The Boydell Shakespeare Gallery gets a second life

A late eighteenth-century Shakespeare art museum is experiencing a second life as a detailed online re-creation, the brainchild of University of Texas English professor Janine Barchas. 

John Boydell, a British publisher, commissioned depictions of Shakespeare scenes from well-known artists of the day: Joshua Reynolds, Henry Fuseli, Benjamin West, and others. Engravings from the paintings served as illustrations in an edition of Shakespeare’s collected works, and the paintings themselves hung on the walls of a Shakespeare gallery in a fashionable part of London.

When it opened in 1789, the museum displayed 34 paintings from more than 21 Shakespeare plays. By 1802 there were more than 160 pieces of art in the gallery. Boydell sold exhibition guides, and visitors could purchase engravings of their favorite pieces of art.

The Folger collection contains a number of the Boydell Shakespeare Gallery paintings, such as this one by Robert Smirke. Explore more of them in the photo gallery above.

Robert Smirke. Falstaff rebuked. Oil on canvas, ca. 1795
Robert Smirke. Falstaff rebuked. Oil on canvas, ca. 1795. Folger Shakespeare Library.

“It was the Georgian equivalent of binge-watching Shakespeare,” Barchas told The New York Times, which ran an article about the digital project earlier this month. (Barchas is also the co-curator of Will & Jane: Shakespeare, Austen, and the Cult of Celebrity, on exhibit at the Folger beginning August 6, 2016.)

Would the gallery’s visitors have spotted celebrity actors of the day depicted in Shakespearean roles?* Apparently not, Barchas says. She found that reviews in newspapers of the time actually lamented the lack of celebrity portraits.

A 2007-2008 exhibition at the Folger, Marketing Shakespeare: the Boydell Gallery, 1789-1805, & Beyond, chronicled the development of the gallery as a wildly successful venture at the intersection of commerce and art. The exhibition was curated by Ann R. Hawkins and Georgianna Ziegler, and a record of the exhibition material is on Folgerpedia.

The gallery’s founder was a shrewd and ambitious salesman. Boydell wanted to inject new life into England’s engravings market so that the country could better compete abroad, and he did such a good job that the Royal Academy of Arts awarded him a gold medal in 1773.

Unfortunately for Boydell, the Napoleonic Wars brought economic turmoil. Struggling with his debts, he received special permission from Parliament to raise funds from the paintings in a lottery, but he didn’t live to see the lottery completed in 1805.

*Editor’s Note: This blog post has been corrected to clarify that the gallery’s visitors would likely not have spotted celebrity actors of the day depicted in the paintings.