marlowe's portrait before restoration


The date on the portrait is 1585, the year Marlowe received his bachelor's degree. The Latin motto on the portrait, "Quod me nutrit, me destruit" means "What nourishes me destroys me". This concept reappears in Shakespeare's Sonnet 73 as "consumed with that which it was nourished by" and in Pericles as "Quod me alit, me extinguit". The motto bears a striking similarity to the words on Marlowe's favorite poet Ovid's statue in Tomis, where he died after ten years exile: Here I lie, who played with tender loves, Naso the poet, killed by my own talent. See Portrait Comparisons

In his book Christopher Marlowe Poet and Spy Park Honan describes the discovery of the portrait at Cambridge's Corpus Christi College:

In 1952 Mr Peter Hall (not the famous theatre director, but an undergraduate who was to become 'Captain of Boats') was living in the Old Court. By coincidence, his room was just over the old, converted 'storehouse' assigned to Marlowe. Another coincidence is odder; by the autumn, Hall had moved to the main locale of the Parker scholars, on the east side of the Old Court; here, he had a room at the south-east corner, on the first floor, but a staircase as he recalls went up to his bedroom 'in the roof space above'. The 600th anniversary of the founding of the college was at hand, and while stripping old fixtures from rooms workmen had left a large metal skip, or dumpster, outside; this filled with builders' rubbish, and passers-by glanced at what was being thrown away.

In Peter Hall's bedroom, there was an antiquated gas fire on metal supports. 'Workmen', as he wrote on 26 May 2000 to Ms G. C. Cannell, sub-librarian at the Parker Library,

. . . took the gas fire out of the fireplace in what was now {in 1952} my bedroom above my room in the Old Court, in order to install a more modern fire. In doing so, they found two planks of oak underneath the old fire, and these were put into the skip. When I saw this happening I asked if I could have the oak planks as I was building a case for a hi fi system and thought that they might be suitable.1


It is bizarre to think that a student who could afford a hi-fi would dispense with it, or delay in setting it up; yet the hi-fi's needs were forgotten; there was an oddity about the oak supports for the wooden case. 'When', Hall remember, "I looked at the planks closely, I saw that there was a painting on them, you could vaguely see a head, so rather than build my hi fi unit, I took them to Pat Bury, the Librarian, to ask if he thought they were of any value.'2



'The boards were thick in grime, nails had been driven through them, and the paint was flaking badly particularly on either side of the fracture.'3 The right-hand board itself had a deep split. At some time in the past the painting had obviously disintegrated into two pieces, and the nail holes suggested that the oak planks had served some other purpose even before they supported Hall's gas fire.

Dickens was implicitly right about one matter: a portrait left in such a state of dilapidation had mattered little to the college, so perhaps it may never have had much significance. Of course there was a date on the work, though the sitter's identity appeared to be utterly (or mercifully) lost in time. Pat Bury, less sure, noted that the date coincided with Marlowe's twenty-first year: he 'found out that there were no other portraits of Christopher Marlowe and thought that it was worth getting the painting restored'.4


1MS Corpus Christi, 26 May 2000.

2 Ibid.

3 B.D., 'Emergence of a College Portrait', 24.

4 MS Corpus Christi, Adams to Bury, 17 Nov. 1952; Boas to Bury, 27 Nov. 1952; Bakeless to Bury, 27 Dec. 1952.


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