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.