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A Shakespeare Signboard

This large portrait of Shakespeare, painted on an oval mahogany panel, was presented to the Folger in 1975 by Mary Hyde, past president of the Shakespeare Association of America. Discovered by a London dealer in 1962, the antique piece was almost certainly a commercial signboard, as is evidenced by two horizontal braces, a pair of closed iron loops at the back, and a pattern of nail holes that suggests it was once reinforced by metal edging. As Hyde pointed out, the figure's scale—one and a half times life size —would also make it inappropriate for display inside a house.


The image itself is based on the popular "Chandos portrait" of Shakespeare (the actual Chandos portrait is named after a onetime owner, the third duke of Chandos, and is now in the National Gallery in London). Although never definitively linked to the Bard, the Chandos image is an informal and effective portrait that has inspired more copies than any other except the Droeshout engraving from the First Folio.


This signboard could be the one that hung over the publishing house of Jacob Tonson, which produced Nicholas Rowe's 1709 edition of Shakespeare's works, the first critically edited collection of the plays. But there are many other possibilities. By the late 1600s to the early 1700s, when the signboard was probably created, Shakespeare had become a common motif for the signs outside English inns, taverns, and even other publishing houses.


Unknown artist. Shakespeare signboard. Oil on panel, late 1600s to early 1700s.

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Infinite Variety
To find similar stories about other items from the Folger collection, look for Infinite Variety: Exploring the Folger Shakespeare Library.

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