Tuesday, 17 July 2012

James Gillray and John Boydell's Shakespeare Gallery Exhibition

Shakespeare Sacrificed - or the Offering to Avarice
by James Gillray 1789

John Boydell was a British publisher who lived from 1719 to 1804. Towards the end of his life he embarked upon an ambitious project of publishing an illustrated edition of the plays of William Shakespeare; a folio of prints depicting scenes from the dramatist's plays; and establishing his Shakespeare Gallery.

In his early career he worked as an engraver's apprentice before embarking on a profitable business selling and exporting prints after English artists, which he commissioned himself. In addition, he served as lord mayor of London on three occasions, in 1782, 1785 and 1791. And in 1789 his Shakespeare Gallery was officially launched.

The project was a liaison between art and business. His stated aim of the gallery was to establish an 'English School of Painting', but negotiations with participating artists were often beset with difficulties due to Boydell's refusal to accept paintings which he believed would not sell prints. 

One unsuccessful participant was the satirical caricaturist James Gillray. His response to the snub was one of his most celebrated satires, Shakespeare Sacrificed - or the Offering to Avarice, a dig at Boydell's anxiety to ensure the commercial success of the gallery, and a swipe at the gallery's pretensions to History Painting.

The gallery itself was lampooned in the popular press and was finally sold by lottery.

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