John Boydell’s Shakespeare Gallery (1789-1805)

Alice Rylance-Watson tells the story of a late-18th century art venture, the Boydell Shakespeare Gallery, which occasioned some of the most beautiful and iconic paintings of Shakespearean scenes. She discusses the relationship between commerce and fine art, and outlines the important role Boydell's enterprise played in the rise of British bardolatry.

Shakespeare was big business in 18th-century Britain. With the advancement of printing techniques and rising levels of literacy, the Bard’s plays were being revived across the nation for eager audiences. Playhouses and bookshops reaped the rewards of this invigorated public appetite, and so did Britain’s art establishments.

This article takes a look at one of the most successful attempts to promote – and profit from – Shakespeare in late 18th-century London’s art scene. It was a project spearheaded by the London publishing tycoon John Boydell (1720–1804), a print-seller with a keen eye for contemporary trends and savvy business ventures.

Boydell’s enterprise was the Shakespeare Gallery, an exhibition space in London’s Pall Mall showcasing paintings which exclusively represented scenes from Shakespeare’s plays. From 1789 to 1804, Boydell commissioned Britain’s established and up-and-coming contemporary artists to paint these scenes, offering each generous compensation for their work. 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 portfolio of prints or as illustrations to a luxurious edition of the plays.[1]

Titania and Bottom, by Henry Fuseli

Painting of Titania and Bottom, by Henry Fuseli

Henry Fuseli, Titania and Bottom, c. 1790, oil on canvas, Tate Gallery, London.

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Usage terms Titania and Bottom, c. 1790, Henry Fuseli (1741 - 1825). © Tate, London 2016

Boydell's Collection of Prints illustrating Shakespeare's works

Boydell's Collection of Prints illustrating Shakespeare's works

John Peter Simon after Henry Fuseli, Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act IV, Scene I: A Wood

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The engravings retailed to gallery visitors and ready customers in Britain and Europe, and their sale went a long way in offsetting Boydell’s outgoings. This relatively straightforward business model was key to his success. Shakespeare Gallery artists were motivated by Boydell’s promise to engrave and publish their paintings, while subscribers to the prints, referred to as ‘patrons of native genius’, were praised as promoting British art.[2] As most Shakespeare Gallery-goers were middle-class Londoners and not aristocrats, Boydell’s flattering marketing ploys went down rather well.

Impressions of famous Shakespeare Gallery paintings were circulated to subscribers across the nation and the world, giving ‘great satisfaction to the curious’, as one 18th-century art critic wrote, and growing the reputation of the Gallery year after year.[3] The prints were fine, collectable commodities for customers who generally could not afford the originals. Commerce and the fine arts, seen as incompatible by the high-art establishment, were shown in Boydell’s enterprise to be uniting in a mutually beneficial way.

Boydell's Collection of Prints illustrating Shakespeare's works

Boydell's Collection of Prints illustrating Shakespeare's works

Robert Thew after Joseph Wright of Derby, Tempest, Act IV, Scene I: Prospero’s Cell

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Boydell’s intention in opening the Gallery was, he declared, to revive contemporary British art. Embracing the democratic and profit-making possibilities of the reproductive print, Boydell’s manifesto vowed to renew the ‘noblest part of the Art’, which, at the time, was the declining practice of history painting.[4] Considered the highest form of art in the 18th century, history paintings depicted scenes from the Bible, mythology or the Classics. They were endorsed by elite state institutions like the Royal Academy because they carried morally instructive messages, such as piety, which were thought to be of public benefit. The problem with large-scale and righteous history paintings, however, was that the majority of contemporary artists just weren’t producing them. They instead focussed on more profitable portraiture and landscapes, for which there was a ready market. After all, where would one hang an enormous tableau from Ovid, for example, and would anyone want such predictably solemn paintings up on the walls of their drawing rooms anyway?

Much to the humiliation of the British art establishment, ‘foreigners’ had noticed the shortfall in history painting. As Boydell’s declaration goes: ‘Foreigners … have said with some severity, and I am sorry to say some truth, that the abilities of our best Artists are chiefly employed in painting Portraits’ while ‘Historical Painting’ is ‘much neglected’.[5] This national embarrassment was all the ammunition Boydell needed to stir public opinion in his favour. Only one-fifth of the paintings displayed at the Royal Academy – London’s most prestigious exhibiting space – were historical.[6] Seventy per cent were portraits and landscapes.[7] To make matters worse, Sir Joshua Reynolds, president of the Royal Academy, didn’t approve of prints being made after history paintings because he thought it ‘vulgar’. Boydell, on the other hand, believed that uniting history painting with engraving could radically transform its dwindling fortunes by spreading its vision far and wide, and Shakespeare lay at the heart of his strategy.

