Is this the face of Shakespeare?

Is this the face of Shakespeare?

To view or download this article as a PDF click HERE.

Today you are going to be looking into the the faces of William Shakespeare. The problem is which if any is genuine. Our story is set in the early 18th century and at its centre is one very interesting portrait. Let me put everything into context.

William Shakespeare had rested in posthumous an anonymity during most of the Restoration period, but interest in him was growing again in the late 17th Century with improvement in printing techniques and the growth of the entertainment industry. Later as we shall see the marketing of Shakespeare took on a distinctly political edge.

A series of publications of his work began to emerge and along with the printed word came illustrations.

There was therefore an obvious need for images of the face of Shakespeare.

And this the so called Chandos portrait was pretty well all there was to go on, a 16th century portrait of a rather dishevelled man, which was of rather dubious authenticity

This the frontispiece of Nicholas Rowe’s 1709 edition of his works. The first to bear illustrations.The source for the engraving is not hard to recognise.

Elsewhere in the publication is this illustration of William Shakespeare from Holy Trinity church Stratford upon Avon, specially made by Gerard Van der Gucht.

Well not exactly.

He based it on a previous engraving dating from 1656 by Wenceslaus Hollar.

Van der Gucht

High forehead and a similar design of tunic….yes. But the tiredness has gone, and an aged face is replaced by one of bright disposition, by staring eyes, a neat beard and curly hair. Where did that come from?

Welcome to the world of 18th century engraving, where all is not what it seems.

Now let’s begin our story.

You are looking a portrait of a middle aged man with a rather ruddy complexion, painted on card. The original colour of the card appears to be red which is showing through in places where the paint is damaged.

What remains of the man’s hair is reddish/brown and curly and he has brown eyes, and freckles on his forehead and cheeks. His lips are rather narrow and the skin tone indicates that he has a fair complexion. He wears a well trimmed pointed beard flecked with grey. Around his neck he is wearing a ruff collar which dates from the late 16th and early 17th century

His tunic, in an enhanced view shows only sketchy detail, with buttons down the front. No patterns cut into the fabric of the tunic are visible. And lastly, he is wearing an earring in the left ear.

The painting contains no information as to the subject or the artist.

I would just like you to take a moment and look at this man’s face, particularly his eyes. I think you will agree it is a remarkable piece of work, unlike many of the portraits of that period it shows great humanity. Just someone as they were, not as they wanted the world to see and admire. I believe there is a reason for this which I will explain later.

In spite of the remarkable detail you will interested to know that the painting is only 5cm by 4cm (2 inches by 1 5/8inches), in other words a miniature, and here it is scaled against a standard credit card.

So what, you might ask?

Well small though it is, this portrait has had far reaching consequences over the last 300 years, indeed far outweighing its diminutive size. The painting is now part of the Portland collection at Welbeck Abbey in Nottinghamshire and lives in a drawer, and for reason’s that become apparent I will refer to it as the Harley miniature.


If you turn over the painting, then on the reverse is written “Shakespear” and the word “Oxford” and a number of catalogue references. Now those of you who have seen my earlier presentations will be in no doubt that I believe that Edward de Vere 17th Earl of Oxford wrote under the pen name William Shakespeare.

You might then think that the mystery is solved in one go, Oxford is Shakespeare, end of story. You would of course be wrong. It’s not that simple. This is the signature of an Earl of Oxford but not Edward de Vere.

In order to understand the painting you need to meet some very interesting people from 17th and early 18th centuries.

The first creation of the Earls of Oxford came to an end in 3with the death of this man Aubrey de Vere, the 20th Earl. He left no male heir and so the line ended. We shall look at his connections in more detail later.

Aubrey de Vere 20th Earl of Oxford

Robert Harley (1661-1724)

This is Robert Harley (1661-1724) resplendent in his robes as a Knight of the Garter. He was one of the most powerful politicians in the country at the time, he was a distinguished parliamentarian rising to Speaker of the House of Commons, Chancellor of the Exchequer and finally Lord High Chancellor. He used his fabulous wealth to amass a great collection of manuscripts and literature.He was a great patron of the arts promoting the careers of Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope of whom more later.

Along the way he claimed the title of Earl of Oxford and Earl Mortimer in 1711 by way of a connection through marriage to the de Veres. He thus became 1st Earl of Oxford (Second creation) If you think he looks a little self important you may be right for between 1715 and 1717 he was imprisoned for High Treason, eventually being freed without charge.

