We caught up with veteran independent documentary filmmaker Anne Henderson, whose historical mystery Battle of Wills explores the authenticity and identity of the Sanders portrait, perhaps the only authentic portrait of William Shakespeare. The film has been selected for competition in the Festival International du Film sur l'Art (FIFA) in Montreal this month and will air on BRAVO in the fall.
Anne is the recipient of many awards in the documentary-film genre, including a Genie Award (best short documentary) for A Song For Tibet (1992) and a Gemini Award (best documentary cinematography) for L’Empreinte (2002). Her movies have been selected for film festivals around the world, and they have garnered many prizes.
Q: Anne, you've written and directed documentaries on a wide range of topics. I'm curious, what attracted you to this story?
Anne: From the moment I saw the Sanders portrait in Vanity Fair in December 2001, I was instantly captivated by this radically different image of “Shakespeare." Unlike the expressionless face traditionally associated with the poet, the Sanders portrait is brimming with life, mischief, and wit. The painting portrays how I imagine, or want, Shakespeare to be.
My response to the image drew me into the multi-layered world of the portrait, where I found a story that is rich in drama, politics, characters, and visual possibilities. I envisioned Battle of Wills as a documentary thriller which would slowly decode the identity of the enigmatic sitter in the painting. In the process, the portrait would take on a life of its own.
Battle of Wills does not address the question of authorship. However, the film challenges dearly-held orthodoxies about Shakespeare, much as the readers of this site do. In both cases, the scholars who have made their reputation decoding Shakespeare resist evidence that might overturn long-held assumptions.
I was lucky that my central character Lloyd Sullivan is a man of passion and indefatigable willpower. His mission to authenticate his family heirloom drives the story, on a journey that takes us from the high-tech labs of North America, to the art galleries and theatres of London, to the windswept castles of the English Midlands. I wanted the film to include not only curators and art dealers, but actors, such as Joseph Fiennes who has played Shakespeare, and knows the writer intuitively from the inside.
I discovered that there is a huge cultural industry, as well as nationalist sentiments, built upon existing images of Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s iconic status has ensured that debates over authenticity are full of hidden agendas and economic self-interest.
Finally, the fascination with this 400-year-old portrait is very modern. Because we live in the age of photography, we want to stare at the faces of our greatest artists, to learn the secrets of their inner life. We imagine a connection with the human being in the portrait, as if the person gazes back at us too. Battle of Wills allows me to tap into this modern sensibility in pursuit of the true face of the man from Stratford.
Q: What did you discover in making the film?
Anne: The owner of the Sanders portrait claims that his ancestor was a friend of Shakespeare, a member of his troupe, and as a result had the opportunity to paint the poet’s portrait. Is this true?
The Sanders portrait has been totally authenticated scientifically as an unretouched work from 1603 of a charming man in a doublet. The costume historian Jenny Tiramani suggests that the clothes worn by the sitter accord with Shakespeare’s status in 1603. In that year, his acting troupe was elevated in status, as King James appointed them to court, and named them The Kings Men. For the first time, Shakespeare would have been permitted to wear gold and silver on his doublet. In the Sanders portrait, the doublet is covered with “parsimain lace of silver thread." Could the Sanders portrait have been a celebration of Shakespeare’s new status?
One of the most interesting discoveries was the under-researched evidence about Shakespeare’s Catholicism. The film interviews a number of people who believe that Shakespeare was a covert Catholic, hiding his religious affiliation due to religious persecution during the Reformation. This covert Catholicism is perhaps a reason that Shakespeare led a secretive life. We do know that Shakespeare’s mother Mary Arden came from a Catholic family (the Throckmortons of Coughton), that there is circumstantial evidence suggesting that Shakespeare’s father was Catholic (his prayer book was hidden in the rafters of his house and discovered 150 years later). Battle of Wills shows that the proposed painter of the Sanders portrait also came from a Catholic family in Coughton (11 kilometers from Stratford) and likely knew Shakespeare from there. As a suppressed minority, Catholic families knew each other and intermarried; there is evidence that members of the Sanders family married into both the Throckmorton families, and the Catesby family (of the Gunpowder Plot). Perhaps Shakespeare and the painter of the portrait attended hidden masses together, and were close friends.
Q: So were there people who stood in your way or didn't cooperate, maybe because you were viewed as shaking the comfortable world of Shakespearean orthodoxy? What exactly did people fear, if "fear" is the right word? In other words, why the hangup on existing images of Shakespeare?
Anne: The resistance I encountered was not from the film financing agencies, but from the Shakespeare establishment centered in Stratford and the National Portrait Gallery in London. There is a huge amount of money generated by licensing images of Shakespeare; in addition, I think there is a desire to control interpretations and some scholars are guarding their academic turf. I suspect that if the Sanders portrait emerged from Earl So-and-so's collection (as opposed to a Canadian family's), it would have been taken more seriously!
Which of course brings us to the newly-discovered Cobbe portrait, owned by an aristocratic Anglo-Irish family. I was aware of the research being done on this image for some time. The Cobbe is backed by the same Stratford scholars mentioned above. There are many problems with the image, not the least of which is that it is supposed to show Shakespeare at 46, and yet the sitter has a full head of hair! I'm hoping to deal with the Cobbe in a longer film in the future.
Q: Anne, congratulations on the film, and thanks for taking the time to speak with us. Battle of Wills sounds fascinating. Best of luck to you.
Anne: It's been a total pleasure!
If you wish to obtain a copy of Battle of Wills, contact Anne directly at email@example.com
Click here for Adam Gopnik's March 12 piece in The New Yorker on the matter of Shakespeare portraits.
(photo credit: Canadian Conservation Institute)
© The Marlowe-Shakespeare Connection, March 2009
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