Daniel Maclise, ‘Scene from ‘Twelfth Night’ (‘Malvolio and the Countess’)’ exhibited 1840
Daniel Maclise
Scene from ‘Twelfth Night’ (‘Malvolio and the Countess’) exhibited 1840

On display until 9 April 2012

The works of William Shakespeare offered a range of potentially romantic material. Themes of doomed love, ostracism, conflict and heroism appealed to painters who understood their work as a struggle against conformity. Figures such as Hamlet, Romeo and even the comic, donkey-headed Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, could be seen as poetic outsiders, prototypes of the romantic artist. Some of Shakespeare’s more fantastic narratives also let artists explore alternative realities in a way that carried historical authority.

As the taste for Shakespearean subjects developed during the eighteenth century, hopes were raised that works after his plays could help to establish a new school of British history painting. This ambition found a commercial patron in publisher John Boydell. In 1786 he opened his ‘Shakespeare Gallery’, an enterprise designed to showcase the paintings of British artists, which would then be made into commercial engravings. The French Revolution had a heavy impact on Boydell’s continental market, forcing him to close the gallery and sell the stock in 1805. Nevertheless, Shakespearean pictures remained popular among artists and audiences at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibitions throughout the nineteenth century.

This display has been devised by curator Philippa Simpson.