'The Grafton Portrait' (Portrait of an Unknown Man)

Image credit: John Rylands Research Institute and Library

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There is no evidence that this portrait represents William Shakespeare, but throughout the twentieth century the painting had numerous champions expressing the hope that it did so. The main reason for this attention is the original inscription that records the sitter's age as 24 in 1588, making him an exact contemporary of Shakespeare. The portrait depicts a rather beautiful youth with curly brown hair and grey eyes, wearing a sumptuous slashed scarlet doublet painted in such a way as to depict silk or satin. The sitter has not been identified, but he must have been a man of considerable wealth. In particular, scarlet cloth was prohibited by sumptuary laws, reissued in 1579, for everyone except the nobility. The Grafton portrait acquired its name in the early twentieth century, when the owners recalled an old family tradition that the portrait had been bequeathed by one of the Dukes of Grafton to their ancestor, a yeoman farmer in the village of Grafton, Northamptonshire, five or six generations previously.

John Rylands Research Institute and Library



'The Grafton Portrait' (Portrait of an Unknown Man)




oil on oak panel


H 44.5 x W 38.5 cm

Accession number


Acquisition method

bequeathed by Thomas Kay, 1914

Work type



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John Rylands Research Institute and Library

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