The "Boydell Shakespeare" was inspired and produced by "Alderman" John Boydell, one-time lord mayor of the City of London and wealthy book and engraving publisher. Boydell was the model self-made man who became wealthy by learning the art of engraving as an inspired boy, and having the business acumen to develop an English manufactory, as it were, and market center for that art. He was a man of many business and civic concerns, liberal to a fault, it was said, but his chief concern was as patron to the arts, and in particular the art of engraving. In November 1786 Josiah Boydell, John's nephew, hosted a dinner of art and literary luminaries—Benjamin West, painter of historical scenes and future president of the Royal Academy and painter to King George III; successful portrait artist George Romney; George Nicol, bookseller to George III; Cowper's biographer William Hayley, popular for The Triumphs of Temper; John Hoole, translator of Tasso's Jerusalem Delivered, and Ariosto's Orlando Furioso; Daniel Braithwaite, secretary to the postmaster general; and landscape painter Paul Sandby. During the course of the evening alderman Boydell was congratulated on his great accomplishments but he indicated that he was not yet satisfied.
Boydell had made his fortune as the English patron of engraving, and the commercial potential of a project involving historical paintings of Shakespearian scenes, with engravings illustrating a grand-scale new edition of the works, could not have escaped one of his business acumen, nor likely anyone present at that decisive dinner. Thus was born the Boydell Shakespeare, a project that eventually embraced three separate endeavors: the Boydell Shakespeare, a lavish 9-volume "new" edition of the works illustrated with engravings from the paintings and text edited (really, selected) by George Steevens: The Dramatic Works of Shakespeare Revised by George Steevens [GBS]; a separate edition of the illustrative engravings: A Collection of Prints, from Pictures Painted for the Purpose of Illustrating the Dramatic Works of Shakspeare [GBS]; and, the projects greatest ultimate success—though it did the Alderman little good, as we shall see—the Boydell Gallery, a massive, neoclassical edifice designed by then Clerk of the City Works, George Dance, at Pall Mall and Cheapside. These three projects were high water marks in the history of eighteenth century English painting, engraving, typography, printing, entrepreneurial innovation, taste, and high culture.
The Paintings, Sculptures and Engravings
In addition to what eventually would be 167 paintings, there were three works of sculpture, two bas-reliefs by Mrs. Damer and an "Alto-Relievo" by Sir Thomas Banks commonly called "The Apotheosis of Shakespeare," but actually titled "Shakespeare attended by Painting and Poetry" which eventually found its way to New Place garden in Stratford.
Boydell issued his prospectus—envisioning a long view of twelve years development, "'excellence is more aimed at in this undertaking than dispatch"—and began gathering subscribers. "His purpose was two-fold; to illustrate Shakespeare as never before had been done, and to establish a School of Historical Painting in England. He would found a Gallery of paintings by the best living artists: from these he would issue a series of mammoth engravings, executed by the most skillful engravers, while his Shakespeare was to represent the best editing and printing of which the age was capable." (Moffat, see below). Boydell employed the fortune he had amassed to liberally pay the best English artists to produce works for his project.
It was deemed wisest to secure for the project the greatest of English painters, first President of the Royal Academy, Sir Joshua Reynolds. To Boydell's chagrin, Reynolds refused him, twice. Money, as it will, eventually spoke to Sir Joshua. On Boydell's third effort it is said that he brought with him £500 in cash which he "put...on the table, [telling] Reynolds that this was an advance, and that he was willing to meet any price the painter would choose to name" (Hammerschmidt-Hummell, "Promoting" quoted in Murphy, Shakespeare in Print). According to Harry Rusche:
The three pictures Sir Joshua eventually contributed were "Puck", which illustrated Act II, scene ii in A Midsummer Night's Dream, appearing in volume II of the eventually completed Dramatic Works;
the "Death of Cardinal Beaufort", illustrating Act III scene iii of Henry VI, Part 2 in volume VI;
and Act IV scene i of Macbeth, which did not appear in the printed volumes, but did appear in the volume of prints and, of course, was displayed in the gallery.
The following passage from a late 19th century catalog of the works of Sir Joshua touches on the origin of each of these works:
Variations on amounts paid almost always occur when examining sources in the absence of specific documentation.
The gallery opened in 1789 with 34 paintings, with another 33 added in 1790. It was greeted with enthusiastic public support.
"Proceed gentlemen and prosper!" shouted the Monthly Magazine for April, 1790.
The catalog issued by Boydell contained his vision, with some special pleading for an English school of Historical Painting:
The English national hero-poet clearly had a place in the Alderman's heart of hearts.
The gallery started with a limited collection, and grew over the next several years to its full complement of paintings. According to Ann Hawkins, curator of the recent Folger exhibit "Marketing Shakespeare: The Boydell Gallery (1789-1805) and Beyond":
Many prominent eighteenth century English artists participated: Reynolds, Romney, Copley, West, Opie, Hoppner, Northcote, Angelica Kauffman, Fuseli, Mather Brown, John Downman, James Barry, Wheatley, Smirke, Ramberg, Hodges, Wright of Derby, and others, thirty-three in all.
