What a Piece of Work . . .

A midsummer night's promotion scheme: George Romney's 1793
A midsummer night's promotion scheme: George Romney's 1793 "Study for Titania, Puck, and the Changeling," part of the "Marketing Shakespeare" exhibition at the Folger Shakespeare Library. (Folger Shakespeare Library)
By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 21, 2007

The idea was born over dinner in 18th century London. John Boydell, a prominent and well-to-do publisher and politician, was convinced that England lacked a suitably accomplished and vigorous tradition of history painting -- the grand style of epic moments and great men, spread across huge canvases, that was generally regarded as the highest and most edifying form of painting at the time. So, after consulting with the eminent artists of his day, he decided to jump-start it -- by commissioning dozens of paintings of scenes by Shakespeare.

Boydell's gallery, a short-lived but remarkably influential private museum that opened in 1789, is the subject of the Folger Shakespeare Library's intriguing new exhibition: "Marketing Shakespeare: The Boydell Gallery (1789-1805) and Beyond." It includes paintings commissioned by Boydell, engravings made from them, and other artifacts that show the generally dizzy and appallingly sentimental craze for all things Shakespeare at the end of the 18th century.

Boydell had grand plans. He opened his gallery, a 4,000-square-foot space in a very good neighborhood, as part of concerted campaign to promote Shakespeare, commission art and generally elevate English taste. He persuaded prominent artists who are famous still -- Joshua Reynolds, Benjamin West, George Romney and Henry Fuseli, among them -- to participate. He spent heavily on mediocrities, too.

The gallery opened with 34 canvases. By the time it went belly up in 1805 -- after Boydell had invested a fortune, more than 100,000 pounds -- there were 167 paintings, and at least one for each play.

The fascinating thing about the current show is how awful most of them are. Boydell was trying to instill the values of history painting, with its strong geometrical form, its condensation of energy and importance in towering figures set against epic backdrops. But often his artists produced small domestic dramas, willowy young men courting pale women in flouncy dresses, surrounded by the markers of domesticity one might expect in a Dutch scene of daily life.

Boydell's painters frequently turned to the tradition of theatrical painting, recording intimately the faces and gestures -- painfully histrionic by today's standards -- that one might conceivably see in an actual performance of Shakespeare.

William Hamilton's "The Duke of York Discovering His Son Aumerle's Treachery" is typical. The scene is from "Richard II"; the subject, a father's uncovering of his son's participation in a plot to the kill the king. He tears from the young man's neck a seal that proves his complicity; he berates him; and he ignores his wife's plea not to denounce and destroy their child.

The painting feels decidedly stagy. The action is contained within a small space, a window drapery looks suspiciously like a theatrical curtain, and the young man's gesture -- right hand thrust to his forehead, his torso inclined backward as if buffeted by a gusty wind of melodrama -- is something one might find on the cover of an old penny dreadful.

This is not our Shakespeare, but a different Bard altogether. Part of the pleasure of this show, an unnerving pleasure at times, is the world of weirdness in another era's conception of literature that we feel we intimately possess and understand.

Of course, static images of live performance are almost always painful to look at. Just examine any season brochure for a theater or opera company. Just as human beings are not meant to be seen immediately upon waking up, they are not meant to be seen fixed in frozen form while cavorting on stages. What is grand and powerful and shocking behind the footlights is just ridiculous and silly in the glare of the flashbulb.

It's also curious to consider what an odd project Boydell's gallery was, from the very outset. The Folger's Georgianna Ziegler, who curated the show along with Ann R. Hawkins (an English professor at Texas Tech University), points out that there was not an abundance of art available to the English public at the time. Art museums were virtually nonexistent, and art collections were closely held by the wealthy, to whom one would appeal for the rare chance to study serious painting and sculpture. To see an old master, you needed access to someone's living room.

Boydell was throwing open art to a much broader public, and for a while they came. Fanny Burney, the novelist and diarist, visited, though an account she left in her journal in 1792 details a social encounter in the gallery, not a profound communion with Shakespeare. Charles Lamb, the author, essayist and perhaps the most brilliant mediocrity of his age, visited as well, and wasn't amused. For Lamb, making Shakespeare visual and tangible in images or even performances was an insult to his own imagination and the purity of the Shakespearean experience. (The plays were best encountered, he thought, between the pages of a book, a book with no illustrations.)

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