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Marketing Shakespeare
The Formation of the Gallery

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"To Form A School of English Historical Painting"

Boydell realized early in his career that the inferior skill of English engravers limited the market for British prints exported to the continent. By paying significantly higher fees for commissioned engravings, Boydell hoped to foster native products to compete with European prints on the continental market. So successful was he that in 1773, the Royal Academy of Arts awarded Boydell a gold medal for raising the standard of English engraving.

Francis Wheatley. Helena and Count Bertram before the King of France. Oil on canvas, 1793


By 1789, after almost fifty years in the print trade, Boydell could claim in his preface to the Catalogue of the Pictures in the Shakspeare Gallery that English engraving had achieved “the perfection of the art.” But Boydell was less sanguine about English painting which, still in its “infancy,” focused more on the provincial (portrait painting) than on the universal (history painting).  


To promote a school of British history painting and improve the national taste, Boydell needed a rich subject matter. It had to be filled with a variety of interesting scenes suitable for depiction in painting; and it had to be widely valued and easily recognized as significant both by Boydell’s countrymen and by purchasers in foreign markets.


Boydell chose the “immortal” William Shakespeare for his “grand design.” While to us Boydell’s choice might seem obvious, at the time other likely subjects included John Milton, Edmund Spenser, or the Bible. Boydell argued that Shakespeare’s “creative imagination” gave him an exceptional force to match and surpass the bounds of Nature, the power to “do things that Nature would have done, had she ov’rstepp’d her natural limits.”


Boydell’s plan was ambitious, both in time and cost. Though other publishers had produced editions of Shakespeare’s plays, Boydell wished to create an illustrated scholarly edition. This involved commissioning paintings of scenes from Shakespeare, then sending those paintings to engravers who would create the plates from which illustrations could be printed. After the engraver finished making the plates, the paintings were returned to Boydell for exhibition in a specially-designed gallery, which served as an advance advertisement for the engravings themselves and for the edition they would illustrate.


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  Exhibition Highlights

William Hamilton. Isabella appealing to Angelo. Oil on canvas, 1793.

William Hamilton. Olivia's Proposal. Oil on canvas, ca. 1796

Related Items

George Romney. Study for Titania, Puck and the Changeling. Oil painting on cardboard mounted on canvas, 1793

Although this painting is not featured in the exhibition, this item from the Folger's collection is related to the Boydell enterprise. At one point, subscribers were offered as an alternate engraving a print of the large-scale painting of this scene.

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