This is Robert’s son Edward Harley 2nd Earl of Oxford(1689-1741). He was an avid collector of all things including in particular works of art, and is a central character in the story. At the age of 24 Edward married this lady Henrietta Cavendish Holles in 1713, the wealthiest lady in England apart from the monarch.


Henrietta Cavendish Holles (1694-1755)

She was the only child of John Holles 1st Earl of Newcastle and Lady Margaret Cavendish and along with great wealth she brought with her to the marriage two important properties.Firstly Welbeck Abbey in Nottinghamshire. Bought by the Cavendish family after the dissolution of the monasteries, and converted into a country house. And secondly Wimpole Hall in Cambridgeshire, a house with around 3000 acres.

Wimpole Hall. A little place in the country

By now you are probably recognising the names of some important places in London including Harley Street, Wimpole Street and Cavendish Square, which gives you some idea of the status of the families I am talking about.

Edward Harley had a particular interest in miniature portraits dating from the early 1500’s to his own time. These were intended as precious jewel like treasures to be kept in cabinets, brought out to be admired and then returned to safety. Many of the miniatures came from branches of his and his wife’s family. Others were purchased for the importance of the subject or artist.

It is important that art had no monetary value until about this time. It was only with the breakup of great family estates that collectors began a feeding frenzy to obtained the most prized items.

During his life both Welbeck and Wimpole Hall became home to a massive collection of art and literature. As part of his support the arts and he surrounded himself with the finest thinkers of the day.

Edward however had a problem. He was a compulsive collector, he couldn’t stop. He became the prey of unscrupulous dealers and paid over the odds for items. The final result was that he bankrupted both himself and his wife. Following his death in 1741 his possessions were catalogued and sold off by his widow. The major part of the manuscripts forming one of the founding collections of the British Library.

There was however one group of treasures were was not sold off. The miniature paintings remained in the possession of Henrietta Countess of Oxford.

George Vertue (1684-1756)

The next person you need to meet is this man called George Vertue (1684-1756). He was the most famous engraver and antiquarian of his day, indeed the only engraver ever to be made a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries. He was brought up in a wealthy family and moved in the highest circles of society. From 1713 he embarked on wide ranging research on the history of British art. The result of which was forty volumes of notebooks. His engravings were carried out with great skill and were considered to be accurate representations of his subjects, which as you will see was at times questionable.

He was closely associated with Edward Harley who shared his passion, travelling the country with him and after Edward’s death he helped his widow in cataloguing her husband’s collection for sale. George Vertue along with Edward Harley had more than a passing interest in William Shakespeare and he made several engravings of him during his lifetime.

The next person to meet is Alexander Pope. (1688-1744). A renowned poet of his day, he was also responsible for publication of Shakespeare’sWorks in 1725. The artistic freedom taken with the text was roundly criticised at the time, but it is not the text which is of interest to us as I will explain shortly. Alexander Pope was also connected to the Harley family as it was Henry’s father Robert who promoted his career.

Alexander Pope was also a prominent Freemason.

So those are the players in our story. Now I want to look at the history of the painting from the time it first came to light.

 There exists a bill dated 1719 from this man made out to to Edward Harley for the framing the painting in pear tree wood. He is Bernard Lens 111 (1682-1740) who was miniature painter to the courts of George 1 and George 11. He was also a consultant in fine arts to upper class families. The document names the painting as “The Head of Shakespeare”. Lens was a close associate of George Vertue both being members of the Rose and Crown Club. This was one of a number of elite groupings for sharing of ideas on the arts. These groupings were named after the public houses where the meetings took place

Bernard Lens 111 (1682-1740)

In 1715 George Vertue, engaged in producing his own version of an engraving of William Shakespeare visited the home of one Robert Keck, of the Inner Temple in London. He was in possession of the Chandos Portrait.

And here is the result of his visit. Vertue would have made a sketch and then engraved the printing plate in his studio.

The figure is reversed as a result of the printing process. In order to print in the correct orientation the engraver has to work back to front with the aid of a mirror.

You can see that he has tidied up the jacket with some fine detailing, applied a nice sharp collar and given the figure a leaner look.

Engraving of Chandos 1715

It is fair to say that Vertue has taken several liberties with the face and head.The obvious common features are the receded hair line and the earring.

He has emphasised the eyes by exposing more of the iris and arching the eyebrows giving a somewhat thyrotoxic appearance.

