William Blake. Portrait of Shakespeare, c. 1800-1803.

Tempera on canvas, approximately 16 x 32 inches. Manchester City Art Galleries.

At the urging of William Hayley, a noted man of letters in his own time, Blake moved in 1800 to Felpham, a small village near the Sussex coast, where Hayley had his home, Turret House. Blake and his wife rented a cottage and the artist set to work on a number of commissions from Hayley. Among these was a series of eighteen "heads" designed to decorate the library in Hayley's new home.

Shakespeare's portrait, based on the engraving of Droeshout in the first folio of 1623, is surrounded by a wreath of laurel leaves. On the right is the scene (IV, i) where Macbeth goes to the witches and receives his second set of prophecies; on the left is the ghost of Banquo pointing to the first of the succession of kings. These two scenes were perhaps based on drawings by the young Thomas Hayley; his father refers to them in his memoir of his son (Shakespeare in Western Art, 162).

The set of portraits of famous writers included Hayley's son Thomas, a promising young artist who died at the age of nineteen in 1800. Besides Shakespeare, the portraits included, among others in Hayley's literary pantheon, Homer, Dante, Chaucer, Spenser, Milton and Dryden. All eighteen paintings are now in the Manchester City Art Galleries.

Blake's relatively happy years in Felpham are described in detail in Peter Ackroyd's Blake (Minerva, 1996), pp. 221-56.