Fuseli was one of the prime contributors to the Boydell gallery. He contributed eight works, and later claimed to have given Boydell the idea for the gallery, almost certainly not true. His well known prints have since been used to illustrate numerous editions of Shakespeare. According to Jonathan Bate, "Fuseli's paintings are declarations of the power of feeling in Shakespeare's plays" (The Genius of Shakespeare, p. 267), as in the oft seen Macbeth consulting the Vision of the Armed Head (Wikimedia Link):
James Northcote also claimed to be the inspiration of the project, probably also falsely. It is a measure, however, of the success of the gallery that so many fathers showed up to claim paternity after the fact. Northcote's first important historical work was performed for the Boydell project, The Young Prices Murdered in the Tower:
Most memorable of all, perhaps, is Benjamin West's dramatic King Lear in the Storm (Wikimedia Link):
West is perhaps best known for his Death of General Wolfe, familiar to every student of American history, and his close friendship with Benjamin Franklin. The artists were, it can be seen, the cream of English talent. A list of artists and engravers, along with representations of many of the prints, can be found at Wikimedia, many linking to an online exhibit presented by Georgetown University. An excellent summary chart of painters and their engravers can be found appended to the excellent Wikipedia article on the Boydell Gallery.
Before leaving a discussion of the painters involved in the Boydell project, a few words must be said about the portraits of Shakespeare as an infant produced by Romney: Shakespeare attended by Nature and the Passions; and The Infant Shakespeare. The former shows a ludicrously block-headed infant placed among Joy, Sorrow, Nature, Love, Hatred and Jealously; the latter, used as the frontispiece to the Graphic Illustrations, shows a less patently allegorical child, his head grown somehow more spheroid, being cosseted by a mugging Comedy and a distracted Tragedy. Below I have given the engravings produced by Benjamin Smith, rather than the Romney originals. Neither piece is artistically important, but they speak to the idealized place in the hearts of all Englishmen that Shakespeare had by this time achieved, indeed, his place in the pantheon as favored child.
The Boydell Shakespeare
The printed Boydell Shakespeare presented its own problems. The work was to be of the highest quality and performed to the most exacting standards. George Steevens was, of course, known to Boydell and had, apparently, been of service in persuading Sir Joshua Reynolds to the project. He was, in fact, the most brilliant editor of his age, in the estimation of many, not least himself; and it was not controversial that he was appointed editor. He had already produced the landmark 1766 Twenty of the plays of Shakespeare, being the whole number printed in quarto during his life-time...; and was therefore the world's leading expert (until such time as Malone surpassed him) in the early texts of Shakespeare. In addition, he had produced the 1773 Johnson-Steevens The plays of William Shakespeare..., though Dr. Johnson had little to do with it except to lend his lionized name to the title page; and the great 1793 "Steevens' own" The plays of William Shakspeare. In fifteen volumes..., in jealous response to Malone's great edition of 1790. Even though Steevens' work amounted to mere selection of pre-existing textual versions—the pages of the Boydell Shakespeare are free from footnotes—Steevens said and did nothing to jeopardize the project, perhaps uncharacteristically in light of his reputation as the mercurial "Puck of editors." Boydell, it is clear, thought highly of Steevens:
The physical constituents of the volumes were another matter. It is difficult to overestimate the pains taken by Boydell and Nicol in respect to the typography:
Boydell, through Nicol, hired printer William Bulmer and punchcutter William Martin to design and cut a new typeface specifically for the edition. Nicol explains in the preface that they "established a printing-house ... [and] a foundry to cast the types; and even a manufactory to make the ink". Bulmer was a printer of the highest aspirations. "He was anxiouis to 'raise the art of printing from the neglected state in which it had long been suffered to continue'..."; and Martin was given full credit, according to Bulmer himself, "The whole of the Types with which this work has been printed are executed by Mr. William Martin...a very ingenious young artist who is at this time forming a Foundry, by which he will shortly be enabled to offer the world a Specimen of Types, that will, in a very eminent degree, unite utility, elegance, and beauty..." (quoted in Lawson, Anatomy of a Typeface, pp. 213-214).
Even the ink for the Boydell Shakespeare was custom made. William Martin—who lived with Nicol for seven years during this project—received from his brother, Robert, who had been printer John Baskerville's foreman, "materials from which a pure black ink was made from a recipe probably similar to Baskerville's" (Thompson, p. 21).
The volumes were necessarily delayed, first the paintings needed to be made by the many artists employed by Boydell, and then line engravings needed to be made by yet another set of artists, a notoriously slow process. The Dramatic Works appeared first in a series of 18 numbers, and were then gathered into a 9-volume edition dated 1803. They were, beyond a doubt, the most magnificent edition of the eighteenth century, with gilt pages and high-quality woven Whatman paper. The pages were free of footnotes and displayed remarkable clarity. According to Nicol: "splendor and magnificence, united with correctness of text were the great objects of this Edition". (Quoted in Lawson. Interestingly, the Bulmer font—really, the Martin font, but it was named after the printer, rather than its designer, as is the way of the world—was recut and reissued in the 1928 by the American Type Founders and became a favorite font for printing fine books through the 20th century).
The engravings were issued without the accompanying text in a series of numbers beginning "in 1790 and the subsequent numbers with some interruption, appeared at intervals of about six months, until 1804. They were then published complete in two volumes, atlas folio. The title page of the work bears the date 1803, but the last plates were published on December 1,1804, and the preface, by Josiah Boydell, was dated March 25, 1805" (Moffat).
The price for this great work was 60 guineas, an astounding price for the day. "Among the engravers were Francesco Bartolozzi, a founding member of the royal Academy, engraver to the king, and president of the Society of Engravers; and Thomas Kirk, even the great poet William Blake was pressed into service to re-cut one of the smaller plates for Romeo and Juliet that Boydell found unsatisfactory (Large plates, 20x27 inches, were cut for the illustrated volumes and sold at the Gallery, while smaller plates were cut separately for Steevens' Shakespeare--see Thompson, p.19-20). Though Boydell's liberality was well attested, there was criticism of his projects. James Gillray, an engraver passed over for work on the Boydell Shakespeare, published a cartoon, illustrated below, Shakespeare Sacrificed: Or the Offering to Averice. An artist materially scorned is an artist who scorns materialism, it would seem.
