Shakespeare’s Heroines (some of them, anyway)

Pop quiz time!

Can you name these six Shakespearean heroines?

six portraits of women arranged in two rows of three
Can you name these six Shakespearean Heroines?

Don’t worry, I’ll wait.

Any guesses?

You might be able to guess a few of them from the clues in their clothing (or because you saw one on a recent cover of Shakespeare Quarterly!), but don’t feel bad if this was a bit of a stumper. As lovely as these early 19th-century watercolors are, the characters they depict aren’t the ones people today might think of first when asked to name Shakespearean heroines!

Ready for the answer?

Top row, left to right: Helena, from All’s Well that Ends Well, Portia from Julius Caesar, and Margaret of Anjou from Henry VI part 1.
Bottom row, left to right: Joan of Arc, also from Henry VI part 1, Lavinia, from Titus Andronicus, and Constance, from King John.

Totally obvious, right?

The question of why these particular characters were chosen is just one of several questions around these lovely little portraits in the Folger Shakespeare Library collection. (I say little and I do mean that literally—they’re only about 5″x7″!)

The biggest question is that of who drew them. Each of the six portraits has what looks like a set of initials and a date on them.

Initials J.M.W. and the number 60 written in the bottom corner of most of the portraits in this set.
Signature (?) and date (?) on the Margaret of Anjou portrait.

Normally, having a dated set of initials would make identification easier, not harder. And when Henry Folger purchased these in 1924, they were sold to him as the work of early 19th-century British artist John Massey Wright—plausibly, our J.M.W.

But there’s a problem with that identification. Namely, that these portraits don’t look much like the other watercolor drawing by John Massey Wright that we have in our collection!

Here’s the image of Helena, from above, originally attributed to John Massey Wright:

Art Box W951.5 no.1, Helena

And here is a watercolor that we are far more certain was done by John Massey Wright, depicting Act 1, Scene 3 from All’s Well, also showing Helena:

ART Box W951 no.133

They’re pretty clearly different styles. But if John Massey Wright didn’t draw these, who did?

Our next clue comes from a set of engravings issued in 1848 for a series on… you guessed it, Shakesepeare’s Heroines.

Here are the engravings of Lavinia and Constance from that set:

Left, Lavinia (ART File S528t4 no.38); Right, Constance (ART File S528k5 no.52)

Look familiar, don’t they? Clearly, these engraving and watercolors are related. And the engravings, at least, are clearly attributed.

Attribution on the engravings.

J. W. Wright. John William Wright, another early 19th-century British artist. Who, according to a number of bibliographical sources, is often confused with John Massey Wright.

But given the duplication in images between the water colors and the engravings, and the dissimilarity between the water colors and the other known works of J.M.W., our catalogers have chosen to attribute these portraits to John William, not John Massey. (The supposed date “60” on the portraits is another point of confusion. If it’s intended to be 1860, John William was twelve years dead by then, and John Massey would have been 83 years old.)