John Gerard was born about 1545 in Nantwich, Cheshire. Like many from the northern shires, he came south to London where he maintained a large herbal garden in the suburb of Holborn.
Image of Shakespeare Discovered in Botanical Tome
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Botanist Mark Griffiths found it hard to believe that he had discovered what had been missed for four centuries: the only known contemporary portrait of William Shakespeare.
Griffiths had been studying fellow botanist John Gerard’s The Herball or Generall Histore of Plantes, a 1,484-page volume first published in 1597. Writing in English, Gerard is consequently known as one of the founders of botany in the English language, rather than the Latin commonly used at the time.
John Gerard was born about 1545 in Nantwich, Cheshire. Like many from the northern shires, he came south to London where he maintained a large herbal garden in the suburb of Holborn. Despite his subsequent fame Gerard was not well educated. While a reputable herbalist he was not a skilled botanist, according to critics of his time. Down to the present day, it has been argued how much he plagiarized from herbals published earlier on the continent. Certainly many of the profuse illustrations came, by apparent agreement, from Dutch printers. Gerard died February 1612, in London. Two decades later, his widow commissioned Thomas Johnson to make corrections. He expanded the tome to about 1,700 pages, receiving much acclaim when it was republished.
Examining the face page of The Herball or Generall Histore of Plantes, Griffiths observed several images. Amongst them is one about seven centimetres tall of a young bearded man in what appears to be Roman dress and wearing a laurel wreath. Alongside the illustration is a device or cipher that Griffiths, as a modern botanist familiar with Latin, deciphers as reading ‘shake-spear.’ Hence this must be the only contemporary portrait of the playwright who, born in 1564 and dying 1616, was a contemporary of Gerard.
It is not beyond belief that Gerard attended Shakespeare’s productions at the Globe Theatre on the south bank of the Thames River that bisects London. Possible he even knew the bard, who sprinkled so many of his plays with numerous botanical references.
Under the circumstances, Griffiths did what any academic would do: he sought a second opinion. Edward Wilson, an emeritus fellow of Worcester College, Oxford, is convinced of the authenticity of the discovery. According to The Daily Telegraph, describing the disclosure as “absolutely safe,” adding, “We do not think anyone is going to disprove it at all.”
Others were only too eager however to grasp the nettle. John Overholt, a curator of early modern books and manuscripts at Harvard University, claimed to have searched for such a cipher online and found it to be no more than a printer’s mark. Wrong, said Wilson who had apparently anticipated just such a challenge. It is a unique device. Overholt’s sources are mistaken.
So there it stands. Mark Griffiths’ discovery shows William Shakespeare aged 33. The only other authenticated illustration up to this point has been an engraving by Martin Droeshout in the Arundel First Folio.
Gerard has, scientifically, fared perhaps less controversially. Apart from his Herball or Generall Histore of Plantes, he has found even more permanent botanical acknowledgement: The genus Gerardia is named after him, root-parasitizing herbs of the snapdragon family.