Recreating the Boydell Gallery

Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 52

In the decades after Shakespeare's death, his works temporarily fell out of favor. His renaissance is usually credited to actor-manager David Garrick, who staged a Shakespeare Jubilee in 1769. Riding Garrick's coattails, an artistic entrepreneur named John Boydell later opened one of England's first art galleries, devoted to paintings of scenes from Shakespeare plays. The Boydell Shakespeare Gallery has now been recreated online at www.whatjanesaw.org.

Our guest is Janine Barchas, an English professor at the University of Texas at Austin and co-curator of the Folger's 2016 exhibition, Will & Jane. Janine led the team that reconstructed Boydell's gallery as a website. We talked with her about the 18th-century Shakespeare craze, how Boydell capitalized on it, and the detective work required to recreate his gallery. Janine Barchas is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.

Listen on iTunes, Google Play, SoundCloud, or NPR One.

From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast series. Published July 12, 2016. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This podcast episode, “Painting is Welcome,” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. Esther French is the web producer. We had help from Jacob Weiss at Liberal Arts Instructional Technology Services (LAITS) at the University of Texas at Austin and Bill Lancz at the studios of Marketplace in Los Angeles.

Read a related Shakespeare & Beyond blog post and see some of the paintings from the Folger Shakespeare Library collection that hung in the gallery.

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Transcript

MICHAEL WITMORE: From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I'm Michael Witmore, the Folger’s director.

This podcast is called "Painting is Welcome." It's fairly common knowledge that in the decades following Shakespeare's death, his work fell out of fashion. Most scholars attribute his renaissance to David Garrick, a leading actor and theater manager who championed Shakespeare's work in the mid-1700s, staging a Shakespeare Jubilee in 1769.

Riding on Garrick's coattails was another artistic entrepreneur, John Boydell. In 1789, he opened one of England’s first art galleries, a building devoted entirely to paintings of scenes from Shakespeare's plays. The Boydell Shakespeare Gallery has now been recreated in its entirety online. It's the work of Janine Barchas, an English professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

We asked her in to talk about the 18th-century Shakespeare craze and how Boydell capitalized on it. Janine is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.

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BARBARA BOGAEV: Well, before we get to the experience of the virtual online Boydell exhibit, I'd like us all to get a fix on what exactly the Boydell Shakespeare Gallery originally was IRL, In Real Life. So, give us the primer.

JANINE BARCHAS: The Boydell Shakespeare Gallery was the first ever museum dedicated to William Shakespeare. It was along Pall Mall in London. It was founded in 1789, lasted for 15 years, closing in 1804, and charged hundreds of visitors a day a shilling to see life-size paintings of the greatest and saddest and funniest scenes of Shakespeare on the walls.

BOGAEV: And just paintings, because I was envisioning something like the Victoria and Albert, or the Smithsonian Museums. You know, lots of artifacts or props from traveling Shakespeare troupes.

BARCHAS: Yeah, there was no Shakespeareana, but there were a few works that were chiseled in stone. Mostly, they were canvases by all sorts of artists, famous, not famous, everybody who was in his Rolodex at the time.

BOGAEV: And to put this in the context of museum history, how common was it at that time, near the end of the 18th century, to have these huge exhibitions of paintings devoted to a particular subject like this?

BARCHAS: It was very uncommon, and the Sir Joshua Reynolds exhibition that we did as part of this website earlier was the first one-man show ever in history, and that was 1813. So, this was not a one-man show in terms of artist, but certainly in terms of subject, even though that period of time was the birth of the modern museum and the British Museum. All of those institutions were beginning to get started. And so museum culture was up and coming and John Boydell was making the most of that to create this new theater cum museum experience attraction.

BOGAEV: Right, and it was more like an attraction, right? When you went to the museum then, was it date night? And it wasn't this kind of hushed experience that we expect now from a museum?

BARCHAS: It definitely wasn't, I think, the hushed museum experience. People were given, for their shilling entrance fee, a catalog, which is very unlike the one that we would associate with the museum experience now.

It was a book, 250 pages worth of scenes of Shakespeare, that matched the different paintings, where those moments had been frozen on the canvas. And Boydell prints the whole text that goes with that painting, the whole scene.

And I think people might've read it out loud to each other, standing in front, armed with those scenes. Would they have just read it silently? I doubt it. I think they might've nudged each other and hushed and emoted over it. And in fact, the emergence of an emotive public experience was new. Other anecdotes suggest that this was a very lively place.

BOGAEV: And to put this in the timeline of Shakespeare, this was during the Shakespeare revival in England, right? Shakespeare's work had pretty much disappeared for about 150 years when David Garrick, an actor and a theater director, kind of singlehandedly brought it back. So, remind us of the revival and how the Boydell fits into that history.

