John Boydell (1719-1804), an alderman for the City of London, made his fortune as a publisher of books, illustrations and engravings that were popular in England and on the continent, particularly in France. In 1786 he and a group of friends and business associates devised a plan for an ambitious edition of Shakespeare's plays with illustrations by the best artists in England. Financing the project entirely himself, he began immediately to raise a list of subscribers for the volumes, to commission painters to do the illustrations and to open a gallery to exhibit the paintings.
Boydell's The Shakespeare Gallery opened in 1789 in Pall Mall, and the first set of engravings based on the paintings was issued in 1791. Ten years passed before the nine-volume folio edition was published in 1802, and in the next year, 1803, Boydell printed the two-volume elephant folios of all the engravings based on the paintings in the gallery. These engravings are available to us now in a reprint, The Boydell Shakespeare Prints, published by Benjamin Blom in 1968. The reprints include the one hundred engravings from Boydell's Collection of Prints (1803) and the one hundred "smaller" engravings from the nine-volume folio edition (1802).
Boydell was, unfortunately, forced to sell his paintings and close his gallery, due chiefly to an event he could not have foreseen: the French Revolution closed off his European market and, unable to export his prints, books, and engravings, he lost almost all his capital. The entire collection, 167 paintings in all, was sold off and dispersed when the venture collapsed.
Boydell's gallery, however, 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. Thus, Sir Joshua Reynolds observed in a letter to one of his patrons, the greatest news in art was "Alderman Boydel's scheme of having pictures and prints taken from those pictures of the most interesting scenes of Shakespear, by which all the painters and engravers find engagements for eight or ten years." (Friedman, 2) Sir Joshua adds that Boydell wanted him to do eight pictures for the gallery, but he agreed on only one, for which he was paid the huge sum of £500. Money is a powerful incentive, and Sir Joshua overcame his reservations and eventually did three paintings for Boydell. Many painters and engravers earned handsome sums from Boydell's commissions, and the Alderman had almost overnight made history painting competitive with the traditional genres of portraiture and landscape.
John Boydell wrote in the catalog of The Shakespeare Gallery that "the great object of the present design" was to "advance the art towards maturity and establish an English School of Historical Painting." It almost bankrupted him, but that is what he accomplished, for other entrepreneurs soon followed his lead. In 1790 Henry Fuseli, himself a painter of renown, announced a similar project, The Milton Gallery, an exhibit which opened in 1799. James Woodmason likewise conceived The Irish Shakespeare Gallery in 1792; it opened in 1793 , moved to London in 1794, and closed in 1795. The benefits to painters and engravers from all these projects were profound and, for better or worse, depending upon one's opinion of the Victorian painters who emerged from the tradition, did indeed establish a school of historical painting.
Because of the Boydell prints, some images of scenes from Shakespeare were indelibly fixed in the public mind. The paintings commissioned by Boydell 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 and we shall note as we examine the various paintings in Shakespeare Illustrated how pervasive that influence was.