While researching the biography of botanist John Gerard (1545-1612), Mark Griffiths, a botanist and historian, came across a 400-year-old book that contains an engraved portrait of William Shakespeare when he was about 33 years old. So why is this a big deal? The two portraits that are considered the most authentic portraits of Shakespeare (the Johnson bust and the Droeshout portrait) depict the playwright late in life, most likely at the age of his death when he was 52 years old. The bust in Shakespeare’s funerary monument located in Holy Trinity Church, Stratford was carved by Garrat Johnson in 1616 who based his sculpture on Shakespeare’s death mask. In 1622, John Heminges and Henry Condell began printing the first collection of Shakespeare’s plays, known as the First Folio, they commissioned a young but established English engraver, Martin Droeshout, (he was 21 years old at the time) to create the engraving that appears on the frontispiece of this important literary work. The source for the engraving, however, remains a mystery. Tarnya Cooper, an art historian and chief curator at the National Portrait Gallery in London, elaborates: “It is not clear what the original source of the engraving was, but [Droeshout] must have based his likeness on an existing lifetime portrait, now lost.” Droeshout could have used a portrait painted by Marcus Gheeraerts, completed in 1595; or perhaps he used the Chandos portrait of Shakespeare (named after the owner of the painting, the Duke of Chandos), painted by John Taylor around 1610, when Shakespeare would have been 46 years old.
Back to the 400-year-old book. Pioneering botanist Gerard published the largest single-volume work (1,484 pages) on plants, titled The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes, in 1598. This is a very rare book, perhaps only 10 copies exist. The book features a title page with elaborate engravings by William Rogers. There are four portraits surrounded by decorative devices, heraldic motifs and emblematic flowers, that provide clues about the identity of each of the figures. By deciphering the clues, Griffith has identified the four individuals: John Gerard (the author), Rembert Dodoens (a well-known Flemish botanist), Lord Burghley (Queen Elizabeth’s Lord Treasurer), and William Shakespeare (the world’s greatest playwright). The engraving of the fourth figure shows a bearded young man wearing a laurel wreath and holding a fritillary (a plant, a member of the lily family, with bell-like flowers) and ear of sweetcorn — all clues that point to Shakespeare. Griffith elaborates: “The Fourth Man is not cartoonish or stylized. It may be monochrome, in fancy dress, and just 3.5 inches tall, but this is something that has been sought for centuries. By the time that portraits of Shakespeare were at a premium, the significance of the Rogers engraving had faded from memory. Its camouflaged figures, coded plants and ciphers proved too clever for its own good. The title page, one of the richest and most important artworks of the English Renaissance, came to be seen merely as a bibliophile’s rarity and a fine, if stereotypical specimen of Elizabethan decoration. Nobody dreamed of finding Shakespeare in it.”
For further reading: http://www.bbc.com/news/entertainment-arts-32782267
Tarnya Cooper, Searching for Shakespeare, Yale University Press (2006)