William Shakespeare portrait considered not a Bard likeness

Leading scholar Stanley Wells admits feeling 'a bit isolated' after academics question authenticity of painting

Toby Belch's question to Andrew Aguecheek in Twelfth Night comes to mind: "When did I see thee so put down?" Certainly Stanley Wells, one of the world's leading Shakespeare scholars, has every right to feel a bit put down, a bit bruised.

Yesterday Wells reasserted his near-certain conviction that the only lifetime portrait of Shakespeare had been discovered. He stood in front of what is known as the Cobbe portrait in Stratford and said he was 90% sure this was a painting of the Bard, painted when he was alive.

Over the last few weeks there has been a queue of academics ready to argue with that. Sir Roy Strong called it "codswallop", while Shakespeare biographer Katherine Duncan-Jones, in the Times Literary Supplement, poured scorn on the assertion.

Wells admitted he felt "a bit isolated" but was undaunted. "There is a certain amount of jealousy," he said. "It is the duty of scholars to be sceptical but it is also their duty to listen to the arguments. Some scholars have rushed into print without listening to the evidence.

"I was expecting a backlash but some of the things that have been said are rather silly. I have been a bit bruised by some of the reaction."

Wells doubted that the killer evidence proving it was Shakespeare would emerge, but said: "I have been making judgments with my head not my heart. I have a considerable reputation as a scholar and it would be very foolish of me to damage that reputation because of sentimentality. I'm not that sort of impulsive person.

"Over the last three years as I've heard the evidence, I've listened and I've been persuaded by it."

All seem to agree that the painting was commissioned by the Earl of Southampton, the aristocrat who was one of Shakespeare's main patrons and may have been his lover. The opposing camp points out that Southampton was also a friend at court of Sir Thomas Overbury - and says that is the man in the portrait.

The head of learning at the Shakespeare Birthday Trust, Paul Edmondson, said: "We've always known that the chief contender as sitter was Thomas Overbury but what we weren't prepared for was Katherine Duncan-Jones to come along to the first showing of the portrait and then write such a piece in the Times Literary Supplement the following week."

Wells and Edmondson were speaking as the portrait went on show at the trust to coincide with Shakespeare's birthday. It will remain until September, when it goes back to the aristocratic Cobbe family, who own it.

Edmondson urged people to come to Stratford and look at the evidence before passing judgment. "It is three years of very careful research. A three-minute opinion is not good enough."

The trust's director, Diana Owen, said they had thought long and hard before mounting the exhibition. She believes it is almost certainly Shakespeare but welcomed the debate.

Shakespeare Found, Shakespeare's Birthplace, until 6 September


Mark Brown, arts correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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