Friday, April 10, 2009

Stanley Wells and the Cobbe Portrait by Ros Barber

A month ago, Professor Stanley Wells, chairman of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, announced the discovery of a new portrait of Shakespeare. Wells, described in the Trust’s press release as “one of the world’s leading experts on Shakespearian studies,” called this portrait “almost certainly the only authentic image of Shakespeare made from life.” The Cobbe portrait, as it is known, has been in the family of Alec Cobbe for centuries. It was for many years believed to be of Sir Walter Raleigh, and it bears a label on the reverse to this effect. “The evidence that it represents Shakespeare and that it was done from life, though it is circumstantial, is in my view overwhelming,” said Professor Wells. “I feel in little doubt that this is a portrait of Shakespeare, done from life and commissioned by the Earl of Southampton.”

In the same press release, the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust attempted to discredit the most credible contender for a portrait-from-life, the Chandos, by quoting Park Honan, who notes that the portrait’s “authenticity has been debated.” This is, of course, true of all the portraits suggested as Shakespeare, and indicates nothing more than a responsible scholarly attitude. In an attempt to enhance the significance of Honan’s pronouncement, the press release dubs him “Shakespeare’s most authoritative biographer," a statement that many scholars familiar with Honan’s biographies might consider highly questionable.

Wells’s insistence that the Cobbe portrait is of Shakespeare is even more so, and the case against it was made eloquently by Katherine Duncan-Jones in the Times Literary Supplement. Wells’s belief that the Cobbe portrait “could be the basis for the [Droeshout] engraving” seems to be based on nothing more than wishful thinking, since it bears no resemblance to this or other generally accepted images of Shakespeare. This sitter is considerably younger than the 46 Shakespeare would have been in 1610 when the portrait was painted, and he lacks the high-domed forehead of the Droeshout and the Chandos, possessing instead an aquiline nose and a pointed chin. As Katherine Duncan-Jones and others have noted, the sitter bear a remarkably strong resemblance to an existing portrait of Sir Thomas Overbury.

Why then, would Wells wish to gamble his professional reputation on such an extraordinary claim? The answer may lie in the need to shore up the case for a Stratfordian Shakespeare in the face of what might be perceived as an increasing non-Stratfordian “threat." The sitter is obviously wealthy, and fits neatly with Wells’s orthodox conception of Shakespeare as a property and landowner who wrote chiefly to turn a profit. As non-Stratfordians recognize, the attribution of the Works to the Stratford Shakespeare rests entirely on a secondary source, the prefatory material of the First Folio, the majority of which – even the portion purportedly written by Shakespeare’s “fellows” - was penned by the age’s chief satirist, Ben Jonson. Wells links picture with text, not only through his unconvincing attempt to associate the Cobbe portrait with the First Folio by way of the Droeshout engraving, but by tracing the picture’s provenance back to the only man ever to receive a personal dedication from the author. As the press release describes, the portrait arrived with the Cobbes “through their cousin’s marriage to the great granddaughter of Shakespeare’s only literary patron, Henry Wriothesley, the 3rd Earl of Southampton” and this, indeed, is the chief attraction of the Cobbe portrait to Professor Wells. What we have been missing to this point, Wells might argue, is a portrait of the great author, painted in his lifetime, which can be linked biographically to a historical figure documented as being associated with him. Or have we?

There may have been more than one reason why Wells wished to cast doubts upon the Chandos portrait, which Dr. Tarnya Cooper’s three-and-a-half-year study concluded had “the strongest claim of any of the known contenders to be a true portrait of Shakespeare.” The Chandos portrait bears interesting comparison with the putative Corpus Christi portrait of Marlowe. Although I am making no grand Wellsian claim, it is not inconceivable to envisage the Chandos sitter as an older version of the Corpus Christi man, painted some 25 years later. The high forehead, the bouffant hair at the sides, the impassive gaze, the small mouth, and even the simple collar style are shared – similarities utilized to great effect by the designer of the original cover of Rodney Bolt’s History Play.