It is apparently impossible to carry through an ensemble artistic project, regardless of the liberality of the patron, without suffering the revenge of those not selected to participate.
The Demise of John Boydell
Boydell spent a fortune on his Shakespeare project: "[He] is siad to have spent more than £350,000 in carrying through his scheme" (Hartmann, Shakespeare in Art, p. 58—though this amount varies according to source and it is not always clear that this amount was spent on this single project, or on enterprises throughout Boydell's lifetime). His liberality to artists is well documented. In any event, he was seriously overcommitted. To add to problems, the subscriptions to the printed Shakespeare had dropped by two-thirds by 1796 (Wikipedia), even though King George III had been an early, enthusiastic subscriber (Thompson: "The Boydell Shakespeare"). More than any other factor, however, was the deleterious effect of the French Revolution, from 1789, which diminished and finally erased Boydell's continental print business, which had depended upon exports.
Boydell being a former Lord Mayor, alderman, and civic patron, was well connected, and was able to apply to Parliament for a private bill to authorize a lottery in order to raise funds to retire his debts. Each of the 22,000 tickets, priced at 3 guineas apiece were sold, raising enough money to save Boydell from bankruptcy and establish his partner and nephew Josiah once again in the printing business. The grand prize was the physical gallery itself, along with its paintings. The winner was William Tassie or Leicester Fields, who auctioned the pictures at Christie's. The building at 52 Pall Mall was eventually acquired by the British Institution, with its Banks Alto-Relievo still in place above the main entrance.
The Banks piece was eventually moved to Stratford-upon-Avon, erected in the garden of Shakespeare's New Place home.
John Boydell died before the conclusion of the lottery, but was saved from Bankruptcy and is honored today as the moving genius of the project. The idea of a dedicated gallery was copied by several others in London at the time, none meeting with notable success. The engravings became the source for countless illustrations of Shakespeare in the nineteenth century, and still appear regularly today. The paintings, amounting to 167 in all, had their own profound and pervasive influence on the interpretation of Shakespeare, and are sources of pride in various local collections around the world, after being scattered by the lottery and later sales. The 9-volume Dramatic Works was a monument, suitably monumentally bound in leather on extra heavy paper, with plates printed on heavier paper yet. The project was a high water mark of English printing, if not scholarship, at the end of the eighteenth century, which makes sense for a patron who was more a craftsman and artist of the highest standards at heart.
"The Story of the Boydell Shakespeare", by William D. Moffat, from Shakespeariana, Vol. IV, 1887. [original spelling retained]
OHN BOYDELL (a name which all lovers of Art have learned to reverence) was one of the most remarkable self-made men of the eighteenth century. Born at Dorrington, in 1719, he was brought up by his father for a land surveyor, but at a very early age, his mind was directed toward engraving by the sight of a print in Baddeley's Views of different Country Seats. An extremely indifferent plate it happened to be, executed by Toms, but his mind was fired and his determination soon taken to follow the trade of engraving. At twenty-one years of age, he bound himself apprentice to Mr. Toms, whom after six years of hard work he bought out and started business for himself by issuing a book of six plates entitled, The Bridge Book, from the fact that there was a bridge in each plate. These were all of his own workmanship, and this book he was wont to say proudly in after years ' was the first that had made a Lord Mayor of London.' This was his start, and upon the profits of this, he based his future enterprises. I say enterprises, for his life was full of them and always on the grandest scale. It was his liberal patronage of the Fine Arts, however, that distinguished him from other and even more successful business men. Although possessed of the rarest. faculties for coining money, he always made purely selfish considerations of personal gain secondary to the great purpose of his life—the encouragement and furtherance of home industry and art. And as schemes of such a nature, properly conducted, were almost sure of profitable returns, it so came about that by the year 1786, when the Shakespeare enterprise was set on foot, he was a wealthy and universally respected Alderman, of London.
And how had he brought this about? On his entrance into business, engraving in England, was at a very low ebb. All works of merit were imported from France, Italy and Holland, while very inferior prints were all that English artists were thought capable of executing. Beginning, as others had done, by importing from abroad, he gradually increased his capital and obtained a firm foothold. Then, true to his purpose, he determined to check the constantly increasing importation of foreign prints, by establishing an English School of Engraving of equal merit, and this, he actually did, the result being that by 1786 the whole tide of commerce in engravings had been turned, and he was rolling up wealth by exporting English works to the Continent. Thus, as a patron of Art, he not only made his own fortune, but secured for his workmen a world-wide fame. Woolett, Sharpe, Heath, and many others owed largely to him their reputations and fortunes.