The face is thinner and less hirsute, the nose sharper with a less bulbous end. The mouth is small and higher and the subject has wavy locks.

In 1721 Vertue produced an engraving of the Stratford upon Avon effigy which shows a figure undoubtedly derived from the Chandos Portrait with a rather short neck looking straight ahead.

For the first time a quill and paper are added.

There is no record of Vertue visiting the Holy Trinity Church and it has been suggested that the figure at least is a work of imagination. There are also differences in the design of the monument itself compared with previous versions.

Next something curious happens. George Virtue is invited to provide an engraving of Shakespeare for Pope’s 1725 edition of the author’s works, and this is what he provided. Now this bears no similarity to his previous effort. The face does however bear great similarity to the Harley miniature. The date at the base of the engraving is 1721.

What he done is to transplant the head and ruff onto his previous engraving producing a fine but imaginary tunic for the Harley miniature. Here is the engraving in the publication itself alongside the Harley miniature.

That’s not all, what is even more extraordinary is that following the preface is an account of the Life of Mr William Shakespeare by Mr Rowe, who I assume is the same Nicholas Rowe who published the 1709 edition of Shakespeare’s’’ works . It begins on page 25. And here on page 30 is George Virtue’s 1721 image of the Stratford monument.

What does this tell us? Basically Vertue was doing someone’s bidding.In the case of the frontispiece it was Edward Harley and Alexander Pope and in this case it was Nicholas Rowe who favoured a Chandos lookalike.

George Virtue went to Stratford in 1737, in the company of Edward Harley and he produced this drawing in his notebook. The figure has been assumed to be himself although I think it more likely to be Edward Harley standing below the effigy. If it were a self portrait, then surely he would have drawn himself standing alongside Edward Harley.

The posture in interesting, all the weight being on the right foot, the left heel raised and the left arm extended. The hand posture is appears to be palm uppermost. Does it matter? Could this be the posture of a person shrugging his shoulders when there is something they don’t understand, as well might have been?

The other point of interest is the figure of Shakespeare. This a sketch so the figure should be shown as he appears in life. The posture appears much more upright and head and face leaner than his engraving of 1721. No work was done on the monument since his earlier engraving confirming that Vertue had engraved it how Nicholas Rowe wanted it to be, not how it was.



Four years later in 1741 Vertue produced a self portrait, this time in a fine room with high windows, plush drapes, and works of art hung on the walls. It is a pencil sketch highlighted with red/brown ink. In fact there are two versions of this drawing, the one held by the NPG is sketchy in detail. The other I found on Alamy.

Curiously there is a bust of Charles 1. This appears to be perched over a doorway with paintings hung on a wall in the adjoining room.

The text above the door “Car R” is an abbreviation of Caroline Rex, referring to the period of the reign of Charles 1st. I assume the bust is a copy of the one by Jan Blommendael (1650-1699) which is shown on the right.


Charles 1 by Jan Blommendael (1650-1699)

In Edward’s his left hand hand he is holding a framed miniature, which is surmounted by a 5 pointed crown, the sign of an Earl, and a bewigged figure. It is of his patron Edward Harvey 2nd Earl of Oxford.


On the table in front of him are the paraphernalia of both painting and engraving. With his right index finger he is pointing at a drawing or printed engraving.

Here it is in high magnification. The orientation is the correct way round for the original Chandos portrait. So rather confusingly we are looking at a sketch of a sketch.

If we reverse the two printed engravings which Vertue made, it is clear that he is pointing to his 1715 drawing which he made from the Chandos portrait and not his later one from the Harley miniature made in the 1720’s. There is no doubt however that he is pointing to a sketch of Shakespeare.


In the right hand lower corner of the sketch Vertue tells us was performed in 1741.

Above his signature is “inv & del” invenit et delineavit” which reads as G Vertue designed and drew this. Below this within what appears to be an elaborate frame is the emblem of the Price of Wales and the words Honor Alit Artes.

Firstly let’s look at the emblem. There are no feathers associated with the Arms of the Earls of Oxford. So it must refer to the Prince of Wales

The holder at the time was Frederick Lewis, son of George 11.

HRH Frederick Lewis Prince of Wales (1707-1751)


In fact he never got on with his father and never became king as he predeceased him.He was a great patron of the arts which may be a clue.He was important in another area. He was initiated as the first Royal Freemason in 1737.

By 1738 he was Master of a Lodge, and mentioned in the Constitution of Freemasons of that year. He was a close friend of Peter Scheemakers who carved the 1740 statue of William Shakespeare in Westminster Abbey. He even did one of the Prince at around the same time.

