The Big Book of Shakespeare

  • Back in April, the Secret Library took a look at some of the most beautiful Shakespearian art books in the library collection. Now we’re sending Polly Clare-Hudson, guest blogger from the University of Leeds, back to the stacks for a closer examination of a particularly gorgeous example…

This enormous book, comprising of two volumes in one, was published in 1805 and contains plates and prints by British artists of the time, including Smirke, Fuseli, Northcote, Reynolds and Opie; the culmination of two decades of commissions, paintings, exhibitions (for which a purpose built gallery was opened in 1789), and engravings.


As you can see, the book is rather large. It’s rather magnificent full title is A Collection of Prints, from Pictures Painted for the Purpose of Illustrating the Dramatic Works of Shakespeare.

In this case the clue is very much in the title.

Macbeth, Act I Scene III, painted by Fuseli

This is one of my favourite of the many images, showing the dramatic moment in “The Scottish Play” (so-called because superstitious actors believed Macbeth to bring bad luck), where three witches deliver a prophecy to Macbeth and Banquo, which sets them on a path to tragedy, murder and death.
This scene was painted by Henry Fuseli (1741-1821), one of the more high-profile contributors to the collection, a prolific painter and writer on the subject of art, who influenced many English artists, including the poet-engraver William Blake.

Many of the scenes captured by the artists are fraught with danger or tragedy (for example, one shows the infamous stage direction in A Winter’s Tale, “exit, pursued by a bear”). However, not all of the scenes are so tragic. Here is the comic scene in Twelfth Night, where the infatuated Malvolio has been tricked into ridiculing himself in front of the object of his affection, Olivia, by wearing cross garters (the ribbons crossed up his legs), and yellow tights.

Malvolio, cross-gartered in yellow tights, presents himself to Olivia, painted by Johann Heinrich Ramberg
Malvolio, cross-gartered in yellow tights, presents himself to Olivia, painted by Johann Heinrich Ramberg

This remains a hugely popular play to this day, and is still regularly performed.  In 2013, it was performed at The Globe in London with an all-male cast, with Stephen Fry as Malvolio, and Mark Rylance as Olivia.

Another fantastic image is this one of the storm-at-sea which opens The Tempest. This scene still poses a challenge for directors, as neither storms nor ships are easy to create in a theatre. However, in art, the scene is more easily brought to life, as can be seen here:

The Tempest, Act I Scene I
The Tempest, Act I Scene I

Prospero, the wronged sorcerer (often cited as the character closest to a self-portrait from Shakespeare) can be seen on the right with his daughter Miranda, and in the clouds are the spirits he commands, including the loyal Ariel. The detail on the terrified sailors’ faces is very moving here, as is the movement of waves and winds.

Quite apart from the magnificent artwork it contains, this book is an interesting window into its own time period. At the time it was created and published, Europe was being shaken first by the French Revolution of 1793, and then by the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte. The disgust felt by the English upper classes towards these events is encapsulated in the introduction, where Josiah Boydell writes of the “unhappy revolution” as “the convulsion that has disjointed and ruined the whole continent”. Indeed, concern with the French seems to have driven the entire creation of the collection, as it was motivated by concern over London’s printmaking being inferior to continental printmaking.

Finally, here is the scene where Romeo and Juliet meet for the first time. It’s clear which figure Juliet is (she’s even glowing!) but which of the men do you think is Romeo?

romeo and juliet

I really would recommend going to Central Library and having a look at this unique book for yourself. The prints cannot be done justice by these photos, and just turning the pages successfully almost feels like an achievement.

  • A Collection of Prints, from Pictures Painted for the Purpose of Illustrating the Dramatic Works of Shakespeare is kept in the Oversize Folio Stong Room at shelf mark 822.3 BOY. Please contact us in advance if you’d like to come and look at it!

2 Comments Add yours

  1. aubreyleaman says:

    Wow, this looks amazing! I love the pictures. Thanks for sharing!

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