King Lear Weeping over the Dead Body of Cordelia, by James Barry

King Lear Weeping over the Dead Body of Cordelia, by James Barry

James Barry, King Lear Weeping over the Dead Body of Cordelia, 1786–88, oil on canvas, Tate Gallery, London.

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Usage terms © King Lear Weeps over the Body of Cordelia, Barry, James (1741-1806) / Private Collection / Bridgeman Images

Boydell's Collection of Prints illustrating Shakespeare's works

Boydell's Collection of Prints illustrating Shakespeare's works

Francis Legat after James Barry, King Lear, Act V, Scene III

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The cult of Shakespeare

Who better than the Bard to show off the full range of British artistic power? From the 1730s Shakespeare had firmly taken root in British popular culture. His plays became widely available in cheap mass-market editions and were one-quarter of the entire London stage repertoire.[8] In the 1740s and 50s artists like William Hogarth immortalised celebrated Shakespearean actors like David Garrick and made good money from reproductive engravings. Illustrated editions of the plays also sold well, and booksellers commissioned contemporary artists to produce pictures of well-known scenes to enliven their texts. The market for Shakespeare was buoyant.

‘Bardolatry’ became synonymous with Britishness, so fostering a national celebration of Shakespeare not only made financial sense but also guaranteed a patriotically warm reception. Boydell’s plan seemed watertight.

David Garrick as Richard III, by William Hogarth

David Garrick as Richard III, by William Hogarth

William Hogarth, David Garrick as Richard III, c. 1745, oil on canvas, Walker Art Gallery, National Museums Liverpool.

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Usage terms David Garrick as Richard III, 1745 (oil on canvas), Hogarth, William (1697-1764) / © Walker Art Gallery, National Museums Liverpool / Bridgeman Images

Boydell sought out the nation’s painters to join his scheme, where ‘the national honour, the advancement of the Arts, and their own advantage are equally concerned’.[9] He attracted less well known as well as leading Royal Academy artists, offering each healthy commissions. Boydell even secured Sir Joshua Reynolds, who demanded an eye-watering £1,000 for one picture (approximately £56,000 in today’s money).[10] The Gallery opened in May 1789 with 34 canvases by 18 British artists displayed in two of its three grand upper rooms. The number of paintings had increased to 55 by the next year and to 84 by 1796, exhibited alongside dozens more ‘Small Pictures’ in the lower rooms.

With an entrance fee of one shilling (around £2.80), Boydell’s Gallery was a sensation with the general public (the Royal Academy charged a higher rate ‘to prevent the Rooms being filled by improper Persons’).[11] He provided catalogues which functioned as gallery guides, with each exhibit accompanied by a catalogue text quoting the passage from which it derived. He encouraged visitors and newspaper critics to engage with the paintings and comment on the exhibition. In anticipation of the start of the yearly exhibition season, a team of journalists released weekly updates on the comings and goings at the Shakespeare Gallery. Boydell and his artists also promoted the project by sending anonymous articles to the press, in the hope that this would increase interest in the show and also, crucially, in the reproductive engravings.

The most enthusiastic responses to the Shakespeare Gallery hailed it as ‘the first stone of an English School of Painting’ and predicted that it would ‘establish and confirm the superiority of the English School’.[12] Viewers praised its eclecticism: the broad mix of painterly styles, comic and tragic subjects hung cheek-by-jowl, all united under the mantle of the nation’s iconic playwright. The fact that paintings by lesser-known artists like James Northcote hung next to and even eclipsed those by leading lights like Reynolds also thrilled the public. The Shakespeare Gallery was gaining a reputation as an innovative, democratic space offering the public a new brand of academic yet accessible history painting. The fact that the public could own prints from this novel and exciting Gallery only increased its appeal.

A print-seller’s patronage

With the mounting success of his Shakespeare enterprise, and having being elected as an alderman of London in 1790, John Boydell was on the up. For some green-eyed members of the British art establishment, however, he was becoming just a little too big for his boots. Boydell’s ventures were seen as ‘siphoning’ British artistic talent away from the Royal Academy, patronised by the king, toward private commercial interests.[13] Insiders gossiped about the Alderman’s true intentions, deeming them to be rather more moneygrubbing than his promotional declarations would have the art world believe.

Shakespeare Sacrificed: a satirical print by James Gillray

Shakespeare Sacrificed: a satirical print by James Gillray

James Gillray, Shakespeare – Sacrificed; – or – The Offering to Avarice, published 20 June 1789.