BARCHAS: Yeah, this is a moment that... Now we're living in, sort of, Shakespeare at 400, and if you have that, this was Shakespeare at 200. This was Shakespeare at, in the first wave of bardolatry, and, as you say, David Garrick had just hitched his celebrity star to Shakespeare and made Shakespeare a household name, and attached him to Britishness and nationalism, and John Boydell wanted to do the same thing.

Instead of hitching that wagon to theater, he wanted to hitch Shakespeare as a rising star to a... I'm mixing my metaphors terribly. To...

BOGAEV: Go with it!

BARCHAS: Okay, to engraving and history painting, which is what he was selling. That's how he had made his money. And we've frozen it in time in a single year. The website can't show you how it looked during that entire period of time. So we've picked that year.

BOGAEV: Now, you mentioned nationalism, and I imagine Boydell’s agenda meshed nicely with this growing sense of identity, and the empire building that was going on at the time in England. Was this another way for England to shake off the domination of France and say, "Here, look at this amazing Englishman, this writer we had here, and all of this culture that's grown up around him"?

BARCHAS: Absolutely. This was a way of showing your Britishness and your national fervor, was to go and to support this enterprise, to buy prints in the shops downstairs. This was a nationalist experience, and so his intentions were very British in that sense, and that's why so many artists, I think, participated.

BOGAEV: Very British and very catalyst, very entrepreneurial. He sounds kind of like a P.T. Barnum. A macher, we say in Yiddish.

BARCHAS: Definitely a macher.

BOGAEV: He built this museum to move product, and he had a gift shop?

BARCHAS: He had a huge gift shop, apparently, downstairs.

BOGAEV: Was that what you had in museums at that time?

BARCHAS: You have it at the Met now, but I think this may be the precursor to that kind of shop. Boydell was an entrepreneur, and this was an extraordinary entrepreneurial venture, to try and push the medium of print and history painting. And he really, really intended to sell the goods.

And what happened in Europe with the Napoleonic wars, that broke out fairly soon after he started this venture, he could not recoup his investment selling those prints on the European market. So, he lost his market and slowly the investment just... He wasn't going to recoup it. He slowly went bankrupt. It was his intention at the outset, or so we believe, to gift the entire Shakespeare Gallery and its contents to the nation, and that could not occur.

And so instead, in 1804, the paintings... It was decided to sell them by lottery. And so all the paintings, over 167 at that time, they were sold by lottery. And yeah, one lucky fellow won all 167 and had Christie's sell them on his behalf, and most of it is now gone.

BOGAEV: Wow, what a story. But some of those paintings have ended up in the Folger.

BARCHAS: Yes.

BOGAEV: And one of them...

BARCHAS: A fairly large number of them, if you take the few dozen survivors.

BOGAEV: Right, and one of them is in a really prominent place in the library. It's in the Gail Kern Paster Reading Room, and it's the only large format work that we have. It's huge, it's by James Northcote, and it depicts a scene from Romeo and Juliet. I know you know it. Could you describe it for us and what's noteworthy about it, besides the impressive size?

BARCHAS: Well, the impressive size is one of the noteworthy aspects, certainly. And in fact, I'm told by the curators that it had to be reassembled inside the reading room where it now hangs. So, it is huge. It’s muted colors, with Juliet discovering her dead Romeo. So, it's in the middle of the scene where she comes back to life and discovers that Romeo's dead, and there is a witness to that, but it's all quite dark, and she's in white and...

BOGAEV: She glows. I'm looking at it now in my computer.

BARCHAS: Are you?

BOGAEV: Yes, she glows white and virginal, and a little ghostly.

BARCHAS: Yeah, it's an extremely striking picture. And if you imagine, we mapped out the original hang of the show, and where the particular picture hung in the middle room, it would've basically touched the floor. And so people would've stood in front of it, life-size Juliet, standing right in front of that picture. Whereas in the reading room, it has to hang above the workspace of everyone.

But to be able to stand in front of it  and to be able to see that sad moment. And to get back to what you said about the emotional aspect of this, this whole gallery experience was like that single picture. It was so emotive. This is the worst moment in Romeo and Juliet. And the entire three-room gallery is filled with worst moments, a few funny, happy moments, but it's...

BOGAEV: It's a blessing and a curse for a date night.

BARCHAS: Oh, absolutely. This is the binge-watching equivalent of seeing all of Shakespeare in one go. The highest highs and the lowest lows, and this one was a particularly memorable low, that is clearly being savored, in the way that Northcote is presenting it.

