Boydell's Graphic Illustrations of the Dramatic Works of Shakespeare


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(SHAKESPEARE) BOYDELL, John. Boydell’s Graphic Illustrations of the Dramatic Works of Shakspeare; Consisting of a Series of Prints… Engraved from Pictures Purposely Painted by the Very First Artists, and Lately Exhibited at the Shakspeare Gallery. London: Boydell, [1804]. Large folio (13 by 17 inches), mid 19th-century three-quarter red morocco gilt, raised bands, marbled endpapers, all edges gilt.

Magnificent 1804 impressions of the 96 engravings for the sumptuous Boydell Shakespeare, after paintings by the period’s most eminent English artists— including Reynolds, Romney, Smirke, Stothard, Fuseli and Westall—with an engraver’s etched working proof for nearly every plate.

“Boydell’s Shakespeare Gallery completely altered the course of English painting. Most painters earned their livings by painting portraits for the wealthy nobility, but when Boydell began to commission works from the best artists in England, they were free to explore other topics and themes, drawn first from Shakespeare’s plays, then from other writers, and finally from the classics and English history. Boydell had almost single-handedly created a market for what was called ‘history painting,’ and painters had a source of income that was not rooted primarily in portraiture” (Friedman, 2). Boydell commissioned Shakespearian paintings from Reynolds, Fuseli, Smirke, Northcote, Porter, Stothard, Hamilton, Bunbury, Opie and Westall, and exhibited them in a specially built gallery in Pall Mall. By 1802 Boydell’s Shakespeare Gallery contained 162 original paintings, from which he selected 96 to illustrate his monumental edition of Shakespeare. These images were “used repeatedly to illustrate the works of Shakespeare, and they appear in all sorts of modified, adapted, and borrowed forms in engravings and drawings that accompany the plays. Producers, directors and critics were all part of that public exposed to the Boydell prints” (Rusche). In 1802, the 96 magnificent plates, “the production of which swallowed up a fortune,” were issued separately for the first time. These were again issued in 1803 and 1804, this latter under the present title—Boydell’s Graphic Illustrations of the Dramatic Works of Shakespeare. “There can be no doubt that Boydell’s Shakespeare… was the most splendid of bibliophile editions undertaken in the 18th-century or at any other time… no printing press, which has hitherto existed, ever produced a work… so uniformly beautiful” (Franklin, 47-48). This copy is bound with an early preliminary etching for nearly every plate—working proofs showing the outlines of figures and blocks of shading, pulled prior to the process of engraving in order to determine the proper depth of incisions, amount of crosshatching and quality of line. The final engraving for the death scene in Romeo and Juliet was produced by William Blake. See Jaggard, 508; Franklin, 214-23.

Light soiling and staining to fore-edge margins (not affecting images). A famous set of prints, with early etched proofs illustrating the print-making process, handsomely bound.

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