Thus much sufficing to show Boydell's position, we come to the eventful year of 1786: eventful both in the history of English art and in the bibliographical study of Shakespeare. In November of that year there was assembled at the table of alderman Boydell, a party of gentlemen, in a certain way representative. The artists, West and Romney, the men of letters, Hayley, Hoole and Braithwaite, and Mr. Nicoll, his Majesty's publisher. In the course of conversation, Boydell was congratulated upon having lived to see the finished fruits of his long labors. He was now sixty-seven years of age and might with justice have retired on his honors. But in reply to his friends, he intimated that he was still unsatisfied. He had done what he could for the encouragement of engraving, but it had always been and was still a cause of chagrin to him that England was accused of having 'no genius for historical painting.' On the contrary, he firmly believed that as engraving had taken firm root with proper patronage, historical painting only needed a similar encouragement to succeed: and that encouragement he longed to give, if only the right stimulus could be devised, the proper subject found, to call out the latent talent of the artists at home. Mr. Nicoll, then suggested that there was one subject upon which all must agree—there could be no difference of opinion, and that was Shakespeare. This instantly met with universal approval. Messrs. West and Romney, recognizing the rare opportunities for illustration which the subject afforded, no doubt pictured to themselves with a thrill of pleasure, the marvellous scenes of the great master touched to life and color by the brush of the artist. The keen eye of the Alderman saw further yet; saw nearly twenty years ahead, to the completed publication of an unrivalled edition of the Poet's works enriched by engravings from the great Historical Gallery of Paintings.
Although this was no matter for hasty settlement, it had been maturing in his mind for some time past. The magnitude of it was enough to daunt anyone but the boldest, but Boydell, confident in his long experience, large fortune, and the support which he felt sure to receive, went actively to work, and before a year was expired, his prospectus was issued and he was well embarked. His purpose was two-fold; to illustrate Shakespeare as never before had been done, and to establish a School of Historical Painting in England. He would found a Gallery of paintings by the best living artists: from these he would issue a series of mammoth engravings, executed by the most skillful engravers, while his Shakespeare was to represent the best editing and printing of which the age was capable. To do this, he made himself liable to all the prominent artists, but we have ample proof that he more than fulfilled his obligations, and that they in turn responded to the best of their ability. Northcote speaks of 'his friend Alderman Boydell, who did more for the advancement of the Arts in England than the whole mass of nobility put together. He paid me more nobly than any other person has done, and his memory I shall ever hold in reverence;' a very characteristic remark of a man whose heart was reached through his purse.
When the scheme was publicly announced, we may imagine the interest and diverse comment which it aroused. Boydell, however, did not deceive himself when he trusted to a general public support. The press was warm in its encouragement and appreciation of his efforts. But here, as always, there were those 'knowing ones,' who saw only failure and ruin to the projectors, among whom we hear as follows from Horace Walpole:—
His scoffing words concerning Bartolozzi sound strange to us to-day, while his remark on the commentators sounds stranger yet, spoken as it was of an age that produced Johnson, Steevens and Malone. On the whole, however, the undertaking met with enthusiastic approval, and aroused a great deal of discussion, both on this particular work and on the general subject of Shakespeare illustration. In 1788, there appeared a work in two parts entitled, Imperfect Hints towards a new edition of Shakespeare, (quarto pamph.) in which the author treats of the various scenes proper for pictorial illustration, stating that the time was now at hand, 'when Shakespeare's works will receive every embellishment of grateful Art; when a temple will be erected to his memory; and when the productions of the British Arts will receive an eternal asylum.' A reviewer of this work, in the Monthly Magazine, sincerely hopes that these hints will be valuable in their suggestiveness to the undertakers of the Boydell Gallery. We very much doubt whether the gentlemen referred to derived any great assistance from the suggestions so gratuitously offered, but the work at any rate indicated the deep and kindly interest taken in the enterprise.
The first step was towards founding the Gallery of Paintings. The Prospectus had allowed twelve years for the completion of the whole work; for, as they stated, 'excellence is more aimed at in this undertaking than dispatch.' It was deemed necessary at the start to secure the name and services of Sir Joshua Reynolds, the first President of the Royal Academy. Here, however, was their first check, for to their chagrin, Sir Joshua at first refused to engage at all in the work, thinking it is said, that it was below the dignity of the arts to enter into the service of speculation. It is more probable he feared a failure. George Steevens, the future editor of the Shakespeare, was commissioned by Boydell to try his influence, and after some difficulty at length he overcame Sir Joshua's scruples. It is said by Northcote that a £500 note slipped into Sir Joshua's hand, was Steevens's most powerful argument. However that may be, we know that by the beginning of the year following, he had ordered the canvas for his picture of Macbeth. Other artists were secured with less trouble, many of them being eager to engage. Boydell advertised through Great Britain for designs from artists, and that there might be every encouragement to competitors, he gave a guinea for every design received, whether accepted or not, and for those accepted, a prize of 100 guineas. The merits of the designs were decided upon by a committee of five artists, with Boydell, Chairman. In this manner the contracts were soon made, and all other preliminaries being completed, a building was erected on the site of Dodsley's house, in Pall Mall, to receive the paintings. Early in the year 1789, thirty-four paintings being ready for exhibition, the Gallery was opened and a catalogue issued. Immediately a furor ensued, the public excitement exceeding the most sanguine expectations. On June 12th, 1789, Barrington writes to Bishop Percy, 'Alderman Boydell hath already 1000 Subscribers to his Shakespeare, at eight guineas each, and hath made more than £1000 already by the exhibition of the Pictures painted for the Engravings.'