Below the Prince of Wales crest are these words Honor Alit Artes

This a quotation from Cicero translated it reads:

honours encourage the arts, for all are incited toward studies by glory (or fame)

(Cicero, Tusculanae disputationes 4)

I think these words may originally be in honour of Vertue’s sponsor Edward Harley.Vertue is quoted thus when speaking of Edward Harley.

“The Earl’s generous and unparalleled encouragement of my undertakings, by promoting my studious endeavours, gave me great reputation and advantage over all other professors of the same art in England.” Walpole’s Anecdotes 1876 edition.

Why you might think would George Vertue chose these words? I think one reason may be this. The emblem appears in one of Four Seasons tapestries, now held at Hatfield House. The tapestries were woven for Sir John Tracy of Toddenham in Gloucestershire, who as we shall see shortly was the father in law of Horace Vere. It is highly likely that these were in the possession of Edward Harley when he died and were catalogued by Vertue after the Earl died, prior to being sold. On one of them he found a useful turn of phrase.

Another perhaps more cynical possibility is that George Vertue was hitching his wagon to another sponsor after the death of his first. This time it was HRH Prince of Wales, and he was telling us of his similar devotion.

By this stage you are beginning to think that I am way off topic here, but bear with me because I think it is important.

The issue is this, why did George Vertue do this drawing and what is he trying to tell us? As we know Edward Harley died in 1740 deeply in debt and George Vertue was engaged to catalogue his collection. I believe that the sketch shows him seated in Welbeck Abbey drawing up his catalogue and reviewing his sketches. In the distance is a gallery holding paintings from the Caroline era.

Out of all the possible items to include, Vertue, looking directly at you, demonstrates the shared interest of himself and Edward Harley with William Shakespeare. What is curious is that he choses to include his sketch of the Chandos portrait and not the one of the Harley miniature, which we now Harley believed was a true likeness. I think Vertue was conflicted, his portrayal of Shakespeare had to please everyone so he hedged his bets, which might explain the questioning pose of his sketch of Edward Harley at the Stratford monument from 1737.

During the 1730’s there developed a powerful movement against the Walpole government called the Patriot Opposition, which promoted the use of William Shakespeare, the man and his works to instil values of Britishness, much as Elizabeth 1st had done. In part this led to the unveiling of the statue of William Shakespeare in Westminster Abbey in 1740.

If you look at Alexander Waugh’s videos on YouTube about the fate of Edward de Vere after he died, you will learn that his body was moved by the precursors of the Freemasons to Westminster Abbey and then in 1740 the monument was erected over his grave.

The number 1740 had great significance to Edward de Vere. Suffice it to say that it symbolised his closeness to God. The date of inauguration of the memorial was no accident.

There is a very strong Masonic link here. Alexander Pope whom we met earlier, a prominent mason, partly funded the monument, The Prince of Wales’ favourite sculptor fashioned it. Edward Harley was a Mason and George Vertue appears to have links to masonry as well. Vertue had been working hard to provide images of the great man which fitted with the message of Shakespeare’s apotheosis, in particular his wisdom and respectability.

And by this stage, those images were proliferating. The face of the Harley miniature began to appear in other international publications as copies and variations of the Vertue engraving were made. Although some where in colour and the features softened to give more romantic edge, the face is still recognisable. Here are two examples

This from the 1775 edition of the Morality of Shakespeare’s drama.

Perhaps the oddest of all is the 1775 painting of an idealised Shakespeare by Angelica Kauffman, which graced the walls of the Shakespeare Memorial Gallery in Stratford upon Avon. It is strange to consider that, such an image, a copy of an engraving of a miniature, which is clearly not the same man as in the Chandos portrait, would be displayed in this way.

Interestingly the story went further than this, indeed just up the road to Holy Trinity church. If you believe that that the current bloated figure is the original then you are mistaken. There is clearly documented evidence that the figure underwent a series of changes over 400 years. I don’t propose to go into the full detail of this but rather to concentrate on one period.

In 1749 fourteen years after Pope’s edition appeared, a new curate was installed in Stratford’s Holy Trinity Church. He was Joseph Greene, and he would play a major role in the first refurbishing of the Stratford monument in his church. Greene was not a shy and retiring parson. Besides being curate, he was the schoolmaster, a theatre buff, a versifier, an antiquarian, librarian for a wealthy neighbour and an outspoken writer of letters .