But what is more interesting to those prepared to entertain the Marlovian theory of Shakespeare authorship is that the Chandos portrait can be traced back to a family documented as being associated with Marlowe.

The Chandos portrait is so-called because its first documented owner was James Brydges, the 3rd Duke of Chandos. The 3rd Duke’s great grandfather, Sir James Brydges, 8th Baron Chandos of Sudeley, inherited the title, plus Sudeley castle and its contents, when the 6th and 7th Barons, both sons of the 5th Baron, Sir Grey Brydges, died without male issue. If the Chandos portrait is a portrait of Shakespeare, and if it has remained in the Brydges family since its commission in 1610, then it is presumably the 5th Baron Grey Brydges (1581 – 1621), or someone close to him, whom literary historians would hope to find had some connection with the author.

What is interesting from a Marlovian authorship perspective is that the Baron’s wife, Lady Chandos, was none other than Lady Anne Stanley, eldest daughter of Ferdinando Stanley, Lord Strange. Marlowe is documented as saying he was “very well known” to Lord Strange when arrested at Flushing in 1592. Marlowe’s friend Thomas Nashe is also connected with Strange, having apparently dedicated to him the erotic poem "The Choise of Valentines," and Edward Alleyne, who was famous for playing Marlowe’s protagonists, was associated with Strange’s Men for a time. Thomas Kyd, the former roommate whose arrest appears to have led directly to Marlowe’s, is also believed to have written for Strange, and Strange is considered to be one of the strongest candidates for the Lord whom Kyd is attempting to distance from Marlowe in his letters to Sir John Puckering after Marlowe’s apparent death.

Lord Strange died in suspicious circumstances in April 1594, less than a year after becoming the 5th Earl of Derby, and it was widely believed at the time that he was poisoned for refusing to take part in a Catholic plot. Marlowe’s probable involvement in countering Catholic plots is suggested by three independent accusations that he intended to “go to the other side” (1587, 1592, 1593). David Riggs has raised the interesting possibility that Marlowe was “coining” in Flushing in an attempt to infiltrate the conspirators associated with Lord Strange’s Catholic cousin, Sir William Stanley, who had announced his intentions to assassinate the Queen. The documented association of Marlowe, his close friend, his chief actor, and his former roommate with Lord Strange, and the possibility that Marlowe was attempting to infiltrate and expose the Catholic conspiracies that eventually led to the future Earl of Derby’s death, make it all the more interesting that the portrait declared by the National Gallery to be the most likely contender for a portrait of Shakespeare painted from life was painted not long after Strange’s daughter became Lady Chandos in 1608.

If one is willing to consider the possibility that Marlowe was forced into hiding in May 1593 as a result of his intelligence work exposing Catholic plots – plots which led not only to his downfall but to the death of Ferdinando Stanley - the possibility that the Chandos portrait is Marlowe appears considerably more plausible than that the Cobbe portrait is Shakespeare.

Scholars in the humanities would do well to consider
the observations of physicists
that the human observer necessarily changes the nature of his or her reality. We may draw numerous conclusions, but perhaps it is unwise to adopt a stance - of which Professor Wells is as guilty as A.D.Wraight - of total conviction. For it is probably a function of our neurological wiring and the quantum universe that in scholarship, whether orthodox or exploratory, we very often find exactly what we are looking for.

Ros Barber

© Ros Barber, April 2009

Ros Barber is the first person in the world to complete a PhD in Marlovian authorship theory. Her PhD was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (UK). Her first degree was in Biological Sciences. A founding member of the International Marlowe-Shakespeare Society, she has published articles challenging the orthodox biography of Marlowe in academic books and journals, including the peer-reviewed Routledge journal Rethinking History. Her essay "Was Marlowe a Violent Man?," which was presented at the Marlowe Society of America conference in 2008, is featured in Christopher Marlowe the Craftsman (Ashgate 2010). A published poet, her latest poetry collection, Material (Anvil 2008), was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation and was funded by Arts Council England.

