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The young, red-haired man in the cupboard

29 March 2003

12:00 AM

29 March 2003

12:00 AM

Shakespeare's Face Stephanie Nolen

Piatkus, pp.365, 18.99

If this had a third act it would make a superb film, for the cast list is virtually a re-run of Front Page, with Richard Addis, formerly of the Daily Express, now, magically, of the Canadian Globe and Mail, as the hard-bitten editor Walter Burns, and Stephanie Nolen, a young and eager reporter on the paper, as Hildy Johnson. It starts with an editorial conference, which, if you are unfamiliar with such things, is a sort of daily re-enactment of a high command meeting underground with tanks in the suburbs of their capital. In our time it is a scene made for black comedy.

With faltering advertising revenues and failing circulation shadowing their industry, newspaper executives in solemn conclave try to think of something, anything, that will fill their columns between the lonely hearts ads and the cures for incontinence, and allow them, and their paper, to survive another day. Respectable family men and women, they dream . . . of what? Of wonder drugs, or, wistfully, of murder (with any luck, of, or by, a celebrity), or, possibly in the case of Mr Addis, an ex-monk, of divine intervention. Which, on a May morning in 2001, duly came to him in Toronto.

For it was then at an editorial conference that Stephanie Nolen suddenly remembered something her mother had told her on the phone a week before. A neighbour of theirs in Ottawa, a chap called Sullivan who drove a school-bus, had a portrait of William Shakespeare, or was it by Shakespeare? Mrs Nolen wasn’t sure, but the bus-driver had mentioned in passing that it was worth a million dollars.

Her Canadian colleagues, Stephanie Nolen recalls, were not impressed; an intellectual amongst them pronounced that Shakespeare couldn’t paint, another muttered that the bus-driver had probably seen too many episodes of The Antiques Roadshow. But Mr Addis sat up very straight, as the greatest living survivor among newspaper executives would, given the circumstances. He told Miss Nolen to find out more, which she did.

She rang up Sullivan, who told her that the painting was not by Shakespeare, but of him, the only portrait done from life. It had been passed down in the family for 400 years ; they called it ‘Willy Shake’, and kept it in a cupboard.

That night, ‘holed up in the Globe’s cramped but rich library’, Stephanie Nolen began reading reference books. At this stage you begin to get to know her: the ‘cramped but rich library’ is a nice touch, for the girl has her way to make and her back to guard. And it was here that she found out that the only two reliable images of Shakespeare, the funeral bust in Stratford and the engraving in the First Folio, were both done after his death.

Now the comedy quickens. Mr Addis warily told her to ring up experts all over the world and ask them, with deliberate vagueness, as to the implications of finding a portrait of Shakespeare done from life. But after the curator of London’s National Portrait Gallery put the phone down on her, she changed her tactics a little, and began to ask them what a portrait of ‘oh say, Jesus’ would be worth done from life. What a wonderful scene it would make, she throwing that lightly into the conversation, then face after startled face crumpling like linen.

After a few hours of this, I had collected a couple of usable comments and had left a trail of experts in a variety of fields across Canada, the United States and Britain convinced that I was a complete lunatic.

It would be a godsend for Ben Hecht and Charlie Macarthur who wrote Front Page. Later that day Miss Nolen was shown Willy Shake, given an outing from his cupboard. He was, she wrote, no bigger than a vinyl LP, ‘an old-fashioned vinyl LP’, but then she is a young woman. Painted on oak was the face of a young, red-haired man who seemed to be trying hard not to smile, and a date. ‘AN 1603.’

Her reaction was ‘He’s

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