Two of the most well known portraits of Anne Boleyn, which are on display at the National Portrait Gallery, may not be her, scientists have concluded.
Facial recognition experts have created a computer algorithm which maps the faces from portraits to find a match with other paintings.
They used a contemporaneous miniature of Boleyn from the British Museum as a reference, as it is the only undisputed likeness of Henry VIII’s second wife.
After running the software, the experts said they could not be sure that the ‘Anna Bolina’ portrait, a late 16th century copy of a painting from 1533, which hangs in London’s National Portrait Gallery, was the queen.
Likewise, the Hever Castle portrait, a late 16th century painting which is a copy of a portrait from Tudor England, did not match other pictures of the queen and neither did a second picture of Boleyn from the National Portrait Gallery, even though the woman is wearing her signature ‘B’ pendant.
Many original portraits of Boleyn were destroyed after her execution in 1536 for fear of upsetting the King, but when Elizabeth I became queen it became fashionable again to hang pictures of her mother.
However because so few remained, it is thought that portraits of other noblewomen who bore a resemblance were relabelled and new details painted on to resemble Boleyn.
Professor Amit Roy-Chowdhury, of the University of California, created the algorithm after being approached by a history student who was keen to see if facial recognition technology could be applied to art history.
Prof Chowdhury said: “The goal of this project is to be able to use state of the art face recognition to identify the individuals seen in a particular portrait.
“These portraits have some importance. They probably represent someone of social standing, or some important event, and we often want to identify who is the person in the portrait. The goal is to be able to identify individuals whose identities may not be absolutely certain.”
The technology also appears to have cleared up the mystery of the Nidd Hall portrait, a painting labelled as Anne Boleyn, but which many historians believed actually depicted Jane Seymour, Henry’s third wife.
The image shows a young woman in a gable hood, wearing a brooch bearing the initials ‘AB’ which was known to belong to Boleyn.
The portrait was labelled as “The Most Excellent Princesse Anne Boleyn” but many historians claimed it was based a painting of Seymour by Holbein.
However the new algorithm suggests there is match between the portrait and a 1.4 inch miniature of Boleyn known as ‘The Most Happi’ medal which is housed at The British Museum.
The programme is so advanced that it even takes into account how individual painters like Holbein and Clouet represented certain facial characteristics, making allowances for artists’ style.
But while the software has cleared up one mystery, it may have opened the doors to several others.
It revealed that two pictures of William Shakespeare are also unlikely to be the bard. The Cobbe portrait which dates from around 1610 is probably not the playwright. Historians have long speculated the painting may be poet Thomas Overbury. The Hampton Court Palace painting is also unlikely to be Shakespeare.