Click here for our December 2008 Q and A with Ros Barber.

Click here for Dr. Barber's video interview on the Marlowe-Shakespeare theory.

(original History Play cover design by Rodney Bolt and Allan Grotjohann)

Order Ros's debut novel today!

"It’s enough to strike despair into the heart of James Shapiro, author of Contested Will, as well as the hearts of all the other Shakespeare experts who refute the so-called 'authorship controversy'."  (Financial Times)

Click here for the blog's home page and recent content.THE MARLOWE PAPERS


LiveatLeeds said...

I have always been intrigued by the cover of Bolt's book, thanks for the clarity. Definite similarities bet. Chandos/Corpus Christi - well, I see the similarities.

Dave Herber said...

Ferdinando Stanley, 5th Earl of Derby (Lord Strange) died on April 16th, not in February of 1594.

There are much deeper connections betwen many of the people mentioned here that revolve around Strange. One of the most commonly mentioned is John Poole, who is credited as giving Marlowe much of his initial information in coining while the two were in Newgate in 1589. Poole had married into the Stanley family and was therefore related to Strange.

In 1606 Thomas Dembye and Thomas Webbe were indicted for assaulting Poole. Webbe was also a 'goldsmith' imprisoned for coining and a member of the Prague Circle who were associated with Sir William Stanley. He was also a suspect in the Winchester Robbery in 1591 (involving Poole and likely to fund the exiles in their Prague Plot to put Strange on the throne) and knew Richard Hesketh, the man who Strange turned over to the authorities, for which many claim he was murdered.

There are also letters extant from 1611 written in Paris connecting Poole to Lord Chandos among many other links I am researching.

CARLO D. said...


My typo. Thanks for the correction & great info. Carlo

Anonymous said...

Stanley Wells is again trying to make Shakespeare into something he never was. The Cobbe Portrait is of Sir Thomas Overbury, by Cornelius Janssen Ceulen. It was published in 1965 on the cover of Cast of Ravens: The Strange Case of Sir Thomas Overbury by Beatrice White. The original hangs in the Bodleian Library. Apparently, several copies were made of the original. Overbury was the only person, apart from the two princes, to die unofficially in the Tower of London, the victim of poisoning. That Stanley Wells was so easily taken in by the notion that the Cobbe portrait is of W.S. simply demonstrates how Stratfordians are forever trying to find ways of improving the fictional life of Shakespeare.

Sam Blumenfeld said...

What will Stratfordians think of next?

Dave Herber said...

There is greater similarity between the Marlowe and Chandos pictures than the Cobbe and Droeshout. Being a natural conspiracy theorist the “Principum Amicitias” interests me.

If it can be translated (as the Birthplace Trust does) as meaning "Beware the friendship of Princes", is it possible (knowing its source, that this is an image of Southampton and the text refers to the Essex Rebellion? I am sure some of you are familiar with the theory that Robert Devereaux was actually Robert Tudor (the engraving of the name Robart Tidir exists in the Beauchamp Tower where Essex was held prior to his execution and no prisoner with that names was ever recorded as held there).

Although some make the claim that the Cobbe portrait is Southampton, I am yet to read anyone making this connection.

Isabel Gortazar said...

Well done, Ros and Dave Herber. And as Sam says, what will Stratfordians think of next? In a way, we should be grateful to see someone like S. Wells clutching at such feeble straws. The “Principum Amicitias” would certainly fit Essex, Overbury or Raleigh, whereas I cannot see how it can have any connection with Shakespeare.
On the other hand, at the risk of sounding as much a wishful-thinker as Mr Wells, I am sure the Chandos is a portrait of Marlowe, whom W. Vaughan described in 1602, as having "a black, round beard", and the similarity to the Corpus Christi portrait is difficult to miss.

LJordan said...