He was also partial to “a bottle of old Stingo.”(Strong beer aged in oak barrels) Shortly after his arrival in 1737, he created a great stir in town. He eloped with the daughter of Stratford ‘s druggist and former mayor.

I’m sure this portrait was made well after the fire had gone out.

Greene began fundraising to “repair and re-beautify” the monument. He proposed that the painter John Hall do the work provided “that the monument shall become as like as possible to what it was when first erected”. This is the first of four times that Greene says that the monument either would not be, or was not, changed. It seems he was worried about being challenged.


This is the result, an engraving by Francis Eginton from a drawing by Robert Weler.

The cheerfulness of the new effigy did not go unremarked. The eminent painter Thomas Gainsborough called it “a silly, smiling thing” and refused to make a painting of it for David Garrick’s Jubilee in Stratford in 1769 . Stratford’s town historian, R. B. Wheler, in 1806 said the effigy was indeed somewhat thoughtful “but then it seems to arise from a cheerfulness of thought” (his emphasis), and since the Bard’s disposition was cheerful the effigy properly depicts him .



Here the face has been enlarged and I have added some hair restorer. On the right are the two Vertue engravings. I have mapped the facial features on the Harley engraving and transferred it to the others, just to guide you. It appears to me that this version has been heavily influenced by the two Vertue engravings.

Unfortunately Greene’s cheerful effigy would not survive for posterity. In 1814, two men from London replaced the cheerful, smiling face with the more serious, stolid visage in today’s effigy. They were George Bullock, who “began his career as a sculptor” and later went into business making furniture , and John Britton, a prolific London antiquarian and writer who admitted that he idolised the Bard. Britton commissioned Bullock to go to Stratford and take a mould of the effigy so plaster casts could be made.

So after the brief excursion into the limelight the Harley Miniature was returned to the drawer, to be brought out at intervals once for an exhibition in the early 20th century and undoubtedly for the last time when I went to look at it.

That is the story of the painting from the time it was first described. Now lets turn to look at question of the Harley miniature from a different direction.




In the art world provenance is everything. A point I made in an earlier presentation is the difference between direct and indirect evidence. The latter is also known as circumstantial evidence; it is still valuable, but a judgment has to made as to whether or not the case is proven. When starting with a portrait with no title and no attribution then things are very tricky. Nonetheless, examination of family connections of the de Veres may be helpful to us.

Consider these dates.

In 1711 Robert Harley becomes Earl of Oxford

In 1713 His Son Edward marries Henrietta Cavendish Holles In 1719 The Miniature is framed.

In the early 1720’s George Vertue engraves it.

Now Robert Harley would have been well aware of his prospective daughter in law’s family connections which I will come to shortly. It seems reasonable to conclude this is what spurred him to bring the the title into the family. Lets see how he did it.

This is part of the family tree of Robert Harley.

He appears at the bottom right. Ladies are pink and gentlemen in blue. If we go up from his mother Abigail to his grandmother Brilliana, we come to his great grandmother Dorothy Tracy.

Her sister Mary Tracy was the wife of Horace Vere, Edward de Vere’s cousin. Horace was arguably the greatest soldier of his day and was very close to Edward de Vere’s illegitimate son by Ann Vavasour, called Sir Edward Vere.

You may think this is fairly tenuous link, but it served its purpose, because in 1724 when Robert died Edward became the second Earl of Oxford.

Now lets look at the background to Edward and Henrietta’s marriage. This part of the family tree of Horace de Vere. Don’t panic. I just want you to understand some key points.

Firstly Horace had 5 daughters. The eldest Elizabeth married John Holles 2nd Earl of Clare. This in turn led through the 3rd Earl to the 4th Earl John who was also 1st Duke of Newcastle. His only child was Henrietta Cavendish Holles, who became the wife of Edward Harley.

What we have here is a direct line of descent through which family heirlooms from the time of Horace de Vere could have passed.

Lady Mary Vere (Tracy) 1581-1671

When looking at family trees it is tempting to think as generations being separate, but of course they overlap and it is important to look at how long people live. In this case Lady Mary Vere (born Tracy) survived to the age of 90 dying in 1671.

It is reasonable to assume that an important keepsake would have remained in her possession until she died.

She would have known her grandson, the 3rd of Clare Gilbert Holles well, living as he did from 1633 until 1689, and indeed her great grandson the 4th Earl who was 9 when she died.


