likely. The fact that the authors have demonstrated that the Shakespeare attribution was being made some twenty years before the 1947 sale (and this can be pushed back to an inventory of 1878 which is not, in fact, lost as the authors state5) surely means very little as long as an alternative portrait of Overbury remains elusive.

On the same theme, the authors present as new evidence a detailed comparison between the Cobbe portrait (and its copies) and the authentic portrait of Overbury at the Bodleian Library. This does reveal a very close match between the Cobbe portrait and its acknowledged copies, leading the author of this new study, Rupert Featherstone, to propose that they were produced by an accurate transfer technique, if not contemporaneously, then in quick succession. Comparison with the authentic Overbury portrait at the Bodleian Library, however, reveals several important differences, leading to the conclusion that they were not derived from a cartoon or pattern common to both. Featherstone does not rule out the possibility, however, that the sitters in both portraits, assuming them to be independent works, are the same person, only that it is unlikely. Nevertheless, given the stronger case that has now emerged that the “lost” Overbury portrait might indeed have passed to Lord Ellenborough, some may conclude that this issue is still in the balance.

Robert Bearman

Robert Bearman, until 2007, was Head of Archives and Local Studies at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, Stratford-upon-Avon. He has contributed articles on Shakespeare biography to Shakespeare Quarterly, Shakespeare Survey, and Midland History.


1. Robert Bearman, review of Stanley Wells, ed., Shakespeare Found! A Life Portrait at Last: Portraits, Poet, Patron, Poems, in Shakespeare Quarterly 60 (2009): 483-87.

2. Elizabeth Norton’s will (The National Archives, London, PROB 11/547, ff. 139-42) made no such provision, her leasehold house in London, and all its contents at the time of her death, being left to her sister Lady Jane Digby, but permitting Elizabeth’s husband to “hold and enjoy the same” for the duration of the 24-year lease, “if he shall so long live.” As no references are provided in Shakespeare Found, it is not possible to verify its claim that instead these specified items passed to Richard Norton unconditionally.

3. Gloucester Archives (GA), D1637/E25.

4. GA, D1637/E19; D 2299/4800, 9111.

5. It is part of GA, D2299/9111.