MarcoMillions said...

keep it up, it seems the mainstream media is beginning to pick up that this portrait is dubious.

Daryl Pinksen said...

Ros Barber's connection of the Chandos portrait with Marlowe's patron, Lord Strange, is a significant discovery. The resemblance of the Chandos to the putative Marlowe portrait at Cambridge might indeed be more than a coincidence.

On a related note, Germaine Greer, in an April 13, 2009 article posted at the, dismisses the Cambridge portrait as an image of Marlowe.

The 1585 portrait is usually explained - quite convincingly - as a celebration of Marlowe's new status as an agent in the Walsingham/Burleigh led intelligence network.

Greer says,"If Marlowe was a spy, as many historians believe,there was little point in having his likeness spread about."

Perhaps the Cambridge painting was not meant for general viewing. The existence of a portrait does not necessarily mean that it was prominently displayed, especially if the sitter was involved in intelligence work. But Greer does raise a valid point.

ProfRegan said...

the best piece I've read on the subject!

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

"the attribution of the Works to the Stratford Shakespeare rests entirely on a secondary source, the prefatory material of the First Folio..."

This is so laughably false that you should really not be surprised that you aren't taken seriously.

Clare H said...

Perhaps you'd like to explain what about that statement you consider to be incorrect? Or point us towards any primary source evidence that you consider supports your belief that that William Shakespeare of Stratford is author of the works?

Anonymous said...

You're joking, right? The primary source evidence is that Shakespeare's name appears on the Folio--and many other works--and that his contemporaries, who knew what they were talking about, considered him to have written them. He was mentioned many times during his own lifetime as being the author of the works. Really, you may wish to review the basic facts and stop believing conspiracy theories. It's not only that there is overwhelming, incontrovertible proof that Shakespeare of Stratford was the author; it's that there is not the slightest evidence whatsoever that anyone else was. Please see

Clare H said...

"The primary source evidence is that Shakespeare's name appears on the Folio."

I'm sorry to disappoint you but ask any historian and they will confirm that the First Folio (published 1623) is not primary source evidence for a man who died in 1616, as it was published outside of the subject's lifetime. It is therefore a secondary source which is the point Ms Barber was (quite accurately) making. The Folio is the first piece of evidence to link the works with the Stratford man via the phrases "thy Stratford moniment", and "Sweet Swan of Avon" (for which there are alternative interpretations), and is seven years posthumous.

The Stratford candidate was not, as you state, "mentioned many times during his own lifetime as being author of the works".
That people recognised an author going by the name "William Shakespeare" in his lifetime is not in doubt, but we have no evidence that anyone thought the Stratford man was the author. He was never referred to as a writer by those who knew him personally. John Ward became vicar of Stratford while Shakespeare's daughters and grand-daughter were living and managed to garner nothing from them and only hearsay from others. I'm afraid you are confusing impersonal and personal testimony.

Interesting that you should mention that "his contemporaries, who knew what they were talking about, considered him to have written them." As I noted above, contemporaries certainly recognised an author going by the name of "William Shakespeare" but there is no evidence anyone thought this to be the man you so evidently believe to be the author. And indeed, Ms Barber has just published research which strongly suggests a very knowledgeable literary contemporary (Gabriel Harvey) not only doubted Shakespeare's authorship of Venus and Adonis, but believed the author to be Marlowe (Critical Survey 21-2, 83-110). Other knowledgeable contemporaries (such as John Marston and Joseph Hall) also appear to have doubted Shakespeare's authorship. According to Gibson's "Shakespeare's Claimants" the academic response at the time was to agree that Marston and Hall had doubts about the authorship of Venus and Adonis but to conclude simply that "they were wrong". Yet John Marston, at least, was well connected enough to seek out William Shakespeare and find out for himself, had he wanted to. Perhaps he did. Perhaps that's why he thought it was someone else.