Now it is safe to assume that Horace Vere knew that his cousin was William Shakespare. It is also reasonable to assume that items held by him would be handed down through a family line.Elizabeth was the eldest of 5 daughters so these would go to her and then down through the Holles line. Lady Henrietta was the only child of the 4th Earl. He died in 1711 and his wife in 1715, two years after the marriage of Henrietta to Edward Harley.

As I mentioned earlier along with Lady Henrietta came Wellbeck Abbey the home of the only universally recognised portrait of Edward de Vere 17th Earl of Oxford.

Purely based on these connections I conclude that family treasures such as an informal portrait miniature could have been handed down from Horace Vere via his wife Lady Mary. Edward Harley would have realised the significance of this leading to the report it being his favourite possession.

Another straw in the wind as to the source of the painting is the timing of its framing, presumably to protect it. This was 1719, only 6 years after Lady Henrietta joined the family.

How likely was Horace to have family treasures?

There is however one issue to resolve and that is how likely was Horace Vere to be in possession of such items in the first place. In other words what happened to the de Vere line after Edward died in 1604.

18th Earl Henry de Vere 1593-1625
Son of Edward Died without issue
Horace Vere Cousin of Edward Died in 1635

Well, Edward’s wife Elizabeth Countess of Oxford (born Trentham) died in 1612 and his son Henry died of an injury in the Netherlands in 1625 without issue. Horace lived until 1635, ample time to have collected memorabilia of his famous cousin.

Following the death of Henry Vere, his second cousin Robert took the title. Something which was contested at the time.

19th Earl Robert de Vere 1575-1632
Second cousin to Henry Died at battle of Maastricht

Robert died young again of war wounds and his son Aubrey took the title, dying in 1703 without a male heir.

20th Aubrey de Vere 1627-1703
Son of Robert
Died without male issue

Line extinct

It seems to me much less likely, that memorabilia would have gone down this line.

There is a counter argument to all of this, in that a young Edward Harley the obsessed collector was duped into buying a painting of Shakespeare by an unscrupulous dealer.This is possible, but my understanding is that the excesses in his collecting came in his later years. Given the evidence I have presented, I think it much more likely that the painting came by way of his wife Henrietta as a family heirloom.

Early Opinions on the painting.

Rather like the pregnancy portrait, the miniature has been viewed by very few people and even fewer have felt qualified to pass an opinion on it.

In the Connoisseur Magazine of June 1913, Marion Spielmann confirms much that we have already discussed about the painting. His view was that it was the Earl of Oxford’s friendship with Alexander Pope which led to Vertue’s engraving being used.

He saw nothing in it to confirm that it was or was not the only painting from life of the poet.

He agrees that the painting is very well executed showing a man of strong will and character living in the reign of James 1.Surprisingly he goes on to say that the style and technique of the painting appeared much more modern. The draughtsmanship
and modelling were quite excellent revealing to a high degree the vigour and craftsmanship of the artist.

Bernard Lens painted a series of miniatures for the Earl of Oxford and thus Spielmann surmises that this was likely to be a copy by Bernard Lens of an earlier miniature since lost.

Marion Harry Spielmann Editor of the Connoisseur Magazine.

After a long discourse on the various versions of the engraving he finishes off by suggesting that the painting is really one of Sir Frances Drake, claiming that his famous wart is shown in a feint form.

Well I have examined the portrait of Francis Drake. There is no sign of a wart, the eye colour is different, and Drake has a much fuller face. In my opinion no the same man.

A description of the painting is included in the 1916 Catalogue of the Welbeck Miniatures by Richard Goulding Librarian at Welbeck Abbey. He destroys Spielmann’s idea of the painting being carried out by Lens. Firstly the technique is absolutely unlike Lens, secondly whenever an ancient portrait was copied for Lord Oxford, the fact was always avowed, and in no instance did Lord Oxford claim it to be an original.

Against those experts who had argued that the painting was selected for Pope’s publication merely to please Lord Oxford and Vertue, Goulding avers it more likely chosen because they really believed it to be genuine.

Goulding’s final comment is that the painting was old in 1719, accepted as genuine, and that few of the so called portraits of Shakespeare have had his name associated with them for so long.

One commentator has argued that this cannot be a painting of Edward de Vere because the ruff shown is typical of Jacobean times, which does not leave much room as de Vere died in 1604, only a year after James 1st took the throne. In fact I have been able to discover several individuals wearing a similar style of ruff in the late 16th century. Just as with all fashion, one type blended into another without abrupt change.