Meantime the excitement increased as each new feature was added. In the street, at the clubs, in society, at home, everywhere, in fact the respective merits of the works were discussed with the warmth and earnestness of an election; while the entrance to the Gallery was constantly surrounded by knots of men, catalogues in hand, urging their opinions on the latest Fuseli or Opie. Art criticism and Shakespeare study were stirred into double life for the time, while the press continued its encouragement and applause. In the Monthly Magazine, April 1790, we read as follows :—
And surely if success ever seemed assured, it did so here. The constantly increasing Shakespearian series of paintings was not the only attraction of the Gallery. Other paintings of a historical nature were exhibited, and an interesting additional feature was a series of twenty-eight designs by Westall to illustrate an edition of Milton's Poetical Works, to be published uniform with the Shakespeare. But as far as the Shakespearian side of the scheme was concerned, these great paintings were but materials, from which engravings were to be struck to illustrate the projected edition of the Poet's works. The selection of an editor caused little hesitation. It is true there were then living Malone, Isaac Reed, and Ayscough, all prominent Shakespearian scholars. Malone had produced in 1780, his two volume supplement to the second edition of Johnson and Steevens's Shakespeare published in 1778, and in this very year of 1790, appeared his own carefully prepared edition in ten volumes. Although not possessed of brilliant faculties, he was one of the most painstaking scholars of his age. George Steevens had first appeared as a Shakespearian editor in his twenty selected Plays published in four volumes, 1766, and in 1773, identified himself with Dr. Johnson in the most excellent edition of the eighteenth century, and one which formed the basis of many future editions. His brilliancy, sagacity, and antiquarian learning, placed him far ahead of his contemporaries, so that it was with the utmost confidence that the editorship was consigned to him. But another branch of the work and one of the greatest importance: the typography, caused the projectors more trouble. In the active forwarding of the work, the Alderman had been ably seconded from the start by his nephew, Josiah Boydell and the publisher Nicoll. It was natural that in such company the typographical work should receive the most careful consideration, and it was determined that they would have all that long experience and a large capital could secure. In the condition of printing then existing, no firm did work or had materials up to the standard which they demanded. It was during 1787, while this subject was under discussion, that Nicoll became acquainted with William Bulmer, a man of much enterprise and activity. With him an arrangement was finally made, by which he was to conduct the printing and publishing. For their purposes, special premises were obtained in Cleveland Row, St James, and The Shakespeare Press was established under the name of W. Bulmer & Co. In order to satisfy the demands of the work, a foundry was erected to cast the type, and even the ink was of their own private manufacture. It is only when we consider the magnitude of these preparatory steps that we appreciate the full value and interest of the Boydell Shakespeare. The aim as stated by the projectors, was ' to retain the beauty of the best printing, and yet to avoid the dazzling effect which is so distressing to the eye of the reader in most of the fine specimens of that art.' This well expresses the actual result which was reached. The subscription price, as stated by Barrington, was eighteen guineas, and the first number appeared in 1791. It was a large folio in size, with fine quality of paper and wide margins. A very noticeable point of beauty is the liberal space between the lines, causing the print to stand out clearly, and charming the eye with its remarkable distinctness. The type is very modern in style, the old form of the letter 's' is only used in cases of double 's,' and then only the first is so printed, as for instance ' afsist.'
For the engraving work, Boydell had secured the services of Bartolozzi, Schiavonetti, Ryder, and many other famous workmen. It is well to note in this connection, the plain beauty of the engravings. I say plain, to distinguish them from the elaborately framed plates so commonly found in illustrated works. These large, plain impressions are very refreshing to the eye, tired with trying to thread the mazes of a large page of ornamental scroll work to a small plate in the middle. Being thus the issue of a special press, handsomely illustrated, and printed on large paper, this edition combined all the qualifications necessary to recommend it to book lovers. From the appearance of the first number, the Shakespeare Press shared the public interest with the Shakespeare Gallery, and imprinted on the title page of the work, the name of W. Bulmer, hitherto little known, was born into a permanent and prominent place in the line of famous typographers. This position was firmly established in 1794, by the publication of the unrivalled edition of Milton's Poetical Works in three volumes referred to above. In appreciation of Bulmer's work as well as that of Steevens, the Monthly Magazine speaks as follows:—
The attractions of the Gallery still increasing, another catalogue was issued in 1790 which, as an additional source of income, was sold for 1s. 6d. By 1791 the works numbered sixty-five, and although after that year the additions came more slowly, the growth was steady and all things seemed to prosper.
The year 1790 saw John Boydell Lord Mayor of London. In this same year, while his active preparations were going forward, there were active preparations of a very different nature on foot across the channel in France, whence news came constantly pouring in of Revolution raging at blood heat. Active measures, it is true, very different from those of which we treat, but measures which ten years later had all to do with the financial condition of John Boydell. In his business of exporting, his receipts from abroad had been, and were ample to cover all his expenses. To this add his home receipts from his Gallery, his Shakespeare, and regular stock of art works, and we see he had little reason to tremble for success. The work ran smoothly; the public enthusiasm continued; and so with little variation we come to the year 1802. By this time the number of the works in the Gallery had readied 162, 84 of which were large size. The final number shortly after was 170, containing three pieces of sculpture. These were the two bas-reliefs by Mrs. Damer, illustrating scenes from Antony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus, and the famous Alto-Relievo, by Sir Thomas Banks, which stood over the entrance to the Gallery. This is entitled The Apotheosis of Shakespeare, and represents the Poet seated between the Dramatic Muse and the Genius of Painting. These two figures are well executed and the whole work is very graceful except Shakespeare himself. There is not enough repose in the position of the figure. To put it plainly: he looks as if it was with the greatest difficulty that he was preventing himself from slipping off, and out of the group entirely. And then the face! It is true we have not much authority for any one likeness of Shakespeare, so that there is much room for the exercise of taste in the matter, but we cannot believe that the immortal Bard bore such a striking resemblance to George Washington, as this monument would lead us to suppose. Besides these two sculptors the Gallery represented the work of 33 painters. Whatever may now be said of these works, at least the purpose of the founders was accomplished, for it was a period of great revival of English art, and as such its importance must be acknowledged. The separate works have often been reviewed depreciatingly by art critics, but as Shakespeare illustrations they are very great. There are many series of illustrations, excellent in some ways, but when brought face to face with a page of the great Poet's work, they dwindle into insignificance. They are too colloquial, if we might use the word. The Boydell pictures bear out the majesty and grandeur of the text as no others do. As on the stage there are always women to rant their way through the words of Lady Macbeth, so there are existing many illustrations representing wicked looking vixens with knives dripping with the blood of Duncan; but Westall's picture of Lady Macbeth takes its place with the classic representations of Mrs. Siddons.
