Home » Art & Literature » Shakespeare and the Art world

Shakespeare and the Art world

by Adam Barham, Central Library

Many artists have felt compelled to depict the plays of Shakespeare. Some are attracted to Shakespeare’s universal themes and complex characters, which inspire them to produce stirring representations of the plays’ inner meanings. Others appreciate his combination of exotic locations and sparse scene descriptions, which leave them free to create their own vivid and unique interpretations. Leeds Central Library houses some fascinating books with artists’ interpretations of Shakespeare’s work. To mark this year’s Shakespeare anniversary, we would like to showcase our best examples.

Our first item is an illustrated version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The illustrations were painted by Arthur Rackham, one of the leading artists in the early 1900s ‘golden age’ of British book illustration. We are fortunate to have a 1908 first edition of this book, available for reference use from our Information and Research department. A 1977 reissue of the book is available for loan from our Music and Performing Arts Library.

Our 1906 edition of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, with illustrations by Arthur Rackham

Our 1908 edition of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, with illustrations by Arthur Rackham

Rackham received great acclaim as soon as his book was published. Contemporary novelist William de Morgan, for instance, claimed he had produced “the most splendid illustrated work of the century so far”. Even today Rackham’s illustrations are renowned. New editions of his book are still popular, with the demand stretching to e-book versions. Rackham’s continued popularity is also shown by his influence on modern artists, such as Sandman illustrator Charles Vess.

Bottom, pictured in the illustrated ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’

Bottom, pictured in the illustrated ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’

Rackham undoubtedly deserves the respect. His watercolour illustrations from ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ are incredibly detailed and striking, bringing Shakespeare’s surreal characters to life in a truly magical fashion. The depictions of Bottom and Titania’s fairy entourage are especially evocative.

Titania’s fairy entourage, pictured in the illustrated ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’

Titania’s fairy entourage, pictured in the illustrated ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’

Our next item is ‘Shakespeare in Art’. This book provides a fascinating retrospective of the different artists who have depicted Shakespeare’s work over the years. Concentrating mainly on paintings, it incorporates beautiful artwork reproductions showing a multitude of Shakespearean scenes and characters. It also includes insightful essays detailing the background story to each piece of artwork.

Ferdinand Lured by Ariel (The Tempest) by John Everett Millais, from the cover of ‘Shakespeare in Art’

Ferdinand Lured by Ariel (The Tempest) by John Everett Millais, from the cover of ‘Shakespeare in Art’

The artists covered in ‘Shakespeare in Art’ include the Pre-Raphaelite John Everett Millais, who created vivid paintings of scenes set in natural environments, and Henry Fuseli, whose intense paintings often emphasised the supernatural or tragic side of Shakespeare’s work.

Titania Embracing Bottom (A Midsummer Night’s Dream) by Henry Fuseli, pictured in ‘Shakespeare in Art’

Titania Embracing Bottom (A Midsummer Night’s Dream) by Henry Fuseli, pictured in ‘Shakespeare in Art’

‘Shakespeare in Art’ also features William Hogarth, the eighteenth-century painter and pictorial satirist. Hogarth produced one of the earliest known paintings of an actual Shakespearean stage performance, which can be seen below. ‘Shakespeare in Art’ is available from our Art Library.

Falstaff Examining His Troops (Henry IV) by William Hogarth, pictured in ‘Shakespeare in Art’

Falstaff Examining His Troops (Henry IV) by William Hogarth, pictured in ‘Shakespeare in Art’

Our archives also include rare pamphlets and exhibition catalogues relating to Shakespeare and art. One of the most interesting is named ‘O Sweet Mr. Shakespeare, I’ll Have his Picture’. As the title suggests, this pamphlet is concerned with Shakespeare himself rather than his plays. The author traces different depictions of Shakespeare over the years, giving fascinating background details about different portraits and statues. Our pamphlets and catalogues are available for reference use in the Art Library.

Some Shakespeare in Art pamphlets

Some Shakespeare in Art pamphlets

Our next item is the intriguingly titled ‘Flowers From Shakespeare’s Garden: A Posy From the Plays’, illustrated by Walter Crane.  Our collection includes two copies of this title. One copy is a 1906 first edition, which is available for reference use from our Information and Research department. The other copy is a 1980s reissue, which is available for loan from the Art Library.

Our two copies of ‘Flowers From Shakespeare’s Garden’

Our two copies of ‘Flowers From Shakespeare’s Garden’

Walter Crane was part of the Arts and Crafts movement and another key figure in Britain’s golden age of book illustration. The concept behind his book is both charming and unusual. Rather than illustrating existing scenes or characters, Crane chose to portray human personifications of the flowers or plants mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays. The flowers he portrayed come from a variety of plays, including ‘Much Ado About Nothing’, ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’,  and ‘Henry V’. Our favourites include the bizarre lady who sprouts horizontally from a Hawthorne bush, taken from King Henry’s lines in Henry VI.

Illustrations from Walter Crane’s ‘Flowers From Shakespeare’s Garden’

Illustrations from Walter Crane’s ‘Flowers From Shakespeare’s Garden’

Our final item is a last minute addition to the blog, only recently discovered in the depths of our archives. The title of this discovery is ‘A Collection of Prints, From Pictures Painted for the Purpose of Illustrating the Dramatic Works of Shakespeare, by the Artists of Great-Britain‘. The details and background of this item will be the subject of a future blog entry. For now, all we can reveal is that the item is very old, very striking and very, very large……

Collection of prints 1c

‘A Collection of Prints…’ pictured with an everyday object to illustrate its size

 

Collection of prints 2

Introduction from ‘A Collection of Prints…’

Collection of prints 3

Scene from ‘As You Like It’, pictured in ‘A Collection of Prints…’

If you would like more detailed information about Shakespeare in Art, the best place to come is of course the Art Library. The Art Library stocks many books about the artists who depicted Shakespeare’s work over the years, including Richard Dadd, John Everett Millais, Gustave Moreau, William Blake, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, George Romney and William Hogarth. These books are on display in the Art Library throughout April 2016.

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2 thoughts on “Shakespeare and the Art world

  1. Pingback: The Big Book of Shakespeare | The Secret Library

  2. Pingback: Exhibition: The Age of Shakespeare | The Secret Library

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