Sunday, March 29, 2009

Overbury Overdrive, pt. 5: The Empire Strikes Back

The genteel slapping sounds of kid-leather-glove-against-cheek have been on the rise in the pages of the Times Literary Supplement of late.

Last week, this blog noted the arguments put forward by Shakespeare scholar Katherine Duncan-Jones that, in short, the eyes have it: The new "Cobbe portrait," featuring the face of Sir Thomas Overbury, is actually a portrait of Sir Thomas Overbury and not, pace Stanley Wells and his colleagues at the Stratford Birthplace Trust, a portrait of Will Shakespeare.

"Sir,--" Stanley Wells begins his rebuttal in this week's TLS. (Isn't it curious how the newspaper as a medium is dying, reaching out to every reader it can, while one of the world's most legendary upholders of newspaperly traditions hasn't quite gotten around to addressing the ladyfolk yet?)

" Katherine Duncan-Jones," Wells writes, "attempts to revive David Piper’s ill-founded suggestion of 1964 and 1982 that the Cobbe portrait portrays not William Shakespeare but Sir Thomas Overbury (March 20). Piper claimed that an “early inventory” of the Ellenborough collection, sold in 1947....."

The snows of largely irrelevant facts and dates continue to fly as Wells urges his readers to pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.

"[P]erceived resemblance unsupported by documentary evidence is a naive (though natural) basis for identification," Wells writes. "Different people can look alike."

So, let's see... there's an engraving of Sir Thomas Overbury that says it's an engraving of Sir Thomas Overbury. And there's a miniature that says its sitter is Sir Thomas Overbury. Both of these pieces of documentary evidence have the same face as the Cobbe portrait of "Shakespeare." (Not going to rehash the previous posting that makes this straightforward case.)

But, to quote an old sage, your eyes can deceive you. Don't trust them.

Er... well, except when it comes to noticing some interesting similarities between the Cobbe portrait and the Droeshout engraving in the 1623 Shakespeare First Folio.

Wells continues:

"Duncan-Jones waves away our suggestion that the Cobbe portrait was the basis for Droeshout’s 1623 engraving, where the sitter is only slightly less richly dressed. Certainly Droeshout appears to have simplified the image, updated the collar, and given Shakespeare less hair, possibly reflecting his later appearance. He was keen enough to catch the cast in Shakespeare’s left eye, not present in the Overbury portrait. But engravers commonly simplified and updated... Compositionally, the 1623 engraving and the Cobbe portrait match perfectly.

And there you have it. The Droeshout and the Cobbe match one another perfectly. So says the good professor, anyway.

Remember, the Cobbe portrait hasn't even been shown to the public yet. The Cobbe's official unveiling, at an exhibition in Stratford-upon-Avon, is still 25 days away.

Shall we compare the mounting bluster to a summer's breeze? It's certainly getting drafty in here.

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John in Berkeley said...

Hi Mark. Without wishing you to share your ideas prematurely, I'm curious: what are your ideas on the reversal of the coat on the Droeshout subject?

John in Berkeley said...

A dilemma arises, it seems, between two possibilities: either 1) Droeshout was extremely unskilled in reproducing the two sides of the doublet worn by the subject in the portrait he was following, or 2) his apparent inability to represent the subject's right side (the viewer's left) in proper perspective was in fact a deliberate infelicity on his part (it could have been part of his commision). After comparing the "Cobbe" portrait of Overbury with the Droeshout engraving, one can see some resemblance in the angles and spaces of the doublet, though Droeshout has in the process turned a realistic portrait of a doublet (whether Overbury's from the Cobbe portrait or some other) into a very clumsy and unrealistic one. Just my two cents.