In the following year, 1803, the eighteenth and last number of the Shakespeare appeared, and the work, now complete, was published in nine volumes, folio, bearing the date 1803. After the title page is a full page engraving of the Stratford Bust, executed by Neagle. This is followed by an advertisement, by George Nicoll, in which he states some of the circumstances of the origin and forwarding of the work. He also acknowledges the kind support of the subscribers and states that Mr. Boulton, of Soho, was to superintend the execution of a medal to be presented to the subscribers as a small mark of the appreciation of the publishers. He further states:—
As an additional and accompanying work to the Shakespeare, Boydell issued a series of large engravings, executed by Bartolozzi, Schi- avonetti, Ryder, and other eminent engravers, the subjects being selected from the paintings. The first number was issued in 1790 and the subsequent numbers with some interruption, appeared at intervals of about six months, until 1804. They were then published complete in two volumes, atlas folio. The title page of the work bears the date 1803, but the last plates were published on December 1,1804, and the preface, by Josiah Boydell, was dated March 25, 1805. The title page reads as follows: A Collection of Prints from Pictures painted for the purpose of illustrating the Dramatic Works of Shakespeare, by the Artists of Great Britain. Volume I opens with a frontispiece portrait of His Majesty, King George III, engraved by B. Smith from Beechey's full-length painting. On the title page is the vignette of Mrs. Damer's bas-relief from Coriolanus, Then follow the Dedication to the King, the list of plates, and the plates themselves, 46 in number, including Bank's Alto-Relievo, and Smirke's 'Seven Ages.' The second volume is uniform, containing as a frontispiece the portrait of Queen Charlotte, by the same artist; and on the title page a vignette of Mrs. Damer's bas-relief from Antony and Cleopatra. This volume, however, contains fifty prints, the last three of which were not engraved from any of the regular large Shakespeare paintings but treated of the subject and were therefore added. They were as follows :
The plates of the two volumes, including frontispieces and vignettes number 100. There was also a special issue of which we quote from Lowndes as follows:—
The reason of this we can understand when we consider that these are two of the three above referred to as having been additionally inserted. Lowndes further says:—
This great work was published at 60 guineas. The Alderman himself did not live to dedicate it, but it was finally completed by Josiah Boydell, in 1805. This is commonly called the Boydell Gallery. It must not be confused with the smaller series, also 100 in number, published about the same time, and which was simply a separate issue of the same plates which were used in the Shakespeare edition. It does not duplicate the small plates, for, although likewise 100 in number, it is entirely a different selection, and is distinguished from the other by being called 'the small set.' But now comes the unfortunate and yet in some respects the most interesting part of the story. The French Revolution began to tell on the continental trade in a degree utterly beyond calculation. Financial embarrassment closed about the Alderman at the moment when success should have been assured. His disbursements had been enormous. The Gallery had cost upwards of £30,000, while the edition of Shakespeare incurred an outlay of £150,000 more. When we consider that this was all additional to his regular stock, which demanded a considerable outlay, we can see what an enormous income was necessary to make ends meet. And now, suddenly, came an almost complete loss of his continental trade, his chief source of revenue; a contingency he had little foreseen, and the only one to be feared. The result was a total crash. He states his position as follows:—
This passage is from his letter of February 4th, 1804, addressed to J. W. Anderson, representative of London, through whom he applied to Parliament for permission to dispose of his Gallery by lottery. To such an extremity was he reduced, and he met it with a manliness which was evinced in his letter of explanation as follows:—
It had been his desire and intention to bequeath the Gallery to the English nation, and it is indeed deeply to be regretted that this became impossible. The lottery consisted of 22,000 tickets, and before the 12th of December, 1804, when the Alderman passed to his rest, he had seen every ticket sold and his debts honorably discharged. It was estimated that during his life he had spent £350,000 in promoting art at home. His patriotism earned for him the reputation he deserved, and though his last days were clouded with misfortune, he died as he had lived, high in the reverence and esteem of his fellow men. But the lottery is too interesting to leave without a passing notice. The 22,000 tickets were sold at three guineas each. In this number there were sixty prizes, and each purchaser not drawing a prize was entitled to one guinea's worth of prints selected from the general stock of the Boydells. So we see there were really no blanks. The lottery was drawn in Guildhall, on January 28th, 1805. The chief prize consisted of the whole Shakespeare Gallery, including the premises, for an unexpired term of 64 years. The excitement, which had been constant throughout, culminated in this novel festival of Dame Fortune. A lottery with so much to win and no blanks was a rare chance, and we do not wonder at the ready sale of tickets. When the lots were drawn, the fortunate winner of the Gallery was found to be Mr. Tassie, the modeller of Leicester Square. In a humorous article in the Gentleman's Magazine, 'Projector' states that 'the blank prizes of selected plates were judiciously arranged' to suit the 'wants rather than the wishes of those for whom they were intended, so that their effect on the public was either moral or satirical, some purchasers receiving prints which conveyed a broad hint and others have been so strikingly depicted in their prize as to be either ashamed or very much offended;' and he goes on to prove this by illustrations intended more for amusement than for veracity of statement.
