Drawing Shakespeare: King Lear

King Lear by Paul Glenshaw
Bas-relief of a scene from King Lear. Drawing by Paul Glenshaw.

This is the seventh post in a series by artist Paul Glenshaw about drawing the bas-reliefs by sculptor John Gregory on the front of the Folger Shakespeare Library building. The series examines the bas-reliefs one by one; each sculpture depicts a scene from a different Shakespeare play. Today’s post is about the bas-relief of a scene from King Lear.


To Please a Patron

Henry Folger didn’t live to see the sculptures he’d commissioned from John Gregory put in place on the exterior of the Folger Shakespeare Library. We don’t even know what he thought of Gregory’s particular designs – except the one for King Lear. Only a month before his death, Folger visited Gregory’s studio, describing the visit in a letter to Paul Phillipe Cret, the architect of the library, who had personally recommended Gregory to Folger.

“We spent a very happy hour yesterday afternoon in Mr. Gregory’s studio,” Folger wrote. “I will confess I have been much worried, fearing that he might not be equal to the task put upon him…” From the letter, we can tell that Gregory was at an early stage of the process and showed Folger preliminary studies of the sculptures, with Lear being the most complete. Folger’s fears had already been allayed, and he devotes the bulk of the letter to his comments about Lear.

He is certainly pleased, saying, “Just as it is, I believe the sculpture could go into place and be highly satisfactory,” he writes. However, Folger couldn’t resist weighing in on every aspect of his library’s creation: “But there are two or three things, of minor importance, which I would like to submit to you [Cret] to use as you may think best.”

Folger thinks that Lear should be older—more of “a foolish old man”—and more distraught than in Gregory’s preliminary study.  Also, the Fool looks a little young. But he’s most concerned that Lear “not be made any less strong and rugged, for he was by no means in physical decline; so that his upraised arms could be made a little more muscular than at present.” But he is enormously satisfied overall. “The conception and grouping are splendid.”

Rage! Blow!

The storm is raging. Lightning flashes in a thundercloud. The wind whips the figures’ cloaks and bends the meager shrubs. Lear dominates, almost moving through the center from the right to the left, into the rush of the storm in full fury, fists clenched, arms raised, beard blowing, as if he’s bellowing out the first lines of the scene: Blow winds, and crack your cheeks! Rage, blow! The Fool cowers behind him, crouching as he peers up amongst Lear’s madly swirling cape.

Kent stands opposite Lear, despite not being in the first part of the scene. Gregory brilliantly evokes the storm through Kent’s pose and costume. His cloak blows from behind him out past his legs, and he leans into the wind at his back. The mad zigzag of his garment looks more like a lightning bolt than the hard-edge stylization of a bolt next to him in the clouds.

In the text, Lear and the Fool are alone at the beginning of the scene, and Kent enters halfway through. I read the depiction a few ways. Perhaps Gregory conflated the beginning of the scene and Kent’s entrance later. Or perhaps Lear simply doesn’t see Kent yet, but we do. Or it depicts a later part of the scene, when Lear cries out to Kent, “I am a man more sinned against than sinning.” Regardless, Gregory’s depiction captures the agony of Lear’s torment—and was enormous fun to draw.

Paul Glenshaw drawing the King Lear bas-relief

Drawing Challenges

Drawing Lear was all about the lines. Racing through the garments, they pull off a neat trick. They evoke the storm and bring the wild moment to life, but they’re highly stylized. The waves in Kent’s cloak push out as if being blown by the storm yet have a sine-wave-like regularity. The mad folds of Lear’s cape leap up behind him yet are crinkled just enough to fit in the square.

The faces were great to draw. Most of the faces in the Gregory sculptures are actually quite passive. Not here. Kent’s is hidden, brooding inside his hood; the Fool’s is poking out nervously through his jester’s costume; and Lear’s is all beard and brow.

The biggest challenge in drawing Lear wasn’t the complexity; Gregory has visual action in every part of the composition. The hard part was making sure Lear himself didn’t get lost in all the swirl. But Gregory frames Lear’s face with upraised arms. After roaming through the chaos, our eyes can’t help but start and stop there.

On reflection, I feel a sense of poignancy about this sculpture. In the scene, Lear has lost his kingdom and been disowned by his daughters; losing his mind, he rages at the forces beyond his control. By comparison, when Folger saw the sculpture, he had gained his treasures, was building his palace to Shakespeare, and was in full command of bringing his vision to life. Yet he only had a month to live.

Looking to the next sculpture, I saw a figure with an enormous wingspan engulfing two boys, flanked by imposing, pillar-like figures. The menace of Richard III was waiting.

Illustration from King Lear
There are several instances of the scene in prints and drawings from the Folger collection similar to the Gregory sculpture but which show only Lear and the Fool. This one shows Kent approaching – it’s as if the Gregory sculpture shows the moment he arrives. [King Lear, III, 2, Another part of the heath, enter Lear and the fool [graphic] / [Johann Heinrich Ramberg]. 1829.

Previous: Julius Caesar | Next: Richard III

Read the introductory post to this series and see a slideshow of Paul Glenshaw’s drawing process.

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