BOGAEV: Since these paintings were commissioned by Boydell, and they were scenes from the Shakespeare plays, did they depict famous English actors in those scenes?

BARCHAS: It's a common thing to assume that and newspaper reviews of the Shakespeare Gallery, starting in 1789, suggested that. That particular assumption is not ours, but was there at the time. That because celebrity culture was starting to be in full swing, and people were beginning to associate and be able to buy all sorts of tchotchkes, that the Folger now owns, of famous characters depicted as famous actors depicted them, so it was assumed that famous actors and actresses would be on the walls.

But, in fact, Boydell, and the newspaper account suggests this, seems to have instructed his painters not to do that, to not depict anything that people would've seen on the stage. So, to really emphasize the "history painting" aspect of this from their imagination, although clearly people like Reynolds and other painters, Romney, used models to depict their figures. But those were not poses by famous actresses or famous actors.

BOGAEV: So, more of a highbrow approach? Maybe a painting for the ages of Shakespeare? Or was he just, as an entrepreneur, differentiating himself from the celebrity culture?

BARCHAS: I think it's a little bit of both. I think you're very smart to suggest that this was a mixture of... We want to go low brow with the shop downstairs, we want to commercialize, but we want to keep this in the imagination. We want to keep this as an abstraction, and not as an extension of Drury Lane Theatre. This was meant to be a different kind of experience, and that was meant to be the attraction.

And so there really aren't places where you can definitely point and say hey, that was Sarah Siddons, or David Garrick as Richard III. But, of course, the desire to do so... Would people have walked around, going "Hey, who is that, do you recognize that?" I think that that was part of beginnings of celebrity culture that was rising at the time.

BOGAEV: Well, let's get to your modern incarnation, now that we've set the scene, this online recreation of the Boydell Gallery. First, just help us imagine it. What do you see on the landing page and how do you walk through the galleries online? Is it like a virtual tool of the Marriott, when you're booking a room?

BARCHAS: Let's hope not!

BOGAEV: It'd be a great Marriott.

BARCHAS: Yeah, that's true. So, if you go to whatjanesaw.org, you have a chance to enter two different time portals. And you and I are now talking about one of those time portals. You can go to 1813 and see the first one-man show, dedicated to the work of Sir Joshua Reynolds.

BOGAEV: And that was your first online re-creation project?

BARCHAS: Yeah, and because that project took place in the British Institution. And because in researching for an upcoming Folger exhibition that I'm co-curating with Kristina Straub from Carnegie Mellon, when we were doing the research, I suddenly realized that she and I were talking a lot about the role of the spectacle of the Shakespeare Gallery in that first wave of bardolatry of Shakespeare.

And I began to realize, "Wait, that's at the same address." The British Institution had purchased this building that had been purpose-built by John Boydell as a Shakespeare Gallery. And I thought, "Well, I already have the digital walls, what if I treat it the way you would a brick and mortar museum, and take down the pictures that already hang there, change the color of the walls, and find out more about the show, and then hang those pictures back up the way they were in the Shakespeare museum?" And that's how it started.

BOGAEV: Well, I'm looking at it now, and the first thing that strikes me when I scroll through or click through the exhibit, is that they really pack things in cheek to jowl, didn't they, back then? I mean there's hardly any wall space left in the rooms in your re-creation.

BARCHAS: Yeah, that's why we feel pretty confident about our placement of the hang of 1796, which is the year we've picked to re-create, because you really couldn't put anything more in it. So, all the things that were in that original catalog for 1796 actually fit and there's no space left.

BOGAEV: And when you click on an individual painting online, the pop-up features information about it, as well as the relevant scene from the play, the text.

BARCHAS: Which is a facsimile of Boydell's catalog, that he provided to visitors. So, this is not the "What Jane Saw" team going to an edition, and saying "Hey, here's a helpful Shakespeare scene to read along." No, this was the way that that museum was constructed. You would, with your catalog, open up to this number of the picture, see that this was the artist who painted it, and here's the full scene of Shakespeare.

BOGAEV: Cool, and I imagine people reading the lines to each other, going through the lines almost on it, right?

BARCHAS: I do too, yeah. And the interesting thing about the catalog is that the moment in the scene that is frozen by the painter has been italicized and that's explained in the front, the preface of the catalog.

BOGAEV: What fun! But, where did you get the images for the website? Both the paintings and the layout, the idea for the layout of the original gallery? Because, as you said, the collection was dispersed and very few of the paintings remain.

BARCHAS: So, we had to use substitutions. So, of the 86 art works that are in the gallery, only 29 survive and a few of those are in parts.

