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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
‘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.
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.
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.
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.
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……
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.