Thomas Stothard
An Illustration to Shakespeare’s ‘King John’: Constance and Arthur ?c.1802

Artwork details

Thomas Stothard 1755–1834
An Illustration to Shakespeare’s ‘King John’: Constance and Arthur
Date ?c.1802
Medium Ink, watercolour and gum arabic on paper
Dimensions Support: 65 x 83 mm
Acquisition Purchased as part of the Oppé Collection with assistance from the National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund 1996
View this artwork by appointment, at Tate Britain's Prints and Drawings Rooms

Exhibition catalogue text

Catalogue entry from British Watercolours from the Oppé Collection


65a An Illustration to 'Sohrab' ?1800-5

Pen and brown and grey ink and watercolour with some gum arabic on lightweight white wove paper 9.1 x 6.1 (3 5/8 x 2 3/8)
Inscribed in ?brown ink bottom right 'T.Stothard.'


65b An Illustration to Shakespeare's 'King John': Constance and Arthur ?c.1802

Pen and grey ink and watercolour with some gum arabic on lightweight white wove paper 6.5 x 8.3 (2 1/2 x 3 1/4)
Inscribed in grey ink bottom left 'T.Stothard.'


In their scale and handling these two watercolours are typical of the sort of works which can be associated with Stothard's projects for book illustrations in the early 1800s, although no prints after them have been found. The text which Stothard illustrated in the first work has not been identified, but Shelley Bennett has identified the second, formerly called A Mediaeval Subject, as an illustration to Act III, scene i of Shakespeare's play King John.

Lady Constance, mother of Arthur, nephew of King John, has learnt that Philip, King of France, who had promised to defeat John in battle so that Arthur could ascend to the throne that was rightly his, has instead formed an alliance with John. She is in the French king's tent when she hears the news. Arthur attempts to calm her but she is inconsolable: '... my grief's so great | That no supporter but the huge firm earth | Can hold it up. Here I and sorrows sit; | Here is my throne; bid kings come bow to it.' King John and King Philip, who stand immediately behind Constance and Arthur, have arrived together with others of their family; among them are Lady Blanch and the Dauphin, Lewis, fourth and fifth from the left, whose arranged marriage has resolved the Kings' conflict.

Stothard painted at least two other versions of the same scene and these suggest a date for this work: an oil painting (no.FA 205; oval, 28.6 x 31.8 cm) which is in the Victoria and Albert Museum and which was engraved by James Heath in 1802 for an edition of Shakespeare containing twenty-two illustrations by Stothard, published as a part-work by Heath and Robinson between 1802 and 1804; and there is a small engraving of about 1804 by James Parker (d.1805), after Stothard, which shows almost the same composition as the Victoria and Albert and Opp? works but with Arthur standing behind Constance (Balmanno, no.1477).

After his death Stothard was described by one obituarist as one who 'could have no enemy. His character was simplicity itself' (quoted in Bennett 1988, p.5). This mildness of temper can be seen in his art, and in these two small pictures, both in the restrained sentimentality of his portrayal of emotions and in the sweetness of his palette. Despite his good nature, however, Stothard did earn the scorn of William Blake after Blake quarrelled with him in 1806-7 over what he thought was Stothard's piracy of his idea to paint the subject of Chaucer's Canterbury Pilgrims. (Stothard's oil painting of the subject is in the Tate Gallery, N01163.) In an entry in his notebook Blake attacked Stothard for the 'blundering blurs' of his drawings which he had engraved and claimed, with some slight truth, that it was through the prints by him after his work that Stothard had 'got his reputation as a Draughtsman'. (Erdman and Moore 1977, p.N52).

Robin Hamlyn

Published in:
Anne Lyles and Robin Hamlyn, and others, British Watercolours from the Oppé Collection with a Selection of Drawings and Oil Sketches, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1997, p.166 no.65b, reproduced in colour p.167

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