BOGAEV: In parts? Snippets? Why?

BARCHAS: Well, yes, and a few in addition are in parts, and that is because... And I think that's the answer to both Why there are so few? and Why a few of them have been cut down, and only sections of them remain?

That is, when these paintings were sold, by lottery, at truly cheap, cheap prices, they were purchased so cheaply, they were probably purchased by people who suddenly could own art and didn't necessarily have the room to hold such large canvases. And so they were cut down, I assume, to fit in sitting rooms, and boudoirs, and what have you. And we do have a number of these paintings surviving only as a section. But it's a very small number.

So, for our digital re-creation, we had to go to the prints that Boydell sold downstairs, and some of those were also colored, but they are the plates. They're very accurate representations, and they're beautiful, of the pictures, but if I'd used only the monochromatic black and white engravings, it would turn into a very monochromatic museum experience.

So we needed some color and we didn't just want to invent that, and so we hung the colored prints up as substitutions for the paintings.

BOGAEV: And how did you know what went on the walls, where?

BARCHAS: We used the chronology of the catalog. So, John Boydell’s own catalog has a chronology of paintings, and the reason I think no one has ever tried to do this before, is because you need a starting point. But we knew where, architecturally, all the shows started, and that is described later in a history book. And that is what we used to set up the show for 1813.

And so we knew, already, the flow of the rooms, because those are in the 1813 gallery, a different show, happening in the same building, but at a much later date, almost 15 years after the point we've picked. They described what paintings are on what walls, and so you get the description of a north room with a north side and east side, a south side, a west side; a middle room; and a south room. So, you describe the three rooms.

The historical record gave us the exact dimensions of that, and with those dimensions we also had the flow of the show. And because we had that circular movement, we assumed that visitors would have entered by the same staircase and faced the same first wall and begun that same progress of moving through the rooms in exactly the same visitor flow. Museum flow, as curators know, that doesn't change. Your architecture sets that.

BOGAEV: And how did you know the painting sizes?

BARCHAS: Well, that was a tricky bit. For the non-surviving canvases, the key for us ended up being a document found in the Folger’s collections. It is the financial record of the Boydells, in order to give account of their financial status just after the 1805 sales. And that means that we have a record, written out by Josiah Boydell [John Boydell's nephew], of how much they paid each artist for each canvas.

And that meant that I could see... Reynolds's paintings, by the way, for this gallery, survive, because he was already so famous, he was already valued very highly. And you could see that Reynolds, well, he's an outlier, he's the most famous painter at the time already. And so I couldn't kind of create a pattern using his extraordinary fees. He's clearly getting the most per square inch than anyone else.

But for most of the other, and many of them are Royal Academy members, and they're all on this list. And you can see: here's a surviving painting, here's what that particular artist was paid, and this is what the... since the paintings survives, what its dimensions are. And here's a painting that doesn't survive, but the same artist was paid the same fee. And that's when we assumed, okay, if it's the same fee, same artist, then let’s assume the same size.

BOGAEV: So kind of figuring it out by square feet.

BARCHAS: Yeah, and we essentially created an algorithm per square inch, square foot, until we discovered in private hands a scrap of Cassandra, painted by George Romney. And when you map that scrap, digitally, onto an engraving of the entire composition, you have aspect ratio, you're able to determine the exact size. And that was the last fragment we discovered, and it turned out we were within four inches of our estimation and that gave great confidence that the algorithms we had been using were probably right.

BOGAEV: Wow, kudos.

BARCHAS: Thanks.

BOGAEV: So much sleuthing, and there's so many moving parts in this story and missing pieces.

BARCHAS: Yeah.

BOGAEV: How did you pull all this together? Who collaborated with you just to get it all done, get the math right?

BARCHAS: Well, first of all, I think if I'd known about all the moving parts, I'm not sure I would've begun. So, ignorance is bliss.

But in the end, this whole project wouldn't have been possible without an extraordinary group effort. The place where we're recording this, LAITS, Liberal Arts Instructional Technology Services at the University of Texas, its development lab put an enormous crew of undergraduates, very talented young people, on this project.

And so architecture students drawing and sketching the walls and using SketchUp as a... which is a piece of software that some people use to design their kitchens or their house and move things around, we used it to move these paintings around digitally.

And so it was a whole crew of wonderful, wonderful students that put this together. This really is the kind of project you can't do by yourself. This really does take a village.

BOGAEV: Well, we mentioned the Romeo and Juliet painting that hangs in the Folger. But I would, and I know it's impossible to describe these things on the radio, but I would love to know some more highlights from the exhibit online. What you think may be your favorite paintings, or what stand out in terms of quality?

