Friday, March 13, 2009

The Sanders Portrait and Battle of Wills: a question for filmmaker Anne Henderson

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

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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Anonymous said...

As the New Yorker article states, the Sanders portrait "has every bit as good a provenance as the new one [Cobbe], and a better direct claim: there’s a slip of paper, securely dated to the period, on the back of the thing . . ."

Anonymous said...

Ms. Henderson's film sounds interesting; something just doesn't seem right with the Cobbe. Thanks for the New Yorker link.

Anonymous said...

Lot of "ifs" with the Cobbe.

RRaymo said...

I think Wells jumped the gun with Cobbe, Anne makes a great case for the Sanders portrait.

Anonymous said...

How can Prof Wells in his status commit fraud, l suspect desperate people do desperate things but why now? could it be the filming of Battle of Wills following the thirteen positive tests now completed on the Sanders Portrait now being the only major contender is ready to greet the world the only painting done in Shakespeares lifetime.

Wells, seems to have ignored previous research by Charles Wisner Barrell back in the 1940s. The Folger (Janssen) Portrait / Cobbes is a copy of the each other, Barrell carried X-ray analysis of the Janseen which proved that the age of the sitter was 'AE 46' which had been overpainted on the original figured of 40 and the date of painting altered from the original date of 1590 to 1603 as was the overpainting of the baldhead.
Now we move to the fact that Wells failed to notice that the pattern of the ruff on the portrait was Tudor rose pattern common in 1590, and not the Scottish thistle which was popular in 1603 following the succession of James 1st in 1603.
Also around this time Barrell performed other similar anaylis on another overpainted portrait purporting to be Shakespeare in the Folger's collection called 'the Ashbourne portrait' which concluded that this painting was the lost portrait of Edward, de Vere Earl of Oxford by Cornelius Ketel.
So Prof Wells you should now take defeat like a gent and accept that you got it all wrong, the portrait is not Shakespeare but Sir Thomas Overbury don't let this fraud continue and dis-honour your name anymore, we can all make mistakes but not fraudulently! We await your statement

Luanna said...

In fairness, I don't think Prof. Wells meant to commit fraud. He is merely guilty of wishful thinking, which perhaps clouded his reason and led him to exaggerate the evidence in favor of the Cobbe. There IS some evidence for the Cobbe. It is just not as conclusive as Prof. Wells implied. As you say, we all make mistakes, and although the Cabbe is probably of Sir Thomas Overbury, and there are better cases for the Sanders and Chandos portraits, I still think Prof. Wells merely made a mistake, and did not intentionally commit fraud.

Anonymous said...

"Battle of Wills" will be on Bravo! on June 7 at 8 pm ET.

Anonymous said...

Launna, I could accept what you say if he admitted that he may have made a mistake , but so far as l know to date he hasn't !

Anonymous said...

I see the film is to be shown on Cabadian TV today, but what happens after that, l suspect that due to the impact that this portrait may well be the only genuine painting of the Bard surely the Shakespeare trust should be looking to try and bring him back to his home land and display him in the UK do they really feel they can miss this opportunity

Daniela Cox said...

Sorry, for the late comment, but I've only just been made aware of the Sanders Portrait and it's issue. The point is that I'd like to question the "experts"' notion that the man in the portrait could not be 39 years of age. Thinking of Shakespeare, we are talking of an artist, somebody probably completely in line with his inner self, somebody also, who never subdued too much to what people refer to as "reality", the author of the following lines: "Oh God! I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space", therefore somebody whose deeply rooted imagination could help overrule a dire reality. This all makes to being also less subdued to time's devastating influences. Finally an example deriving from my own family, my greatgrandfather was a professional musician, following his calling, when he met my greatgrandmother he was already a man in his late fourties, though he looked much younger. He never dared telling her his "real" age until on their wedding the clerk at the registar's office pronounced his birthdate to establish his identity, as a consequence he turned to my greatgrandmother and said: "Now you know and I would not mind if you walk out on me.", which luckily for me she didn't.