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Monday, 22 April, 2002, 12:34 GMT 13:34 UK
Painting sparks bard sexuality debate
Portrait of Henry Wriothesley (1573-1624) Third Earl of Southampton, c.1590-93 (oil on panel) by English School, (16th century)
The Earl of Southampton was Shakespeare's patron
Art experts and historians have denied a recently identified painting of William Shakespeare's patron can be used as evidence that the bard was gay.

The painting of Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton, was originally thought to be of a woman - Lady Norton, daughter of the Bishop of Winton.

I don't think there was any doubt Shakespeare was bisexual

Professor Peter Holland
The picture shows a man in frilly clothes, with long hair, an earring and wearing what appears to be lipstick.

Academics have long argued over the sexuality of the playwright and poet with many believing his some of his sonnets, written to a "fair youth", prove he was gay.


The owner of the painting, Alec Cobbe, told BBC News Online that it had been in his family 300 years.

The subject of the picture came to light when it was examined by Alastair Laing, from the National Trust.

"We did a lot of research for an exhibition at Kenwood we did last year," said Mr Cobbe.

A frilly collar was entirely appropriate for a man during this period

Susan North, Victoria and Albert Museum
"Alastair Laing was the first person to recognise that he was wearing men's clothes although he looked like a woman."

Mr Laing and Mr Cobbe have both said that newspaper reports that the Earl of Southampton was "cross-dressing" in the painting are wrong.

Mr Laing, an advisor on paintings and sculputre to the National Trust, said: "It is of a man who is a dandy. It is perfectly normal apart from the earring and the hair."

Professor Peter Holland of the Shakespeare Institute, at Birmingham University, said the painting did not prove anything.

"It seems to me that what has been shown is a lack of knowledge about Elizabethan portraits.

"It seems to be a very normal picture of a fashionable young man.

"It is impossible to tell from any Elizabethan painting whether someone was wearing make-up or not."

Professor Holland also said that many young men in that time had long hair.


Susan North, an expert in furniture, textiles and fashion, at the Victoria and Albert museum, London, said: "One of the greatest errors we make in looking at dress of the past is to view gender distinctions from the perspective of our own dress.

"A 'frilly collar' was entirely appropriate for a man during this period.

"Jewellery for men was also acceptable and earrings are frequently seen in portraits of men of this time, along with long hair.

"Again these are part of masculine fashion and not any sign of sexual preference."

She also agree that it was impossible to tell if the subject was wearing make-up because it was not known if the painter had accentuated colours.


Professor Holland said he did not think Shakespeare was gay.

"But I don't think there was any doubt he was bisexual.

"There does not seem to me to be any doubt that some of the sonnets were written to young men, quite possibly Southampton.

"But remember notions of sexuality were different at the time and the term homosexual did not exist at all."

The painting is currently on display at Hatchlands Park, a National Trust property in East Clandon, Surrey.

See also:

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01 Mar 01 | Entertainment
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