Such, then, we may call the rise and fall of the Boydell Shakespeare. However it may now be criticised as to its qualities, artistic or scholarly, its magnitude and grandeur can never be denied, while its future influence both on art and Shakespeare study was of the greatest importance. There never was an edition published upon which was bestowed so much labor and painstaking preparation. Although a financial failure it was through no fault of its own; and it did its work in arousing a strong national feeling for the great Poet, and a renewed interest in his works. It is a common habit for writers today to speak of this work in a spirit of pitying depreciation, as the unsuccessful effort of a monomaniac. But we see how unjust this is when we consider that these same writers are often availing themselves of the profitable results which have arisen from the discussions upon historical painting and Shakespeare illustration which were originally suggested by this very work. Its popularity continues till today. Again and again in Shakespeare literature appear reproductions of the Gallery pictures. A prominent instance is the Valpy edition of 1832, which is illustrated with 171 outline copies, while in the so-called Boydell Shakespeare, 4 vols., 8 vo., and the Leicester Square edition, 2 vols. (Bickers & Son, London), and other works we have numerous reproductions in permanent photography. But to return to the originals. Mr. Tassie disposed of the Gallery by auction at Christie's, on May 17th, 1805, for the sum of £10,237. From there they were scattered far and wide. Many years later Boston was fortunate in securing Benjamin West's painting of Lear. The Alto-Relievo was intended to be placed as a monument to Boydell, but after remaining for several years over the entrance to the Gallery, it was finally removed to Stratford-on Avon. The Gallery itself was purchased for the British Institution. The large engraved plates were well used and worn before they were allowed to rest. Then for some time they were apparently lost and were supposed to be destroyed. In 1842, however, they were discovered by Dr. Shearjashub Spooner, who purchased and imported them to America. Many doubts were expressed as to the possibility of using them here successfully, but after having laid out about $50,000 in retouching them with great care, he brought them out in New York, in 1852, with a title page as follows: American Edition of Boydell's Collection of Prints, etc. They are the same as the original except that Dr. Spooner has inserted new prefaces, and a page of explanatory letter press to each plate, while the quality of paper is even better than that of the original edition. The impressions, however, can not approach the brilliancy of the English edition. A copy of the American re-issue can be purchased for about $75, while the originals are worth from $200 to $250. The Shakespeare, 9 vols., is sold for $150 to $200, according to condition. These are merely approximate valuations and are only to be taken as citations of prices commonly asked today.
In closing we quote the following stanzas, written by an anonymous correspondent of Boydell, which, if possessing no literary merit, at least echo the admiring appreciation of his countrymen for his energetic services:—
William D. Moffat.
Boydell's 1789 Preface to A Catalogue of the Pictures, &c. in the Shakspeare Gallery, Pall Mall, 1793. [IA Link]
I cannot permit this Catalogue to appear before the Public, without returning my sincere thanks to the numerous Subscribers to this Under- taking, who, with a liberality and a confidence unparalleled on any former occasion, have laid me under the most flattering obligations. I hope, upon inspection of what has been done, and is now doing, the Subscribers will be satisfied with the exertions that have been made, and will think that their confidence has not been misplaced; especially when they consider the difficulties that a great undertaking, like the present, has to encounter in a country where Historical Painting is still but in its Infancy. To advance that art towards maturity, and establish an English School of Historical Painting, was the great object of the present design.
In the course of many years endeavours, I flatter myself I have somewhat contributed to the establishment of an English School of Engraving. These exertions have not been unnoticed at home—But in foreign countries they have been estimated, perhaps, above their value—When I began the business of publishing and selling Prints, all the fine Engravings sold in England were imported from foreign countries, particularly from France. Happily, the reverse is now the case: for few are imported, and many are exported, to a great annual amount. I mention this circumstance, because there are of those, who, not put- ting much value on the advancement of National Taste, still feel the advantage of promoting the Arts, in a commercial point of view.
I flatter myself that the present undertaking, in that, and many other points of view, will essentially serve this country. The more objects of attraction and amusement are held out to Foreigners, that may induce them to visit this Metro- polis, the more are our manufactures promoted ; for every one, on his return, carries with him some specimen of them : and I believe it will be readily granted, that the Manufactures of this Country need only be seen and compared, to be preferred to those of any other—To the great number of Foreigners who have of late visited this country, may in some degree be attributed the very flourishing state of our Commerce ; and that great demand for English Manufactures, which at present so universally prevails all over the Continent.—At least, I can with certainty say, I feel the effect of this circumstance in my own branch of business.
That the love of the fine Arts is more prevalent abroad than in this country, cannot be denied; but I still hope to see them attain (advanced in years as I am) such a state of perfection in England, that no man in Europe will be entitled to the name of a Connoisseur, who has not personally witnessed their rapid progress And that their progress has been wonderfully rapid in this country, within these twenty years, the whole world will readily allow,—This progress we principally owe to his present Majesty ; who, sensible of their importance in every point of view, has cultivated the fine Arts with a success that the annals of no other country, in the same space of time, can produce. The enterprise and liberality of several individuals also have not been wanting to contribute to so great an end.—For my own part, I can with truth say, that the Arts have always had my best endeavours for their success; and my countrymen will I hope give me credit, when I assure them, that where I failed, I failed more from want of Power, than from want of Zeal.
