by Roderick Conway Morris

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Illustrating an obsession with Shakespeare

By Roderick Conway Morris
FERRARA, Italy 1 March 2003
Private collection
Ferdinand Lured By Ariel, from The Tempest,
by John Everett Millais, 1849



Turning great novels into film is a notoriously difficult task. Conversely, some badly written books have been turned into good movies.

The challenge taken up by some 20th-century filmmakers to bring great prose fiction to the screen was prefigured by attempts by 18th-and 19th-century painters to give permanent visual form to the plays and characters of England's greatest writer of all, Shakespeare. The endeavors of this pre-celluloid age to translate one medium into another are the focus of a well-selected and entertaining exhibition, 'Shakespeare in Art,' which continues at Palazzo dei Diamanti here until June 15, then travels on to the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London from July 16 to Oct. 19.

Shakespeare had never seriously gone out of fashion after his death, even when the Puritans closed the theaters for the best part of 20 years and his plays could no longer be performed. However, it was during the 18th century that his long-term popularity was consolidated - with something like a quarter of all English stage productions being of his works - making him an essential part of the repertoire for ever after.

The first illustrated edition of Shakespeare was published quite late, in 1707. The quality of such illustration was vastly improved by the arrival of the French engraver Hubert Gravelot in London, who illustrated an eight-volume 'Works' published in 1740. The following year, David Garrick, who was to dominate the Shakespearean stage for many years to come, made his debut as Richard III.

Theatrical performances and portraits of famous actors in action were the most important single stimulus for mainstream artists to take up their brushes to record Shakespearean scenes in these early days - not least because of the market for prints derived from them. William Hogarth painted Garrick in the role of Richard III in 1745, an image that was soon issued as an engraving, the first of many of Garrick and his fellow Shakespearean actors. Garrick understood and exploited the potential of prints for advertising himself and his productions better than any of his contemporaries and made sure that a constant flow of them was available. Indeed, his image was probably the most reproduced of the age, with the exception of that of King George III.

Oddly enough, although Garrick seems to have been able to hold a pose and expression 'in character' for publicity purposes, when Joshua Reynolds tried to paint a straight portrait of this hyperactive, 'great fidget' (as the king dubbed him), the artist found his sitter incapable of maintaining the same expression for more than a few seconds, driving the exasperated portraitist to throw down his palette in despair.

A major opportunity for artists to tackle Shakespeare as an imaginative exercise, aside from the illustration of actors and performances, was provided by the Shakespeare Gallery project, begun in 1786, which commissioned leading painters to provide canvases on Shakespearean themes, later to be issued to subscribers as prints. When the gallery opened its purpose-built home on Pall Mall in 1789, 34 of these paintings were put on display (a further 22 being added in the following year), and some 1,400 subscribers signed up for the prints. A similar, imitative enterprise opened in Dublin in 1792.

Henry Fuseli (born Johann Heinrich Fuessli in Switzerland in 1741), who, encouraged by Joshua Reynolds, had spent a long sojourn studying in Italy, figured prominently in both galleries. Fuseli, whose proto-gothic canvas 'The Nightmare' won him fame in 1781, was by now established as the boldest and wildest interpreter of Shakespearean scenes.

It was around the time when the London and Dublin Shakespeare Galleries were taking shape that Fuseli met William Blake. He certainly influenced Blake, though Fuseli later jokingly said of his lifelong friend that Blake was 'damned good to steal from.' Fuseli and Blake were probably the most literary-minded of all Shakespeare's artist interpreters, but far from attempting to narrate the contents of the playwright's works, they of all artists treated him as a jumping-off point for flights of fancy.

Not that Fuseli entirely scorned theatrical performances, which was the mainstay of so many of his colleagues' works in this field. But the contrast between Johann Zoffany's and Fuseli's interpretations of Garrick and Hannah Pritchard as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth - both of which pictures appear in the exhibition - is extremely instructive.

Zoffany's painting, executed around the time of the celebrated production itself, is a faithful, realistic record of what Garrick and Pritchard looked like on stage. But Fuseli's Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, based on the very same staging (for which the artist did a detailed study at the time) were utterly transformed, when Fuseli returned to the subject more than 45 years later, into an unforgettable vision of murder and its aftermath, which has an immediacy no longer reliant on knowing the play, let alone the actors who provided the models.

There were high hopes that Shakespeare would provide the impetus for the formation of a national school of English painting in the grand manner to rival that of France and Italy, hence his popularity as a set subject for the students of the Royal Academy's school. But as Fuseli and Blake demonstrate, the Bard tended to fire the imaginations of more eccentric talents. In fact, it is characteristic of another powerfully original painter, Turner, that when he came to address a putatively Shakespearean picture, 'Queen Mab's Cave' (1886), it bore little relation to any specific play or scene at all.

From the founding of the Royal Academy in 1768 until about 1830, five to 10 'Shakespearean' canvases were exhibited at the Academy every year, a figure that had risen to about 20 by the 1840s and 1850s (according to the researches of John Christian published in the show's catalogue). And by the latter decade, some 50 illustrated editions of the playwright's works had been published.

Thus, in terms of sheer output, the Regency and Victorian ages marked the acme of Shakespearean art and illustration. But, as before, it was the more maverick artists, or those at the most experimental stages of their careers, that seem to have benefited most from the playwright's inspiration, producing the works that remain most fresh and arresting today.

The Victorians became somewhat obsessed, for example, with rather twee images of fairies, elves, sprites and other little people supposedly inhabiting parallel worlds, if not actually living at the end of suburban gardens. So, predictably, 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' and 'The Tempest,' with their supernatural elements, were perennial favorites.

Nevertheless, in the hands of several artists shown here, these plays seem to have triggered uncharacteristically dark visions. Daniel Maclise's 1832 canvas has the hapless Bottom waking from the spell amid a whirling vortex of malignant nude figures as they swoop and tumble through the air around him.

And David Scott's 1837 Puck is depicted as a weird crouching homunculus, of a kind liable to provoke severe nightmares in tiny tots, hurtling through the dawning sky like a cannonball.

Even the normally sunny Pre-Raphaelite John Everett Millais envisioned Ariel in 1849 as a sinister, bright-green, lank-haired extraterrestrial, accompanied by a bevy of mutant, chlorophyll-colored, wax-winged, bat-like humanoids.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024