I appreciate none of this is likely to sway you in your belief that you are right and we are all "conspiracy theorists". You must believe what you must believe. However it would enhance your argument to at least be accurate with your terms, and recognise the difference between primary and secondary evidence, before leaping in with your certainties.

Peter Farey said...

Anonymous said...Please see

Tom Reedy and Dave Kathman's "How We Know That Shakespeare Wrote Shakespeare: The Historical Facts" is without doubt the best single argument that has been presented in support of the Stratfordian theory.

Everything in it is accurate and logical, but unfortunately the one point where they go off the rails is in their conclusion, which is a non sequitur. The correct conclusion from the evidence they adduce is that people at the time either believed or said they believed that "Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare".

In the vast majority of cases, of course, this would be quite enough to justify a conclusion that this person had written the works. In this case, however, what they are arguing against is a scenario in which evidence like this is precisely what would have been expected had Marlowe's death been faked and his plays from then on presented as having been by Shakespeare.

To refute that theory it is necessary to show where the Marlovian arguments fall down in terms of information or reasoning, and this is is a subject upon which the Shakespeare Authorship site (where that article is to be found) is completely silent.

Peter Farey

Clare H said...

On a separate point, I have already read Dave Kathman's defence of the Stratford candidate in my review of the evidence of all the authorship candidates, thank you. The argument for the incumbent found there is nevertheless flawed.

That the Stratford man was a shareholder in the Lord Chamberlain's and later the King's Men I certainly agree. The evidence that he was an actor is considerably more flimsy. Nevertheless neither his being a share-holder or an actor means that he was the author of the plays, rather than a front for an author who had the strongest of reasons for hiding his identity.

The name William Shakespeare was not unique in that period; there was even a William Shakespeare who drowned in the Avon. No-one in Stratford appears to have recognised your candidate as an author in his lifetime. His parents and daughters were functionally illiterate and the six shaky signatures he has left us do not evidence someone who was confident and experienced with a pen. Compare his signatures that of Thomas Nashe, or any other Elizabethan who wrote regularly. Old age, infirmity and even blindness have been offered to "explain away" these embarrassing signatures, but none of these explanations hold water.

There are many other reasons for "reasonable doubt" in this particular man's authorship, which you will find at should you be open to understanding why the authorship question simply will not go away, no matter how much you would like it to.

Evidence is all that interests me, and I note that there is some significant evidence supporting Marlowe's authorship (including an attribution from a contemporary) but a notable dearth of primary source evidence supporting the case the Stratford man, despite 200 years of devoted scholarship and a careful combing of the archives. Thus I prefer to keep an open mind.

DresdenDoll said...

"In this case, however, what they are arguing against is a scenario in which evidence like this is precisely what would have been expected had Marlowe's death been faked and his plays from then on presented as having been by Shakespeare."

Mr. Farey . . .I agree. Shakespeare as successful frontman? So, there is evidence, of course, of Shakespeare being credited with some "Shakespeare plays" during his lifetime. But, in your opinion, it would be as part of the whole front for Marlowe?

CARLO D. said...


Could you clarify your comment a bit? Thanks!

Peter Farey said...

DresdenDoll said...
So, there is evidence, of course, of Shakespeare being credited with some "Shakespeare plays" during his lifetime. But, in your opinion, it would be as part of the whole front for Marlowe?

Shakespeare certainly wasn't credited during Marlowe's supposed lifetime with any "Shakespeare plays," and if he was being presented as the author of any works written by Marlowe after that, then it would be quite surprising if any name other than "Shakespeare" were credited with the authorship of them.

Peter Farey

Anonymous said...

"The Cobbe portrait is not a genuine likeness of William Shakespeare made from life

"Confirmed by four expert opinions

"Working with four specialists, Professor Hildegard Hammerschmidt-Hummel, a Shakespeare scholar at the University of Mainz, was able to refute the claim of the picture restorer and owner Alec Cobbe that the 'Cobbe portrait', in his family's possession for centuries, is a genuine life-portrait of William Shakespeare. [...]"