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The Ashbourne Portrait

Only two existing images are considered authentic likenesses of William Shakespeare—the memorial bust at Stratford and the engraving by Martin Droeshout for the First Folio. But many other images have been linked to Shakespeare over the years, and many were collected by the Folgers. This one, called the Ashbourne portrait, was first recorded in 1847 in the possession of a schoolmaster from Ashbourne, Derbyshire.


Without a doubt, the portrait does not depict William Shakespeare, although Emily Folger probably thought it did when she purchased it in March 1931. It is also clear that the original was touched up, probably in the 1800s, to capitalize on its supposed resemblance to Shakespeare. The forehead was raised, the coat of arms obliterated, and the year of composition changed from 1612 to 1611—the year when William Shakespeare was 47, which is given as the subject's age.


Most researchers believe that details uncovered in the painting's 1979 restoration, including part of a family motto and crest, identify the painting's subject as Sir Hugh Hamersley, later the Lord Mayor of London, who was indeed 47 in 1612. Although Hamersley's coat of arms was not assigned until 1614, it would have been unremarkable for him to have had them added later. Some of those who argue that Shakespeare's works were actually composed by Edward de Vere, the seventeenth earl of Oxford, however, contend the Ashbourne portrait originally depicted Oxford instead.


The question of whether it was Shakespeare who wrote the works attributed to him, often called the authorship controversy, existed well before the Folger was founded, although in the early 1900s the leading alternative was still Sir Francis Bacon. There is an abundance of historical evidence that links Shakespeare to the body of plays and poems that bear his name. The Folger itself takes no position on the question; as a library open to scholars, it supports freedom of inquiry on any topic. Its holdings include extensive materials from the nineteenth century onward dealing with such proposed authors as Oxford; Bacon; William Stanley, sixth Earl of Derby; the literary patron Edward Dyer; the playwright Christopher Marlowe; and many others.

The Ashbourne portrait. Oil on canvas, 1612

To learn more about the Folger's extensive collections online, click here.
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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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