Comparison with other paintings

There are several paintings said to be of Edward de Vere. I have chosen to look at the one widely agreed to be a genuine copy of an earlier work and that also descended in the same family line as the Harley miniature.

This is the so called Welbeck Portrait originally painted in Paris in 1575 and of which only a copy survives.

Those of you who have seen my earlier presentations know that I have a simple way of comparing faces which involves the use of a grid and dots which follow the features of the face. You may be thinking why not just use facial recognition technology? Well this has proved to be somewhat unreliable. In fact the human eye is extremely good at detecting facial features, hence our ability to recognise one another in a crowd. My aim is to present a means of allowing comparison of features in a structured if not completely quantitative way, but as a visual guide.

The relationship between facial features changes as the head is moved so it is important to use images which are comparable. I then mark out the eye centres overlay the images and then scale them so that the eye centres overlap. It may be necessary to move an image slightly if the subjects eyes are not looking in exactly the same direction.

I would be the first to admit that comparing 400 year old portraits is fraught with difficulties. The attitude of the subject’s heads need to be comparable from the outset. There are also many variables such as artistic licence, painting the individual as they wanted to be seen not how they were, stylistic differences of artists and the effects of age difference on the shape of the face. In spite of this I believe it to be useful as I hope to show. To avoid confusion I refer to the side of the face as seen by the viewer at all times, not the side of the face of the subject.

Here once again is the Harley image.The artwork is very fine and carried out by an expert miniature painter. Hilliard had retired in 1601 and his mantle had been taken over by his son in law and mentee, Isaac Oliver. I am no expert on his technique so it there is anyone out there who give an opinion as to whether or not this is an example of his work I would be very grateful.

Here is the Harley image with the facial features marked with dots.

The eye centres are shown in green. I have marked out the earring on the right. All images for comparison have been reversed if necessary, rotated to level the eyes and resized used the pupil centres. No other manipulations have been made.

Here is the Harley image marked with a grid.

The horizontal lines indicate hairline, upper extent of eyebrow, eye centres, earlobe, nose tip, mouth level and chin level. The vertical lines indicate features relative to the viewer indicate; left side of face, outer point of left eye, left side of mouth, nose tip centre, right mouth edge, outer point of right eye, earlobe face junction.

If we compare the Harley painting with the Welbeck we can see that they don’t appear very similar

at all. In the Welbeck de Vere appears distinctly jaundiced.

The technique I am using simply compares the facial geometry, not the rather more visually more compelling features brought about by the age difference. It can demonstrate that two images are not of the same individual, but at best can only tell us that the facial features are consistent with it being the same person Note that Welbeck is slightly more rotated to the viewer’s left and the head appears level in both images.

Above is the Welbeck with the dot map overlaid. I think that you will agree that despite all the issues the contours of the face is remarkably similar particularly around the eyes.

The small mouth with thin lips matches closely as does the position of where an earring would sit. The slight rotation of the Welbeck image accounts for the nose profile being out of line.

Here is the same image with the grid. In both planes there is close correlation. the nose tip centre is slightly to the left due to slight rotation.

Here the Welbeck has been overlaid with a 50% opacity. The result is both interesting and slightly

unnerving. Note in particular the earring of the Harley is in exactly the correct place for the Welbeck image.

Is the painting of Horace Vere?

I can imagine some of you thinking, how do we know the Harley painting is not one of Horace Vere cousin of Edward. After all it is his family tree I am relying on. You are right to be concerned.

There are two popular portraits of Horace Vere both of which have been overpainted in places. This one was painted in Holland by Michiel Jancz the date of which is uncertain, but portrays man somewhat younger than the subject of the Harley painting. I have lighted the dark areas to bring out detail.

The other painting dated around 1630 by the same artist appears to be an overpainted and “aged” version of this one.


Here the face has been reversed rotated and sized and the Harley dot map applied. Below is the image with the grid applied. I think you will agree that the shape of the facial features are very similar.

Here are the two faces side by side. I have converted them to greyscale to eliminate any colour cues. In the knowledge that the facial geometry is very similar, are they both the same man? In other words could the Harley Miniature be a portrait of Horace Vere?

Well yes it could.They were however first cousins, so some similarities might be expected.

