The Dramatic Works of Shakespeare

October 1, 2007
Detail of Romeo, Juliet & Nurse, painted by John Francis Rigaud, engraved by James Snow

Shakespeare, William. The Dramatic Works of Shakespeare. London: Printed by W. Bulmer and Co., Shakespeare Printing-Office. Nine volumes. Detail of Romeo, Juliet & Nurse, painted by John Francis Rigaud, engraved by James Snow

 

John Boydell (1719-1804) was one of London's most important print publishers and print sellers. In 1786, in cooperation with his nephew Josiah, he conceived a plan to commission celebrated British artists to produce paintings illustrating the works of William Shakespeare.

From these paintings he created and sold engravings and, in 1802, published The Dramatic Works of Shakespeare, illustrated with reproductions of the paintings. A copy of the 1802 edition is a recent gift from Richard and Nancy Riess to the Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library.

From the beginning, the Boydells' project was more than just a publishing venture. They also planned to exhibit the paintings in a newly built Shakespeare Gallery in Pall Mall and intended eventually to donate the entire collection to the British nation.

 The gallery opened in 1789 with thirty-four paintings and grew rapidly. By 1791, it housed sixty-five, and by 1802, there were 162. As early as 1791, the Boydells began to issue engravings from the paintings, selling them in England and abroad. However, when the French Revolution began, the continental market for books and prints collapsed, and the Boydells found themselves overextended and forced into bankruptcy.

The Dramatic Works of Shakespeare, painted by John Francis Rigaud, engraved by James Snow

Shakespeare, William. The Dramatic Works of Shakespeare. London: Printed by W. Bulmer and Co., Shakespeare Printing-Office. Nine volumes. Detail of Romeo, Juliet & Nurse, painted by John Francis Rigaud, engraved by James Snow

The gallery itself was ultimately unsuccessful, and the entire collection of paintings was sold in 1804. Nonetheless, the prints and images produced from the paintings captured the popular imagination. Many have been adapted to illustrate later editions of Shakespeare's works and have inspired numerous stage productions. The 1802 edition of the work now in the library is one of the lasting results of the Boydells' grand endeavor.