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Boydell's Monument to Shakespeare

Discover the fascinating story behind the monument that stands nestled in the gardens of Shakespeare's New Place

Robert Howe

Engraver and publisher, John Boydell, is most famous for creating the Boydell Shakespeare Gallery in the 1780s and an illustrated edition to go with it. He produced a monument to Shakespeare which now can be seen in the garden of New Place.

Shakespeare monument
The Shakespeare Monument in New Place Garden

A paragraph in the Times in 1821 stated that the King “will become the patron of the undertaking to erect a monument, or mausoleum, to the memory of Shakespeare, at Stratford-upon-Avon.”

There are different ways of remembering, celebrating or respecting an artist or literary figure. These could be monuments and mausoleums, or museums and galleries or theatres and academic institutions which would have the various effects of remembrance, exhibition or continuing the interest in their works. The Shakespearean Theatre opened in 1827 and was erected in the New Place Gardens now owned by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. The Shakespeare Memorial Theatre opened in 1879. It could be argued that the works that bear the name of their creator or performer and not a mausoleum would be the better way of remembrance with respect rather than just another monument. As regards monuments in Stratford-upon-Avon, there are several statues and busts of Shakespeare in existence today. None of them were on Trust properties before 1870. There was one bust on the Town Hall and another bust in the chancel of Holy Trinity. The Childs and Gower monuments were not built until the 1880s and both were as a result of separate gifts and donations.

From 1868 a monument became available in London and Charles Holte Bracebridge purchased it in 1870 for New Place.

John Boydell
John Boydell

In 1786 a National Edition of the Plays of Shakespeare was proposed to be printed and illustrated with engravings of paintings and sold by subscription by Messrs Boydell and Nicol. George Nicol was Bookseller to H.M. King George III and married Mary Boydell, niece to John and sister of Josiah. It seems that there had been a similar conversation with David Garrick the actor at the 1769 Stratford Jubilee about a national edition of Shakespeare’s works. The idea of a gallery was that of George Nicol, who suggested it at a dinner party at the house of Josiah Boydell in November 1787. Boydell commissioned a series of pictures on Shakespearian subjects from some of the leading artists of the day, spending vast sums of money. The paintings were displayed in the gallery which was located in Pall Mall and was open for 16 years. He allowed the middle classes access to the gallery for just a shilling.

Pall Mall, Shakespeare gallery Boydell
The front of Boydell's Shakespeare Gallery in Pall Mall, London

The frontage to Pall Mall was 25ft and the premises extended 123ft to the rear. Three exhibition rooms were on the first floor. In the archway which was the entrance from the street were the words “SHAKESPEARE GALLERY” and above that was an alto-relievo known as the “Apotheosis of Shakespeare”. The fact that it was a relievo and not any other kind of sculpture would have consequences much later – the difference being that a relievo is viewed against a backing of some kind or forms a part of it and is certainly attached to it - whereas a statue is free-standing. The relievo was designed by Thomas Banks. It was common for a design to be made in clay, not necessarily to the finished scale, fired as terra-cotta, cast in plaster as the model and then the final statuary finished by the designer and/or others. It cost Boydell 500 guineas.

The relievo consists of three carved figures. The central figure of Shakespeare reclining against a rock stood on a pedestal with a panel with the quote “He was a man, take him for all in all, I shall not look upon his like again.” The Dramatic Muse and the Genius of Painting stood on each side. The pedestal and the Muses stood on a lintel which was part of the structure of the building. Being a relievo the statuary is attached to panels, the Muses are wider than that to which Shakespeare is attached. The effect of this allowed the whole thing to be recessed into the front of the building being part of the front wall of the South Room and a clever design allowed any water falling within the recess to be run into the street from beneath the feet of Shakespeare and the Muses.

Relievo pictured at the front of the Boydell Shakespeare volume
Relievo pictured at the front of the Boydell Shakespeare volume

The gallery opened in June 1789 with 34 paintings. In total Boydell invested £150,000 in the gallery and by 1802 there were 162 paintings. Artists included George Romney, Henry Fuseli, Benjamin West, Angelica Kauffmann, Robert Smirke, John Opie and Josiah Boydell. Sir Joshua Reynolds was President of the Royal Academy and was initially reluctant to participate. He had been at the Hampstead dinner party in 1787 and thought it was “degrading himself to paint for a printseller”. So George Steevens Esq., editor of the National Edition, offered Sir Joshua a bank-bill for £100 and subsequently at least 3 were exhibited and engraved but Reynolds died in 1792. 

John Boydell died in 1805, the gallery ran out of money and the contents were sold, this included the relievo from the front of the building. It was considered that the relievo could become a monument to him on his tomb, however a bust of him was made instead and the relievo stayed where it was. The building in Pall Mall became the British Institution and Josiah Boydell acquired the relievo and presented it to the directors who made him a Life Governor out of gratitude, he died in 1817. There the alto-relievo remained and as the building changed hands once more it was removed to the Belgrave Works of Geo Trollope & Son in the Pimlico Road in 1868 where it remained until 1870 when Charles Holte Bracebridge acquired it.

Read the second post in this series: Pall Mall to New Place Garden

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