Shakespeare in Art – Boydell, a Wright Storm Brewing

When the most notable painters in England were foreigners, such as Holbein and Rubens, how could the English rival their continental counterparts?   Twinings tea would not have been enough to alter taste.

In the late 1700s, the “Grand Style” was moving up the artistic ladder, prints were proliferating, and England was looking for a national hero to honour in its art.  Enter SHAKESPEARE.  Shakespeare’s plays – considered “high literature” – would be fodder for the Grand Style and Shakespeare’s stories – “mirror[s] of life” – would appeal to the masses.

John Boydell (1719-1804), publisher, print-seller, and soon to be Lord Mayor of London, decided to create a National Edition of Shakespeare’s plays.  He commissioned paintings, which would be turned into engravings, which, in turn, would illustrate the National Edition: “A MOST MAGNIFICENT AND ACCURATE EDITION OF THE PLAYS OF SHAKSPEARE.”  Note the spelling.

Boydell exhibited the paintings in the Shakspeare Gallery (1789-1804).  In a world without cameras and computers, let alone Facebook and Twitter, the gallery was a grand advertisement.  In the gift shop, patrons could subscribe to the National Edition, subscribe to the illustrations, or purchase individual prints.

Joseph Wright of Derby (1734-1797) painted three canvases for Boydell, scenes from: 1) The Tempest (now lost), 2) Romeo & Juliet (not included), and 3) A Winter’s TaleAntigonus in the Storm, III.iii, 1790-1792.  The last lives at home here in the Art Gallery of Ontario.  Stroll into Walker Court, between the Rodins, beneath the spiral staircase, and swing [W]right at the Bernini.

A Winter’s Tale in a two-paragraph nutshell:  Leontes, King of Sicilia and Polixenes, King of Bohemia have been friends since childhood.  Polixenes, having visited Leontes, is about to return to his kingdom.  When Leontes encourages Polixenes to stay, he refuses.  However, when Hermione – Leontes’ pregnant wife – asks Polixenes to stay, he agrees.  Leontes convinces himself that the two are having an affair, plots to poison Polixenes (fails),  imprisons Hermione and, when she gives birth, orders Antigonus to take the newborn girl (Perdita) away.  Leontes’ son Mamilius dies of grief and Hermione is reported dead soon after.

Time advances sixteen years and Perdita, raised by a benevolent Shepherd, has fallen in love with Florizel, Polixenes son.  Polixenes forbids the match, perceiving Perdita as unworthy.  Determined, Florizel, Perdita, and the Shepherd flee to Sicilia to visit Leontes.  When Polixenes intervenes, the Shepherd reveals the truth to make Perdita eligible.  Perdita and her father re-unite, Leontes and Polixenes resurrect their friendship, and Hermione reveals that she is, in fact, still alive.

Wright’s painting captures a sliver of the story.  Leontes orders Antigonus to abandon the infant in “some remote and desert place, quite out / Of [his] dominions” (II.iii.1142-1143).  Antigonus, on pain of death, sails to Bohemia and makes landfall in a desert country by the sea where “…the skies look grimly / And threaten present blusters” (III.iii.1490-1491).  Antigonus names the child “Perdita” and leaves her with a scroll.  The storm begins.  The painting illustrates one of the Bard’s most memorable stage directions: “Exit, pursued by a bear” (III.iii.1551).  It’s the last time we see Antigonus.

Wright, who loved to render light and dark, maximized the dramatic potential of this narrative moment.  The painting is about 99% storm.  In the foreground, a dead tree, perhaps foreshadowing the death of Antigonus.  In the middle ground, the mariner’s ship, dashed against the rocks.  In the background, an “arch” of ominous clouds and clear skies in the distance, perhaps foreshadowing the marriage of Perdita and “revival” of Hermione.  The bear looks rather wolfish and Antigonus flees artfully, arms extended, blue cape billowing behind.



Hawkins, Ann R.  “A Taste for Shakespeare:  The Growth of the Boydell Gallery.”  Folger Magazine  Fall 2007.  4-11.  Print.

Martineau, Jane et al.  Shakespeare in Art.  London: Morrel Publishers Limited, 2003.

Paulson, Ronald.  Book and Painting: Shakespeare, Milton, and the Bible – Literary Texts and the Emergence of English Painting.  Knoxville:  The University of Knoxville Press, 1982.


By L.I.



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