The thing that persuades me that it is not Horace is this. We can assume that Lady Mary Vere knew the identity of the subject and this knowledge was passed on by word of mouth. What she may have said about it was in living memory of those who possessed it in the early part of the 18th century. Someone said it was the head of Shakespeare, and it was obviously treasured for it to have survived for a century without even being in a frame.

Then why you may ask was the painting referred to as Shakespeare and not Edward de Vere? I think the simple answer to that is towards the end of his life that is who he had become. If you look at Alexander Waugh’s ever expanding series of videos on who knew about Shakespeare, you will see overwhelming evidence that his identity was widely known. At the beginning of the 18th Century, there was renewed interest in Shakespeare’s works, and on any level the possession of a tiny portrait was immeasurably of more value as William Shakespeare than of the forgotten man Edward de Vere. So what started out as a treasured keepsake of a family member could have been labelled the most famous writer of all time.

So that brings us to the end of a fascinating journey. Let’s now try to draw it all together.

Review and conclusion

This little painting turns up at the start of the 18th century labelled by word of mouth as the face of Shakespeare. Given its provenance, this means Edward de Vere 17th Earl of Oxford not the man from Stratford.

So is this true? Here is a review of the circumstantial evidence.

  1. Horace Vere was the likely recipient of family treasures from Edward de Vere as he outlived all close relatives.
  2. Lady Mary Vere lived until 1671 and would have known the identity of the subject of the painting. If it had been her husband Horace she would have said so.
  3. It is likely that the painting was passed on when Lady Mary died, within living memory of those who possessed it in the early 18th century.
  4. The fact that the painting had no written title or attribution can be explained by the fact that it was a cherished portrait of a family member. It was not for display. They all knew who it was. By the beginning of the 18th century a relationship to Shakespeare rather than the forgotten man Edward de Vere, would have been of great value in all respects.
  5. The painting was old in 1719. The style of ruff and the pointed beard suggest late 17th or early 18th century
  6. The quality of the workmanship, both in technical terms and the intimacy of the portrayal is outstanding. It was painted by an expert in working on miniatures.
  7. The appearance of the portrait coincided with the marriage of Edward Harley 2nd Earl of Oxford with Henrietta Cavendish Holles whose family had direct links to Horace Vere the cousin of Edward who wrote under the name Shakespeare.
  8. The only authenticated portrait of Edward de Vere was handed down in the same family.
  9. The painting was most likely framed to protect it and allow it to be shown to selected individuals.
  10. The fact that both Earls of Oxford and George Vertue who had seen most of the artwork in the UK, believed that this was a true image of Shakespeare, lends weight to its veracity.
  11. The painting was reported by the curator of the Portland collection as Edward Harley’s most prized possession.
  12. There was no outcry when the Harley image appeared as the frontispiece of the 1725 edition of Shakespeare’s works.
  13. Alexander Pope and the Prince of Wales, both prominent Freemasons were associated with the unveiling of the Westminster Abbey monument to Shakespeare, over Edward de Vere’s grave in 1740. The two men were also closely linked to Edward Harley and George Vertue. It seems to me that they all knew exactly who Shakespeare was and thought the portrait to be genuine.
  14. The self portrait of George Vertue drawn in 1741 after the death of Edward Harley emphasises the importance of the portrait. He choses it as the only visual link between the two men.
  15. Although most of his collection was sold after he died, the miniatures were retained by the family.
  16. My study comparing the painting with the Welbeck portrait of Edward de Vere shows great similarity in the geometry of the face. The eye colour is the same and the hair is consistent with an ageing red-head, where colour is retained but fades.
  17. Similarities between the Harley miniature and a portrait of Horace Vere can be explained by their close family relationship.

So is this little gem the face of Edward de Vere who wrote as Shakespeare?Well the circumstantial evidence is very strong that it is.

My opinion is that it is genuine, and if it is then for the last hour you have been staring into the face of our greatest writer.

What do you think?

David Shakespeare May 2021.

Selected Bibliography

Richard William Goulding, The Welbeck Abbey miniatures belonging to His Grace the Duke of Portland K.G., G.C.V.O. : a catalogue raisonné ( welbeckabbeymini00goul)



Lee Stewart Slinger 2015. The Purchase of the Past The Elizabethan past and the uses of history in eighteenth-century Britain.Chapter Two: Statues and Ghosts: Remembering Shakespeare in the 1730s. (

Robert Wheler. History and antiquities of Stratford-upon-Avon : comprising a description of the collegiate church, the life of Shakespeare. ( n85/mode/2up)


To view or download this article as a PDF click HERE.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *