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Closing the Gallery

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Closing the Gallery

Boydell could not have predicted the economic upheaval brought to Europe by the Napoleonic wars.  In his request to Parliament for a lottery to disperse the gallery paintings, Boydell explained that though he had imagined the loss of trade to a single country, he had never imagined a series of events that would eliminate all his European markets.  On November 23, 1803, J&J Boydell (John Boydell’s company with his nephew Josiah) announced bankruptcy. It resigned its business to a new firm, J.N. Boydell, headed by Josiah alone.

John Boydell. Ticket for his Shakespeare Lottery. Manuscript, 1804-5

When Boydell realized his “receipts from abroad” had been “totally annihilated,” he petitioned Parliament to approve a lottery to raise funds to pay his debts. The ultimate prize would be the collection of gallery paintings. Boydell retained the engraved plates, however, allowing his family to remain in business. On March 13, 1804, Parliament approved Boydell’s petition, acknowledging his role in improving the arts.


A catalogue was published just before the lottery was held in January 1805.  It advertises “the last time the pictures can ever be seen as an entire collection,” and gives a full listing of all the paintings in the Gallery in its final form.  Londoners would have a last chance to view the pictures, and those participating in the lottery might note particular ones of interest.


Only the well-to-do could afford to buy a lottery ticket.  At three guineas each, they amounted to almost one third of a man-servant’s annual wages.  But for those who could afford the gamble, the odds were good: every ticket holder was guaranteed prints up to the cost of £1; 62 ticket holders received “capital prizes”; and one ticket holder won all the paintings in the gallery. That winner, William Tassie, sold the paintings at auction on May 20, 1805.


John Boydell lived to see the lottery raise enough money to cover the company’s debts, but not to see the lottery itself held on January 28, 1805.




  Exhibition Highlights

John Boydell. Letter to Sir John W. Anderson. Manuscript, 1804

John Boydell. List of paintings . . . for the Shakespeare Gallery. Manuscript, 1808?

John Boydell. List of paintings . . . for the Shakespeare Gallery. Manuscript, 1808?

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