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  • Writer's pictureGareth Williams

Shakespeare, short stories and the National Portrait Gallery

So what made me pitch an idea to Historical Writers Forum for their Masterworks anthology of historical short fiction inspired by works of art?

It all started when I was reading about the reopening of the National Portrait Gallery in London after a major renovation and Covid. I was excited. I love this gallery and found myself reflecting on some of my favourite portraits.

As an historian, it wasn't long before I was researching how these works of art found their way into the collection. I was drawn to the Chandos portrait of William Shakespeare as it was one of the very first works to be acquired by the nascent gallery. It is the only image of the bard thought to be painted from life that survives.

Here is a link to an image of the portrait on the NPG website:

I kept staring at the enigmatic face of the greatest playwright who ever lived. What would he make of the world that we live in, of the changes since his death? Would he be full of wonder or disappointment, would he see similarity or difference?

The idea for a short story spanning the period spent by the Chandos portrait in the National Portrait Gallery was born. But who should be my main character? I wanted to tap into Shakespeare's perspective but he died long before the trustees considered a national collection. He is immortal nonetheless thanks to his works and his portrait.

I found myself imagining Shakespeare sitting for the artist - John Taylor. What was he thinking as he sat there, patiently or impatiently? Was he grasping at a life beyond by commissioning the portrait or was it for a wealthy admirer? Did he know he would be more famous today than in his own lifetime or was he staring into the abyss?

What if the Chandos portrait continued Shakespeare's life beyond his corporeal death? Continuing to experience and think and learn as the decades passed? What would he be like by the time the gallery was opened? What would he think of the people who came to stare at him?

My answers to these questions resulted in my short story, entitled The Watcher on the Wall.

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