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Held by© Trustees of the British Museum

Among the first and most cutting public attack was James Gillray’s satirical print Shakespeare – Sacrificed. Gillray, a leading caricaturist, depicts Boydell in the midst of a ritual sacrifice. He tosses plays by the Bard into a pyre, wearing his mayor of London robes and a sinister smile. His arms are raised like a conjurer’s whilst he invokes the sin of Avarice, personified by a bony little goblin clutching moneybags bloated with cash. The pages of the tombstone-like ledger, on which grinning Avarice sits, are inscribed with the names of Boydell’s print subscribers and the plumes of smoke which rise up from the fire are entwined with figures from paintings by Shakespeare Gallery artists. While this is compelling satire indeed, it must be noted that Gillray produced this print shortly after he himself was refused a commission to engrave Shakespeare Gallery paintings.

It was a mark of how English society was changing generally that a businessman like Boydell, who started off as a plate engraver, had risen to the ranks of the elite art establishment. Many critics praised him for doing more for British art than any blue-blooded patron had – and aristocrats were ostensibly the men with the means to support British painters. The ‘Commercial Maecenas’, as Boydell was dubbed, thus became the object of admiration and of resentment amongst his contemporaries. As he was both rival and patron of the head of the Royal Academy it was all the more of a playful provocation, then, when, at an Academy dinner, Edmund Burke proposed a toast to ‘an English Tradesman who patronises the art better than the grand Monarque of France’.[14]


Boydell’s approach to art patronage ‘represented a revolution of sorts in its almost entire reliance on middle-class print buyers’.[15] With each subscriber funding the production of new British history paintings in their fee, each was empowered to the status of patron of the arts – a prestige only previously enjoyed by aristocrats. Of Boydell’s innovative tactic, one newspaper declared: ‘To noble patronage Painting owes little, to royal patronage, less – The spirit of the People, as it accomplished a revolution in Government, so also in Taste’.[16]

The Shakespeare Gallery truly transformed the course of British art, freeing painters from traditional norms of state and aristocratic patronage by creating a public taste for prints of historical subjects. Like all good ideas, Boydell’s was almost immediately copied by other London print publishers, most notably by Thomas Macklin in his Poet’s Gallery, Robert Bowyer in his Historic Gallery and Henry Fuseli in his Milton Gallery.


From 1796 financial difficulties befell the Shakespeare Gallery and in the winter of 1804–05 it closed. Subscriptions had dropped by two-thirds, owing to huge delays in print production and to the marked reduction in the quality of the prints themselves.[17] Boydell blamed Britain’s war with revolutionary France for the rising costs of maintaining his enterprise, and for the decline in the continental print market where a large proportion of his engravings sold. All export trade was halted when the French revolutionary Wars broke out so the prints couldn’t even leave the country. When the Gallery finally shut down, the whole collection was offered for public sale by lottery and later auction, though the paintings fetched low prices and very few still exist.


[1] John Brewer, The Pleasures of the Imagination: English Culture in the Eighteenth Century (London: HarperCollins, 1997), p. 247.

[2] The Monthly Magazine: or, British Register, Vol. xix, Part I, 1805, p. 581.

[3] Cosmetti, The Polite Arts (1767), pp. 26–27.

[4] John Boydell, A Catalogue of Pictures, &c. in the Shakespeare Gallery (London, 1789), p. v.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Brewer, Pleasures, p. 246.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Jonathan Bate, ‘The Shakespeare Phenomenon’ in Shakespeare in Art, (London: Merrell, 2003).

[9] Boydell, A Catalogue of Pictures, p. vi.

[10] Quoted in What Jane Saw, accessed 6 February 2016, <http://www.whatjanesaw.org/1796/about.php>

[11] Rosie Dias, Exhibiting Englishness: John Boydell’s Shakespeare Gallery and the Formation of a National Aesthetic (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2013), p. 50, and Richard D Altick, The Shows of London (Cambridge, Massachusetts and London: Harvard University Press, 1978), p. 102.

[12] The Times, 7 May 1789, and The Public Advertiser, 6 May 1789.

[13] Dias, Exhibiting Englishness, p. 53.

[14] The London Chronicle, 25–28 April 1789.

[15] Christopher Kent Rovee, Imagining the Gallery: The Social Body of British Romanticism (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2006), p. 79.

[16] Quoted in Rovee, Imagining the Gallery, p. 79

[17] Winifred H Friedman, Boydell’s Shakespeare Gallery (New York: Garland Publishing, 1976), p. 84.

  • Alice Rylance-Watson
  • Alice Rylance-Watson is Transforming Topography Research Curator at the British Library. She is also a Cataloguer at Tate Britain, working on the sketchbooks, drawings and watercolours of JMW Turner.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.