Contributor: Michael Dobson
Location: Stratford-upon-Avon, UK
Description: This specimen of Romantic statuary can be found, albeit with some difficulty, in a remote lower corner of the garden attached to the site of William Shakespeare’s long-demolished house New Place in Stratford-upon-Avon. Although partly sheltered under a pediment, its three life-sized figures display symptoms of long-term exposure to acid rain, since this work has always been positioned outdoors. It was designed to adorn the entrance of a pioneering art gallery in London, and both the artistic agenda it was intended to advertise and the fate which ultimately befell it have much to say about the tensions within European romanticism between the assertion of the native and the celebration of the transcendent.
In 1786 the engraver, printmaker and entrepreneur John Boydell (1720-1804), together with the painter George Romney (1732-1804) and others, became involved in a project to publish a new large-format edition of Shakespeare, to be called ‘the National Edition.’ Alderman Boydell, soon to be Lord Mayor of London, decided that commissioning illustrations for this edition from British artists would be a worthy way of stimulating a new school of British history painting. The project soon expanded: not only would the lavishly-illustrated edition appear (as it did, in instalments, between 1792 and 1805), but the prints would also be offered as a separate portfolio. Moreover, following a suggestion from Boydell’s business partner George Nicol, the new paintings from which they would be engraved would be placed on public display in a space free from the social snobbery which attached to the existing Royal Academy. Boydell’s Shakespeare Gallery, complete with this statue above its door, opened at 52 Pall Mall in 1789, showing some 34 paintings, and by the time of its closure in 1804 it was showing 170, by contemporary artists including Romney, Angelica Kauffman, John Opie, and James Barry. Even Sir Joshua Reynolds, President of the Royal Academy, who at first objected that painting for a mere commercial printseller would be socially degrading, was eventually persuaded (and paid) to contribute. From 1805 the gallery’s premises became the home of the British Institution, an important precursor of the National Gallery (1824), and when the National Gallery spawned a subsidiary National Portrait Gallery (in 1856) its first acquisition, in keeping with this lineage, would be the Chandos portrait of Shakespeare. Under the aegis of Shakespeare’s popular drama, Boydell’s gallery, accessible to anyone who could pay a shilling, championed public access to a national culture.
The gallery served as a showroom for Boydell’s business, and among the prints which could be ordered from 1796 onwards was an engraving by Benjamin Smith depicting and explicating the ‘alto relievo in front of the Shakspeare gallery in Pall Mall.’ According to Smith’s caption, the statue, at first loosely known as ‘The Apotheosis of Shakespeare,’ represents ‘Shakspeare seated between the Dramatic Muse and the Genius of Painting, who is pointing Him out as the proper Subject for her pencil.’ Whether a viewer not privy to this label would understand the statue in this way is perhaps debatable, especially now that the hand by which Shakespeare is supposedly being pointed out has all-but eroded away. Rather than being comfortably ‘seated,’ Shakespeare appears to be slithering himself backward onto the top of a rough, painful-looking stone column, and so far from the Genius of Painting indicating him, it is Shakespeare who appears to be revealing her, as a topless model, his left hand, clutching her shoulder for support as he wriggles into position, helping to dislodge the drapery which her anxious grip on a palette prevents her from restoring to its proper place covering her breasts. Shakespeare, however, safely buttoned-up in generically Van Dyke fancy dress, seems nonetheless to be less interested in the Genius of Painting than in receiving the wreath which the Dramatic Muse, much-incommoded by a lyre, is trying to put onto his undersized-looking head, a head which, thanks to his uncomfortably elevated position, appears to be just out of reach.
This is a thoroughly awkward piece of sculpture, in conception as well as in execution. Although designed to celebrate Shakespeare as a local genius, whose literary achievements in the English vernacular are to serve as the inspiration for equally English painters, it follows the pan-European idiom of neoclassicism. Boydell’s entire project, similarly, although it exploited the growing prestige of Shakespeare as a proto-Romantic national bard, depended both on the expanding European reach of that prestige and on the innate internationalism of the visual arts, already registered by the presence among its roster of British artists of the Swiss expatriate Henry Fuseli. Opening soon after the storming of the Bastille, Boydell’s gallery was bankrupted when the ensuing wars between Britain and France cut off his business from the lucrative European export market, and on his death in 1804 its contents had to be sold to pay his creditors.
Even so, Boydell’s engravings remain immensely familiar within Britain, and after the Napoleonic wars they went on to exert considerable influence across Europe. The tension visible in Banks’ statue between its sense of Shakespeare as a universal genius who transcends even the artforms in which he worked and its commitment to a nation-specific model of culture, however, continues to make Banks’ statue something of an off-white elephant. Its own caption, chiselled to the left of Shakespeare’s foot, redeploys the quotation from Hamlet which David Garrick had used throughout his pioneering romantic Shakespearean fan-festival, the Stratford Jubilee of 1769 (‘He was a man, take him for all in all, / I shall not look upon his like again’), just as its grouping echoes Reynolds’ painting David Garrick Between Tragedy and Comedy (1761), and it is perhaps this association with Garrick which helped to motivate the statue’s relocation in 1870. The impending demolition of Boydell’s former gallery coincided with a vacancy for a new monument to Shakespeare to take the place of the recently demolished Shakespeare Room, a small Georgian playhouse which stood in Shakespeare’s former garden. The writer and philanthropist Charles Holte Bracebridge proposed the building of a small classical temple to Shakespeare near its site, in which Banks’ group, which he bought, could be displayed. But Bracebridge’s gift, importing an ahistorical, allegorical representation of Shakespeare into a town that had become the epicentre for a sense of Shakespeare as indigenous, rooted and historically specific, was controversial from the outset. ‘I should be horrified at the Boydell rubbish from Pall Mall being put up in New Place,’ wrote the scholar James Orchard Halliwell, ‘ – no value as a work of art or any real interest in a Shakespearian point of view, merely perpetuating a gallery of now acknowledged failures in art.’ Now curated with palpable embarrassment by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, this Shakespeare between two personified artforms continues to sit uncomfortably between two versions of Romanticism.
Subject: John Boydell (1720-1804); George Romney (1732-1804); William Shakespeare
Media rights: Image by the author
Object type: statue/sculpture
Related objects: Shakespeare’s Chair
Publisher: Image by the author
Frederick Burwick and Walter Pape, eds., The Boydell Shakespeare Gallery (Bottrop, Essen: Verlag Peter Pomp, 1996)
Robert Howe, ‘Boydell’s monument to Shakespeare,’ June 26 2017, https://www.shakespeare.org.uk/explore-shakespeare/blogs/boydells-monument-shakespeare/
——, ‘From Pall Mall to New Place Garden,’ July 21 2017, https://www.shakespeare.org.uk/explore-shakespeare/blogs/pall-mall-new-place-garden/
Stuart Sillars, Painting Shakespeare: The Artist as Critic, 1720-1820 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006)
——- The Illustrated Shakespeare, 1709-1875 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008)