Historical Portraits Picture Archive

A portrait enamel of William Shakespeare (1564-1616), after the ‘Chandos’ portrait, mounted in a gold ring, 1854 

William Essex (1784-1869)

A portrait enamel of William Shakespeare (1564-1616), after the ‘Chandos’ portrait, mounted in a gold ring, 1854, William Essex
Zoom
Enamel
19th Century
Oval, 5/8 in. (16 mm.) high, mounted in a gold rope-twist ring
 
Provenance:
Private collection, Venice from 1945; By family descent
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This novel and intricately detailed enamel portrait, mounted in a gold ring and painted two hundred and ninety years after the birth of Shakespeare celebrates the enduring interest in his visage.

The Chandos portrait, painted c.1600-10 and named after the previous owners the Dukes of Chandos, is the only portrait of Shakespeare that has a significant claim to having been painted from life and was certainly considered authentic within living memory of the playwright. It was the first portrait to be acquired by the National Portrait Gallery when it was founded in 1856 and although the identity of the sitter is not conclusive, it has become an icon for the dramatist responsible for plays reflecting the ‘universal passions of human nature’.

By the time William Essex painted this enamel portrait, James Orchard Halliwell-Phillipps (1820–1889), the antiquary and well-known literary scholar, was publishing an elaborately illustrated, limited edition collection of Shakespeare’s plays bound in sixteen thick folio volumes. The publication of Phillipps’ edition helped further bring Shakespeare’s work to the attention of a transitioning nineteenth-century public.

Essex produced several enamel portrait miniatures of Shakespeare including a larger version, again after the Chandos portrait, now in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum [1588-1871]. The present portrait, however, is the only known version to have been set into a ring. A similar, although slightly less accomplished, version by William Essex’s pupil William Bishop Ford (1832–1922), mounted as a brooch, entered the art market in recent years.

William Essex and his brother Alfred established a family of miniature and enamel painters. Both brothers trained under Charles Muss (1779–1824), enamel painter to William IV and although learning highly-skilled and traditional enamelling techniques from their master, William Essex and his brother refined these techniques to create large, ambitious enamel plaques. These much sought-after plaques distinguished the brothers from earlier enamellists. Essex exhibited his miniatures at the Royal Academy from 1818, as well as the British Institution and the Society of British Artists, until five years before his death in 1869. His best-known works are often copies of well-known portraits, such as the Chandos portrait, the Duke of Wellington and Sir Walter Scott both after Thomas Lawrence, Samuel Johnson after Joshua Reynolds and a portrait of Lord Byron after Thomas Phillips. Essex went on to be appointed enamel painter to Princess Augusta, Queen Victoria in 1837 and Prince Albert in 1841. Many examples of his work are in the Royal Collection and the Victoria and Albert Museum.
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