Cleaning of Chandos Portrait could confirm what Shakespeare looked like

The relic-like painting of the Bard, which hung in the Duke's Theatre in the 1660s, was the first work donated to London's National Portrait Gallery upon its founding

The National Portrait Gallery in London is considering cleaning one of its most famous pictures, the Chandos portrait of William Shakespeare. The proposal was made at a seminar with outside specialists; the gallery’s trustees will decide next year whether to proceed with treatment.

Although all portraits of Shakespeare are controversial, the Chandos picture (around 1600-10) is the one that is most likely to depict the dramatist from life. It is said to have been painted by a John Taylor, supposedly a friend of the Bard, and was first owned by William Davenant, the poet laureate. Unfortunately, the identity of Taylor remains unclear.

In the 1660s, the painting hung in the Duke’s Theatre in London as a portrait of Shakespeare. It then suffered from abrasion and attempts to clean it in the 17th and 18th centuries. It is named after the Duke of Chandos, who acquired it in 1789. With the inventory number NPG1, it was the first painting donated to the National Portrait Gallery on its formation in 1856.

“Almost a relic” Tarnya Cooper, the gallery’s curatorial director, admits that the portrait is now “almost a relic”. The original paint was sparsely applied, so today only a thin layer survives. Early restorers made changes to details, such as lengthening the figure’s beard and hair. Retouches have become discoloured, most noticeably on the forehead. Old varnish has deteriorated, giving the picture a darker and yellow hue.

The Chandos portrait has had no significant conservation treatment since its arrival at the gallery. A decision on cleaning has not yet been made but the work would involve the removal of discoloured varnish. The challenge for conservators will be to determine how much of the later additions to remove.

Most exciting, however, is the prospect that conservation work might provide further clues to determine whether the sitter is indeed the great dramatist—and how different the face was originally from what we see with the portrait’s present condition.

In the meantime, the Chandos portrait is due to be lent to the Royal Shakespeare Company for a display on The Play’s The Thing at the Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. The painting will be on loan from 22 October to 18 December.