In this progress of the fine Arts, though Foreigners have allowed our lately acquired superiority of Engraving, and readily admitted the great Talents of the principal Painters, yet they have said, with some severity, and I am sorry to say with some truth, that the abilities of our best Artists are chiefly employed in painting Portraits of those who, in less than half a century, will be lost in oblivion While the noblest part of the Art—Historical Painting—is much neglected. To obviate this national reflection was, as I have already hinted, the principal cause of the present undertaking An undertaking, that originated in a private company, where Painting was the subject of Conversation.—But as some short account of the rise and progress of the whole work may at a future time be given to the Subscribers, it is not now necessary to say, who first promulgated the plan who has promoted it or who has endeavoured to impede its success.—Suffice it to say, at present, that the Artists, in general, have with an ardour that does them credit, contributed their best endeavours to carry into execution an undertaking, where the national honour, the advancement of the Arts, and their own advantage, are equally concerned.
Though I believe it will be readily admitted, that no subjects seem so proper to form an English School of Historical Painting, as the scenes of the immortal Shakspeare ; yet it must be always remembered, that he possessed powers which no pencil can reach ; for such was the force of his creative imagination, that though he frequently goes beyond nature, he still continues to be natural, and seems only to do that which nature would have done, had she o'erstepp'd her usual limits—It must not, then, be expected, that the art of the Painter can ever equal the sublimity of our Poet. The strength of Michael Angelo, united to the grace of Raphael, would here have laboured in vain—For what pencil can give to his airy beings "a local habitation, and a name."
It is therefore hoped, that the spectator will view these Pictures with this regard, and not allow his imagination, warmed by the magic powers of the Poet, to expect from Painting, what Painting cannot perform.
It is not however meant, to deprecate Criticism—Candid Criticism is the soul of improvement and those artists who shut their ears against it, must never expect to improve—At the same time, every artist ought to despise and contemn the cavils of Pseudo-critics, who, rather than not at- tempt to shew their wit, would crush all merit in its bud—The discerning part of the Public, however, place all these attempts to the true account Malignity.—But as the world was never entirely free from such critics, the present undertaking must expect to have its share.
Upon the merits of the Pictures themselves, it is not for me to speak; I believe there never was a perfect Picture, in all the three great requisites of Composition, Colouring, and Design—It must not therefore be expected that such a phenomenon will be found here.—This much, however, I will venture to say, that in every Picture in the Gallery there is something to be praised, and I hope sufficient marks of merit, to justify the lovers of their country, in holding out the fostering hand of Encouragement to native Genius.—I flatter myself, on the present occasion, that the established Masters will support and increase their former reputation, and that the younger Artists will daily improve, under the benign influence of the Public patronage—They all know, that their future fame depends on their present exertions: for here the Painter's labours will be perpetually under the public eye, and compared with those of his cotemporaries—while his other works, either locked up in the cabinets of the curious, or dispersed over the country, in the houses of the different possessors, can comparatively contribute but little, to his present fortune or future fame.
I must again express my hopes, that the Subscribers will be satisfied with the progress made in this arduous undertaking, for it is to be considered, that works of genius cannot be hurried on, like the operations of a manufactory, and that En graving, in particular, is a work of very slow and laborious progress—I confess, I am anxious on this subject, for I could wish the Subscribers to be convinced (of what indeed is the fact) that not a moment of time has been lost.
It happens indeed, unavoidably in this undertaking, that the Artists employed on the 2d, 3d, 4th, 5th, and subsequent Numbers, are as far advanced as those employed on the first. And it is difficult to retard the one, or accelerate the other—This much, however, the Subscribers may rely on that every exertion will be made, consistent with that excellence that is aimed at, to publish the first Number with all possible speed, and that after that, the work will go on uninterruptedly.
I cannot conclude this Address, without mentioning the very great assistance the work receives from the unwearied exertions of my nephew and partner, Mr. Josiah Boydell, whose knowledge in the elementary part of Painting, enables him to be of singular service in conducting this undertaking—Indeed his love and enthusiasm for the fine Arts, peculiarly qualify him for the conduct of works of this nature; and without that Love and Enthusiasm for the Arts, such an undertaking can never be carried on with becoming spirit—His numerous avocations in the management of the various branches of our business, particularly in making drawings from the pictures, for the most capital engravings in our Collection have not allowed him much time to pursue the practical part of Painting—nevertheless, willing to contribute his mite to this great work—(in the management of which he has sp considerable a share) he has made an attempt in this line of the Art. Under these circumstances, I hope the Public will have the candour to receive his performances.
The Typographical part of the Work (of which a specimen may now be seen) is under the direction of Mr. Nicol, his Majesty's Bookseller, whose zeal for the improvement of Printing in this country is well known—The Types, &c. are made in his own house and I flatter myself, that, with the assistance he has, in the various branches, upon which the Beauty of Printing depends, he will be able to contribute something towards restoring the reputation of this country in that most useful art. At present, indeed, to our disgrace be it spoken, we are far behind every neighbouring nation, many of whom have lately brought the Art of Printing to great perfection. In his present endeavour, he has had the assistance and advice of some gentlemen, who ,were I at liberty to mention their names, would do him honour, and the undertaking credit.
The Public are so well acquainted with the merits of Mr. Steevens, in elucidating the text of our author, that it would be impertinent in me to say a syllable on this part of the subject—I cannot, however, omit mentioning the readiness he has always shown, to contribute his labours to this national Edition of the Works of Shakspeare.