In 1789, the publisher John Boydell opened the Shakespeare Gallery, an exhibition space in London’s Pall Mall showcasing paintings that exclusively represented scenes from Shakespeare’s plays. The Gallery was a bid to revive ‘history painting’ (the practice of depicting scenes from the Bible, mythology or the classics) in contemporary British art, a genre thought to be of great public benefit because of its morally instructive messages. What better unifying theme for such a project than the works of Shakespeare, which had become so popular and so integral to British identity by the mid-18th century?
The Gallery opened in May 1789 with 34 canvases by 18 British artists. By the next year there were 55 paintings and in 1796 the total was 84, along with dozens of ‘Small Pictures’.
Once the exhibition was mounted, reproductive engravings of the paintings produced by an in-house team of 46 printmakers were available to purchase, either as a large portfolio of 90 prints or as a luxurious illustrated edition of the plays.