Thursday, March 12, 2009

Overbury Overdrive, pt. 3: The (modern day) back-story

Here is a fascinating interview Channel 4 (UK) did with the family owner of the Cobbe portrait of "Shakespeare," the art restorer Alec Cobbe. An affable chap. After the 35 minute mark, the interviewer asks a few questions about the possible Thomas Overbury identification. And Cobbe says, essentially, that facial features can't be used to identify a sitter in a portrait.

But rewind the tape by about ten minutes, and there's Cobbe arguing for his portrait being a "Shakespeare" portrait by appealing to the similarities between his painting and the Droeshaut engraving of Shakespeare.

So there you have it. It can when you want it to, but it can't when you don't.


Unknown said...

The portrait looks even more like Richard Sackville than it does like Overbury, as someone pointed out on another website.

Mark said...

Here, Sabrina, is a good high-resolution image of Richard Sackville. (

Zoom in on Sackville's face. There's a mild resemblance to the Cobbe portrait yes: The eyes are certainly similar. But the nose (Sackville's is more bulbous), the cheekbones (Sackville's higher), the lips (Sackville's upturned at the edges), the ears... all are strikingly different from the Cobbe.

Sackville was an interesting figure in his own right at James's court, certainly. But he wasn't the sitter for the Cobbe portrait.

John in Berkeley said...

It’s important to recognize that the motto on the Cobbe portrait of Overbury--“principum amicitias!”-- alludes to the complete phrase “gravisque principum amicitias” from Horace, Bk. II, Ode I. I’ve seen some translations on the web that render the motto “Beware…”, and the rationale for it is clear from the phrasal, and textual context.

Here’s Horace:

Motum ex Metello consule civicum / Bellique causas et vitia et modos / Ludumque Fortunae gravisque / Principum amicitias et arma / Nondum expiatis uncta cruoribus, / Periculosae plenum opus aleae, / Tractas et incedis per ignes / Suppositos cineri doloso.

And here’s a web translation from 2003, posted by A. S. Kline:

You’re handling the Civil Wars, since Metellus / was Consul, the causes, errors, and stages, / Fortune’s game, and the heavy friendships / of princes, and the un-expiated / stain of blood over various weapons, / a task that’s filled with dangerous pitfalls, / so that you’re walking over embers / hidden under the treacherous ashes.

Another translation I consulted rendered the phrase as “disastrous leagues,” which has a nice Shake-spearean ring to it, however inappropriate to the man from Stratford, and appropriate to Thomas Overbury.

For those who care, note that the word is gravīs (long ī), a poetic alternate for gravēs, modifying amicitias, “friendships, alliances.” Second, note that the connotations of gravīs here are quite negative, as in “grave,” “oppressive,” or “noxious”—rather than “important,” “mighty,” or “venerable” (hence the addition of “Beware…!). Finally, note that the motto must be read as an allusion to the passage from Horace, i.e. that it can’t stand alone, since it preserves the oblique (accusative) inflections of the original. So don’t let anyone suggest to you the motto means “The alliances of princes (is a great thing to enjoy)”!