BARCHAS: Oh, this is a difficult one because while you're working on it, every one is your favorite, but I have a cheeky favorite and then a real favorite. The cheeky favorite is that I love... and this is another painting owned by the Folger.

It is lovingly called by us on the team, Baby Shakespeare, but it was really called Infant Shakespeare Attended By... the Passions. And it is a recreation of Christ's nativity with Shakespeare as the baby. And it hung and had pride of place as kind of the piece de resistance on our "Finale" wall, because that was the last painting listed in the catalog, before you clearly went downstairs to the lower rooms, where he was selling prints and some prints were on the walls ,and smaller pictures were hanging on the walls. And this particular painting of Baby Shakespeare is just... it's both wonderful and ridiculous all at the same time.

Many of the paintings have an emotive quality that kind of stays with you, and I find the Lear paintings in the first room to be remarkable for their emotive effect. Lear was such a controversial play at the time. It was re-imagined by Nahum Tate as a happy comedy, almost, or at least a play with a happy ending. It was so disturbing to people that a whole generation, for over 100 years, preferred to see it with a happy ending, because they just couldn't stand the real ending.

And here was Lear, holding dead Cordelia in his arms, which was the version of the play that was not being performed on stage. And here you were confronted with it, life-size, the dead body of Cordelia, and those are the... And there are many other, in this binge-watching equivalent of Shakespeare, there are many other higher sort of lower lows and higher highs, but those are the ones that stand out for me.

BOGAEV: Oh, I noticed that one. It's kind of like getting the director’s cut.

BARCHAS: Yeah, nice, absolutely. Absolutely. And it must've felt that way, that people went to use these paintings to help them over the threshold of their imagination as they were trying to imagine alternatives of Shakespeare's world, alternatives to the theater.

BOGAEV: Well, it's fascinating that so much is known about Shakespeare, but there's so much mystery still in every aspect, the plays, the man. And people know about the revival of Shakespeare in the 18th century and the Garrick Jubilee, but not really much of anything about this museum of Boydell.

BARCHAS: I agree with you that it's kind of remarkable that an English professor and her team decided to put this... This is an art history moment, this is a huge, huge, watershed moment for Shakespeare studies, for museum studies, for art history, this kind of entrepreneurial enterprise that Boydell created is extremely unusual.

And, yeah, we hope that this particular online project, because it is open to the public and because it's free, and because anybody's welcome, people might want to experiment with time traveling or with just curiosity, to see what that kind of experience may be like.

There's even a comparative feature that we hope might be used by people interested in kind of the history of museums, where you can... None of the features have guides, the idea is simply to enter and start playing around, and eventually one will discover that, on the bottom, you'll get an option where up pop the two walls from both time periods at once. So, the same wall, you can suddenly see it in 1796, and right below it in 1813, and compare the hang.

Because, as you were saying, the cheek by jowl, crowded aspect of 1796 was slowly becoming much quieter and more elegant by 1813. So, you can see how museums are slowly evolving and how a kind of curatorial aesthetic is developing over time.

BOGAEV: And just one more question, because I'm curious how significant in the long run the Boydell was in building Shakespeare's celebrity and raising his status in the culture. Is it bigger than once was thought? I mean this had already started, the Shakespeare revival had already been underway, but did Boydell give a push?

BARCHAS: Oh, most certainly, and I think here you have something that existed for 15 years and was visited and revisited by individuals. You have evidence that the people who then influenced... who used Shakespeare’s work in their own work, and who were influenced by it, went to this museum, and that must have had some trickle-down effect, and I don't know why we don't know more about it. Hopefully the visualization will help to bring more attention to it, now that people can kind of see it. Because it is really hard to imagine until you see it, how significantly emotive that experience would have been, and how that would have lasted in the culture.

BOGAEV: Well, Janine, thanks so much for all this work that went into this website, for the website, and for this conversation. I've really enjoyed it.

BARCHAS: I really enjoyed it too, Barbara. Thank you for the chat.

WITMORE: Janine Barchas is a professor of English at the University of Texas at Austin. Together with a team of students at UT's Liberal Arts Instructional Technology Services division, she has re-created the Boydell Shakespeare Gallery that stood from 1789 to 1804 in London. We should also mention that Janine is co-curator, along with Kristina Straub, of the Folger’s 2016 exhibition Will & Jane: Shakespeare, Austin, and the Cult of Celebrity.

"Painting is Welcome" was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. We had help from Jacob Weiss in Austin and Bill Lancz at the Marketplace Studios in Los Angeles.

Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. You can find more about the Folger at our website, folger.edu. For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I'm Folger Director Michael Witmore.