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Art to Enchant: Illustrating "The Tempest"

For another post in our 400th anniversary of "The Tempest" celebration series, Jo takes us through the various illustrations over the years inspired by Shakespeare's magical play.

Jo Wilding

As someone who loves illustrated books, I think it is a great pity that producing illustrated editions of Shakespeare’s plays has fallen out of fashion. Just as the magic and other-worldliness of The Tempest have inspired theatre designers, so the play has proved fertile ground for the imagination of many book illustrators.

The first ever illustrations of Shakespeare’s plays were in Nicholas Rowe’s 1709 edition of the plays, with each play having its own frontispiece. The one for The Tempest (part of which we showed on the opening blog in this series) may show the staging of the opening scene of the Dryden/Davenant 1667 adaptation, The Tempest, or the Enchanted Island. You can see the whole illustration on Wikipedia.

The next significant illustrated edition was that of Lewis Theobald in 1744. The illustrations in this were done by the French engraver Hubert Francois Gravelot (1699-1773) – his choice for The Tempest shows Miranda and Ferdinand with Prospero looking on. Book illustrations often reflect contemporary art and the style of these engravings reminds me of the French artist Fragonard.

In the late eighteenth century the engraver and publisher John Boydell opened a gallery in London devoted to artists’ representations of Shakespeare, commissioning works for it from famous artists of the day. Ultimately, it was an unsuccessful enterprise but some of the art survived in published form; one of the heaviest works here in the library is the enormous two volume Collection of Prints which Boydell published in 1803. One of the plates in the book is an engraving of the Romantic artist Henry Fuseli’s (1741-1825) painting of a scene from The Tempest. The original painting was later cut up and sold in pieces!

In 1872, the actor and theatre manager Samuel Phelps published his two volume edition of Shakespeare’s plays, which had steel engravings by one of the most famous Victorian illustrators, Phiz (1815-1882). Phiz’s real name was Hablot K. Browne and he was famous as Dickens’ main illustrator for 23 years. According to the Dictionary of National Biography, Phiz loved “reading Shakespeare after a hard day’s labour in the studio”. We have two sets of the 1872 edition – and in one the engravings are in colour. The delightful illustration accompanying The Tempest (shown below) again features Ferdinand and Miranda. If you look closely there are sprites hiding behind the chair, under rocks and in the water, with one trying to conceal itself under Ferdinand’s hat which is lying on the ground.

tempest illustration
An illustration of Ferdinand and Miranda from "The Tempest" by Hablot K. Browne

Moving into the late 19th and early 20th century, the golden age of book illustration, a limited edition book was published in 1893 which consisted of eight illustrations for The Tempest by the prolific Walter Crane (1845-1915). Crane was part of the Arts and Crafts movement – he knew William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones – and I think the influence of the Pre-Raphaelites is apparent in these illustrations. You can see them on the digital book site Project Gutenberg.

Another edition of the play which we have in the library was published by Chapman and Hall in 1908 and illustrated by Paul Woodroffe (1875-1954). For over 30 years Woodroffe, who was also a stained glass artist, lived in Chipping Campden, which is only about 12 miles from Stratford. His work is still in copyright so it cannot be reproduced here, but you can see one of his Tempest illustrations (as well as examples of his glass) on the website of Court Barn, a small museum in Chipping Campden.

I have saved my favourite for last: Arthur Rackham (1867-1939) provided 20 exquisite illustrations for the 1926 Heinemann edition of the play. Sadly we do not have a copy of this (although we do have other examples of his illustrations of Shakespeare) but you can see all 20 plates plus some of his wonderful black and white line drawings in the book at this website*.

*Edit: As of 14 Feb 2018, this website no longer includes these images. Some can be found in general searches, but no specific website provides the same content as the previous website did.

Copyright note - Images are © Shakespeare Birthplace Trust unless otherwise stated.

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