Boydell’s Shakespeare: A Meeting of Art & Literature

Visual art and literature often share a symbiotic relationship, and tomorrow’s auction of The Esther Salinas Collection of Fine Illustrated & Plate Books features two excellent examples of creative pursuits coming together. In the 1780s London alderman John Boydell began commissioning England’s finest artists to create an illustrated edition of William Shakespeare’s plays. The project was extensive: in addition to building a printing house, type foundry and ink factory specifically to facilitate the publication, Boydell opened The Shakespeare Gallery to exhibit the original paintings commissioned for the project.

 

William Shakespeare, The Dramatic Works, 9 volumes with 96 copper engravings, published by John and Josiah Boydell, London, 1802.

Lot 78: William Shakespeare, The Dramatic Works,
9 volumes with 96 copper engravings, published by John and Josiah Boydell, London,
1802. Estimate $5,000 to $7,500.

 

It took ten years for the complete nine-volume edition of William Shakespeare’s The Dramatic Works to be published in 1802. According to Colin Franklin’s Shakespeare Domesticated, “No Printing Press . . . ever produced a work in nine large volumes in folio so uniformly beautiful.” A year later, in 1803, Boydell released a two-volume elephant folio of all of the engravings based on the paintings completed for the project. 

 

John & Josiah Boydell's A Collection of Prints from the Pictures Painted for the Purpose of Illustrating the Dramatic Works of Shakespeare by the Artists of Great-Britain, two volumes bound in one, with 97 engraved plates, London, 1793-[1805].

Lot 79: A Midsummer Night’s Dream from John & Josiah Boydell’s A Collection of Prints from the Pictures Painted for the Purpose of Illustrating the Dramatic Works of Shakespeare by the Artists of Great-Britain, two volumes bound in one, with 97 engraved plates, London, 1793-[1805]. Estimate $2,500 to $3,500.

 John & Josiah Boydell's A Collection of Prints from the Pictures Painted for the Purpose of Illustrating the Dramatic Works of Shakespeare by the Artists of Great-Britain, two volumes bound in one, with 97 engraved plates, London, 1793-[1805].

Lot 79: Hamlet from John & Josiah Boydell’s A Collection of Prints from the Pictures Painted for the Purpose of Illustrating the Dramatic Works of Shakespeare by the Artists of Great-Britain, two volumes bound in one, with 97 engraved plates, London, 1793-[1805]. Estimate $2,500 to $3,500.

 

While a combination of events, including the French Revolution, ultimately conspired to cause Boydell to lose the money he had invested in the undertaking and close the gallery, many scholars note that the project was instrumental in the history of English art, as it paid both the painters and engravers who participated incredibly well and paved the way for the success of English history painting. Recently, Professor Janine Barchas of The University of Texas at Austin spent time digitally recreating Boydell’s The Shakespeare Gallery as part of her project “What Jane Saw,” a look into two art exhibitions attended by writer Jane Austen. Boydell’s Shakespeare remains a highly important text, sought by academics and collectors alike.  

 

For a look at more images of Boydell’s Shakespeare, as well as illustrated editions of many other classics, peruse the complete catalogue of The Esther Salinas Collection