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Opening the Gallery

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Opening The Gallery

Boydell opened the Shakspeare Gallery in Pall Mall, one of London’s most sophisticated neighborhoods, in the fall social season of 1789—less than three years from the date of his advertisement. On the walls were thirty-four paintings from twenty-one plays. Since subscribers received free tickets to view the paintings, the Gallery became a fashionable place to see and be seen. By 1791 it had already grown to seventy-two paintings, the number Boydell had projected it would contain when complete. But Boydell wasn’t finished yet: by 1802 the Gallery contained more than 160 images.


John Boydell. Pictures painted for the purpose of illustrating the dramatic works of Shakspeare. London, 1803

The Creation of the Gallery


In the course of creating the National Edition, Boydell commissioned paintings from the leading artists of the day. Most prominent among them were Joshua Reynolds (then President of the Royal Academy), Angelica Kauffmann, Benjamin West, George Romney, and Henry Fuseli. Romney ultimately did not paint an image from Shakespeare’s plays, but contributed the famous painting, The Infant Shakespeare Attended by Nature and the Passions.


The engravers were among the most skilled in the marketplace, and the advertisements for subscribers list eighteen engravers by name, including Caroline Watson, Francesco Bartolozzi, James Collier, and James Heath. Significantly, the engravers typically received far more money to engrave the paintings than the artists received to paint them. Henry Fuseli received £210 for painting a scene from The Tempest, while Peter Simon received £315 to engrave it.


Almost as an afterthought, Boydell determined to display the paintings in a building specially designed to house them called the Shakspeare Gallery. Boydell purchased fashionable new premises for the Gallery at 52 Pall Mall. Above the door, a large alto relievo (high-relief) sculpture by Thomas Banks depicted Shakespeare standing between the Dramatic Muse and the Genius of Painting. Inside the Gallery, paintings for the National Edition hung on the upper floor as well as three basso relievo (low-relief) sculptures by Anne Damer, which depicted scenes from Antony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus. On the lower floor, visitors could buy engravings of their favorite images. Subscribers to the National Edition received free admission to the Gallery, but it became a popular destination for many others and a lasting mark of Boydell’s fame.


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  Exhibition Highlights

Boydell. A Catalogue of the Pictures. London, 1796

Humphrey Repton. The Bee. London, 1789

Each year, Boydell printed and sold a guide to his exhibition of the paintings for the National Edition. The catalogue (upper image) offered viewers information about the scenes depicted: play title, act and scene, characters, and most usefully a long excerpt from the scene.  As indicated by printer's marks, Boydell often had to reprint catalogs in the middle of the exhibition season, suggesting that attendance at the Gallery was strong.


Encouraged by the "bold design" of the Shakspeare Gallery, The Bee (lower image) discusses every painting in the 1789 exhibition, offering a brief synopsis of the scene, then some gentle criticism and thoughtful suggestions for improvement. The criticism is meant to help "every painter become a BEE of the same hive, working to the same great end-the advancement and perfection of his Art."

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