Friday, January 12, 2007

'Shakespeare' portrait goes on display

... this from S H A K S P E R: The Global Shakespeare Discussion List (

THE BARD IN THE PICTURE; Exhibit at the Macdonald Stewart Art
Centre a part of 'Shakespeare - Made in Canada' festival

There's mystery, intrigue and history behind the man encased in bulletproof plastic at the Macdonald Stewart Art Centre. The gentle face-with its receding hairline, thin features and slight grin-stares from a world-renowned portrait believed to be more than four centuries old. Tonight, it will be unveiled for the thousands who will view it in the coming months and decide for themselves whether the man in the painting is in fact playwright William Shakespeare. The "Shakespeare-Made in Canada" exhibition will be launched at the centre at 7:30 p.m. The exhibition, as well as the festival built around it, centres on the famous, and controversial, "Sanders portrait," which was installed at the gallery last Friday.

Festival organizers say it's the oldest and most famous piece of art the city has ever displayed. Many believe the painting is the only image of the Bard that was painted while he was alive.

Sue Bennett, who sits on the festival's committee, expects the portrait will bring visitors out in droves.

"I would hope there would be in excess of 50,000 people," said Bennett, who works at the University of Guelph. "I don't see why there wouldn't be.

"Blockbusters don't usually get this far out of Toronto and Toronto isn't that accessible for a lot of people. Guelph is." The painting has been at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto for months but it's owned by an Ottawa man, Lloyd Sullivan, whose family has passed it down through 14 generations. His grandmother brought it to Canada from England and the painting spent many years tucked away in a suitcase under her bed.

When Sullivan inherited the portrait, he kept it in a cupboard at the back of a closet and it was displayed on the wall of his dining room for a number of years. Since 1991, he's been researching the painting, which was unveiled to the public in 2001.

"It will never end up in a suitcase again," he said with a laugh yesterday at the Macdonald Stewart Art Centre. "The story started in England, but it finished in Canada. It's a true Canadian treasure."

The image was created by John Sanders, believed to have belonged to the same theatre company in England that Shakespeare was a part of.

For about the past 15 years, the portrait-at its owner's bidding-has gone through extensive testing to determine when it was painted.

"There is no question it is the true life image of William Shakespeare," Sullivan said. "There used to be 450 paintings of Shakespeare. Ours is the 451st."

The oak panel that was used has been dated to a tree that was felled in 1585. The new Globe Theatre in London, England, has said the robe worn by the man in the painting seems to fit with what Shakespeare's status was in society when he was alive.

Judy Nasby, the director and curator of the Macdonald Stewart Art Centre, said the portrait has only become more famous as the testing continues to tie it to Shakespeare's era. The Bard died in 1616.

Nasby said she has stopped and gazed at the painting several times since it was installed. Apart from its beauty, she said the mystery is what intrigues her.

"All of those questions are there," she said. "Is it really Will Shakespeare? That's the question."

But the painting is only one part of a festival that includes hundreds of pieces from museums as far west as Vancouver and as far east as Quebec City.

Nasby is one of eight curators who have put the exhibit together. The Macdonald Stewart Art Centre will be selling a book of essays from the curators, explaining their contributions.

The exhibit, which includes costumes, stage models, portraits, new media presentations and recordings, took about a year and a half to put together. Nasby said the art gallery's upgrades for security, temperature and humidity controls cost about $40,000 alone.

Admission to the centre is free but donations will be accepted.

Bennett said the "Shakespeare-Made in Canada" festival will continue throughout Guelph until late May, just before the exhibit closes in June.

"We've got more than 40 community groups putting on concerts and performances," Bennett said. "There are almost 100 performances and presentations."

Despite the fact that it was passed through one family for hundreds of years, the Sanders portrait is in extremely good condition. Nasby said it was painted on high-quality English oak, which helped it age.

Nasby clearly gets excited when she speaks about the painting, its history and Shakespeare.

But she paused when asked whether the man's eyes in the portrait seemed to follow visitors across the room.

"I think people have to make up their own mind on what they think about that," Nasby said with a smile.

"People have to decide for themselves."


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