- Painting Shakespeare: The Artist as Critic, 1720–1820
Something odd happened to Shakespeare over the course of the eighteenth century. Alongside all the people still pursuing the two activities in which Shakespeare had himself been engaged—making live shows from his work, and making printed books from them—some started to do something he could hardly have anticipated: they started to make pictures out of his oeuvre as well. In retrospect, this activity is liable to look oddly off the point, both aesthetically and historically. The plays offer narratives that happen sequentially in time, and even if one were to freeze the action at one significant moment there is probably more that can be said about that action, and more appropriately, in an analytical essay than in an image. To those eighteenth-century painters and critics determined to raise the seriousness and grandeur of British art, however, the Shakespeare canon, especially the tragedies and histories, looked like the perfect native source of suitably solemn and portentous subject matter: and so, years after the Old Masters had claimed the Bible and the classics for Italy, the likes of Reynolds and Romney set about processing Hamlet and Macbeth for the Royal Academy.
Within a generation or so, this would all look like an art-historical dead end, since in the long term, despite the later efforts of the Pre-Raphaelites, the great native subject matter of English painting turned out to be not the English literary canon but the English landscape. In the nineteenth century, the making of pictures based on Shakespeare, which had begun with the frontispieces to Rowe's edition in 1709, would largely revert from the realm of the Academy and back to that of the theatrical portrait and the illustrated edition. But for a hundred years or so it looked as though Shakespeare was going to be nobly central to the establishment of British art, and so it was that the very remarkable paintings studied in Stuart Sillars's scholarly and handsomely produced study came into being.
Painting Shakespeare enjoys both the advantages and the disadvantages of following in the footsteps of Jane Martineau's Shakespeare in Art (2003), the large-format, beautifully illustrated catalogue of the exhibition which was mounted at the Palazzo dei Diamanti in Ferrara and then at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London in 2003. One principal advantage is that Sillars can reproduce some of the better-known paintings now conveniently and lavishly reproduced in color by Martineau merely as small black-and-white plates, leaving space in his own generous color section for the display of some striking rarities: Benjamin Smith's color stencil engraving of Romney's The Tempest (1797) (Color Plate 12), for example, and an exactly contemporary hand-colored stipple engraving by Jean Pierre Simon from Henry Fuseli's depiction of the same play (Color Plate 13). Reynolds's original A Wood—Robin Goodfellow (Puck) (1789), in which the figure of Titania in the background is now so indistinct as to be practically unreadable, gives way to Schiavonetti's lesser-known 1799 engraving (Figure 70). This enables Sillars to [End Page 135] show that the fairy queen's abandoned posture is modeled on that of Reynolds's earlier Death of Dido, which immediately makes the later picture look like a much more interesting and troubled response to A Midsummer Night's Dream than the proto-Hallmark cutesiness of its infantile central figure would initially suggest. It would be worth buying Painting Shakespeare for its 100 figures and 16 color plates alone, together with the detailed information about their origins, provenance, and whereabouts that Sillars has carefully assembled.
A disadvantage, however, is that compared to Martineau's catalogue, which interests itself in Shakespeare's presence on canvas right down to the late Victorian era and includes separate essays by a wide range of scholars (among them Desmond Shawe-Taylor, Jonathan Bate, and Maria Grazia Messina), Sillars's study looks deliberately narrow. Stating that he is not interested either in illustrations to editions...