'Shakespeare Portrait' Emerges As Code Cracked

A historian has revealed what he claims is the first portrait of William Shakespeare created in his lifetime 400 years ago.

The image, said to show the Bard "with a film star's good looks", was identified by Mark Griffiths in the first edition of a 16th Century book on plants, called The Herball.

The botanist and historian said he cracked a many-layered Tudor code which revealed the face in an engraving on the title page of the book.

A Latin cipher "of the kind loved by the Elizabethan aristocracy" which is part of the engraving was decoded to read William Shakespeare.

The drawing shows a handsome, bearded man with a laurel wreath around his head, holding an ear of sweetcorn.

The sweetcorn and a fritillary - a flower of the lily family - were said to be references to Shakespeare's earliest poem and play in print Venus and Adonis, published in 1593, and Titus Andronicus from 1594.

The laurel wreath is said to be a reference to Apollo and the Classical poets he inspired.

"At first, I found it hard to believe that anyone so famous, so universally sought, could have hidden in plain sight for so long," Mr Griffiths said.

Written by pioneering botanist John Gerard, at 1,484 pages The Herball was the largest single volume work on plants published in English.

The engraving is the work of William Rogers and only around 10 to 15 copies of the book containing the image are thought to exist.

Mark Hedges, editor of Country Life magazine, which revealed the claimed discovery, said: "This is the only known verifiable portrait of the world's greatest writer in his lifetime.

"It's an absolutely extraordinary discovery.

"Until today no-one knew what he looked like in his lifetime."

Professor Michael Dobson, director of the Shakespeare Institute at the University of Birmingham, said he was "deeply unconvinced".

"I can't imagine any reason why Shakespeare would be in a botany textbook. It's a lovely picture. Everybody is very fond of it. But that doesn't mean that he had anything to do with it apart from the fact that he read it.

"It's nice that people are so fond of Shakespeare that they see him everywhere, even in the pages of a botany textbook. But it's hallucination."

Perhaps the most widely recognised image of Shakespeare is from an engraving by Martin Droeshout, which appears in the First Folio of his collected works, published in 1623.

It may have been produced after his death but a poem by Ben Jonson, also contained in the folio, suggests it is a good likeness.

Several other portraits from the 17th Century are also said to show the playwright but the sitter is not clearly identified.