For Benjamin West, the greatest success of his painting of The Death of General Wolfe (1770) wasn’t his work, but that of Joseph Boydell six years later.
An artist only normally sells their painting once. An engraver can sell many thousands of copies of their work, and West’s painting only brought real return when Boydell turned it into a highly popular print in 1776. Like Hogarth before him, West prospered from prints.
Around 1786-87, several established printmakers devised projects linking paintings of British literary works to galleries and sales of prints. These centred on the concept of establishing an English (or British) School of Historical Painting. The best documented of these is John Boydell’s Shakespeare Gallery, but there were several rivals, of which I’ll show one at the end.
To get the ball rolling, John Boydell invited a group from artistic circles to dine at his nephew’s house in late 1786. Among those who attended were Benjamin West, the portrait painter George Romney, the King’s bookseller, literary figures including a poet, and an established patron of the arts. Apart from West, whose training in history painting was limited, none of those present had any specialist knowledge or experience of narrative painting.
The diners agreed unanimously that the theme of this English School of Historical Painting was to be the plays of William Shakespeare. Boydell then commissioned the painters of the day to create major works showing specific scenes chosen from each of Shakespeare’s plays. These were hung in a gallery built for the purpose on a site owned by Boydell and his nephew, in Pall Mall, London. When it opened on 4 May 1789, only 34 of the paintings were ready for exhibition, but that number rose to over 167 during the sixteen years it was open to the public.
Although that was intended to generate some income for Boydell, the main return was to be from the sale of prints and illustrated editions of the plays. The first volumes were published in 1791, but by then the French Revolution was in progress, severely limiting sales to Europe, which also affected sales of his other prints.
By 1804, the only way ahead was to dispose of the whole business by lottery, which had to be authorised by Parliament. John Boydell died before the lottery was drawn in 1805. The paintings were later auctioned and many have since been lost. Establishing exactly which paintings were commissioned and exhibited by Boydell is fraught, and I show here a selection of those I believe to be among them.
Benjamin West’s painting of Hamlet: Act IV, Scene V (Ophelia Before the King and Queen), painted in 1792, shows Ophelia in white, in a state of madness, with the King and Queen at the right showing their growing concern for her. Rather than showing a scene from imagined life, this is a theatrical production featuring exaggerated body language, and not a good example of narrative painting of any period.
West’s King Lear in the Storm from 1788 shows Lear in the centre, outside the hovel or hut in which they take shelter, in this memorable scene. It has the same melodramatic style, and is far from being one of West’s better narrative works.
James Barry’s King Lear Weeping over the Dead Body of Cordelia from 1786–8 shows three bodies: that of Cordelia is cradled by her father, while his other two daughters are almost being trampled on by the figures at the left. Behind them are strange megaliths which are quite out of place for Dover, and look like a stage set.
This engraving of Richard Westall’s painting Brutus and the Ghost of Caesar, from about 1802, shows Brutus in his role of general, sat at a writing desk, as Caesar’s ghost fills the upper left of the painting, warning Brutus of his imminent death with the words Thou shalt see me at Philippi.
William Hamilton’s Prospero and Ariel (from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”) from 1797 has an original treatment of Ariel, but can’t be read without knowing the play well.
Angelica Kauffmann’s Valentine Rescues Silvia in The Two Gentlemen of Verona from 1789 shows the climax of this play very well, although Kauffmann was born in Switzerland, didn’t arrive in Britain until she was 24, and by the time she painted this had already moved to Italy.
Matthew William Peters’ painting from well before 1813 shows the two merry wives burying Falstaff in dirty laundry, as one of the young servants behind them gasps at the approach of their husbands. Its backdrop is another stage set and not the real world.
A climax in the third act of Twelfth Night features in Johann Heinrich Ramberg’s Olivia, Maria and Malvolio from 1789. Malvolio is in the left foreground with his ghastly cross-gartered yellow stockings, and Olivia at the right raises her veil in disbelief at the sight. Behind her is Maria, stifling a laugh, as her fellow conspirators watch from the extreme left.
Although one of the better paintings in the gallery, this artist was German, only lived in England between about 1781-1788, and spent much of his career as painter to the court of Hanover in Germany.
Robert Smirke’s non-narrative series of The Seven Ages of Man, taken from As You Like It, and painted between 1798-1801 was also included when they were completed.
Richard Westall’s painting of Abbot of Leicester and Wolsey, taken from Henry VIII, was one of the later engravings made by Robert Thew for publication.
Henry Fuseli painted this scene from Henry IV Part 2 Act II Scene 4 before 1805, shown here as a coloured print. Like West, Fuseli wasn’t British by birth, but both artists were at least long-term English residents, and key figures in the Royal Academy.
Like most of the other painters of the day, Fuseli was involved in similar projects popping up around Pall Mall, such as Thomas Macklin’s Poets Gallery, announced on 1 January 1787, only weeks after Boydell had started work on his Shakespeare Gallery.
The Dream of Queen Katherine (Shakespeare, Henry VIII, Act IV, Scene 2) (1781) is a fragment of a larger painting intended to show this Shakespearean scene, commissioned by Macklin in 1779.
The end result of around twenty years trying to establish an English (or British) School of Historical Painting was predictably disappointing. Many of the paintings were never paid for, and promised profits from prints were never realised. But worst of all, no school emerged at the end, and British narrative painting hadn’t advanced as a result. Meanwhile in Europe narrative painting was alive and well, and evolving fast.
Rosie Dias (2013) Exhibiting Englishness, John Boydell’s Shakespeare Gallery and the Formation of a National Aesthetic, Yale UP, ISBN 978 0 300 19668 9.