I read today that Ulysses S. Grant VI, the man with the coolest name in America, has uncovered in his family archive what may be the last photo taken of Abraham Lincoln. Grant, 38, says the small photo shows a distant Lincoln in front of the White House. He suspects it was taken by his great-grandfather, Jesse Grant, youngest son of two-time U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant. That would be Ulysses S. Grant the First.
The photo is hard to make out. It’s a long shot, with the White House in the distance. It could be Lincoln, but then again, it might not. Someone wrote “Lincoln in front of the White House” on the back, but such inscriptions can be tricky.
Meanwhile, a British expert is claiming a painting in the possession of an Irish family is the only likeness of William Shakespeare painted during his lifetime. The painting, which is actually quite masterful regardless of its subject, shows an aristocratic man with a wise look in his eye — a man who looks nothing like the famous bald-headed bard image we all know.
Then again, experts have always concluded that that image, used to illustrate the famous First Folio of Shakespeare’s work, was likely not an accurate image.
There was a case here in Canada a few years back where a fellow claimed an old triptych that had been in his family for hundreds of years was a Shakespeare painting, a contemporary likeness. Known as the Sanders portrait, it was the focus of Shakespeare’s Face, a very well-researched book by Toronto reporter Stephanie Nolen a few years back. I enjoyed that book, but in the end, I couldn’t find enough evidence to support the family’s claim that this was a portrait of Shakespeare.
No, this latest discovery, the Cobbe portrait, is being heralded by all sorts of experts as being Shakespeare. And it may be. The thing is, we’ll never know for sure.
And then there’s Christopher Columbus. I’ve always been fascinated by this mysterious character. We think we know a lot about him — Americans especially — but the historical record is pretty sketchy.
Now a researcher claims Christopher Columbus was actually named Peter Scott, or Pedro Scotto, and he was the son of Scottish residents of Genoa. XX claims Pedro took a new name when he became a pirate and kept it when he turned to exploration. Interesting. This same researcher claims Columbus was known for his fair hair, blue eyes and freckles, so this proves his case. I don’t know about that. But it’s interesting all the same.
What’s the interest in these historical figures and what they looked like? Why do we need to see Shakespeare’s face, or a new image of Lincoln? I remember the buzz a few years back when an alleged film clip of bluesman Robert Johnson surfaced; I was as excited as the next fan, and I felt a real disappointment when it was debunked soon after. It shouldn’t matter. I still have his music, and seeing his face shouldn’t be that big a deal.
But it is. Our faces are the business cards of our lives. They’re how we market and sell ourselves. As I’ve been going through the job search process, I have to remind myself constantly that people have always remarked on how angry or sullen I look, even though I’m feeling fine. It’s because I have a tendency to lower my head and look out at the world from under my eyebrows, and I have a kind of scowly face.
- Reporter: “Are you always so sad?”
- Ringo Starr: “No, it’s just me face.”
So now I’m holding my head high, smiling more and feeling a little goofy about it. Let’s see how that works out.
We need to look into the eyes of the people we admire, and the people we want to know. We seek out their photos, their paintings. And when those people have been dead for centuries, the need to see them becomes more acute. It’s a desire to put together the whole story, and faces are key to that. This is why we put posters of our favourite characters on our walls as kids, and as adults we decorate our homes with pictures of loved ones. Or, in my case, velvet Elvis.
When it comes to long-forgotten, long-lost faces, though, and mysteries of old art, photographer and genealogy, we’ll never know for sure. And I guess I enjoy the mystery in that, too.