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Come, come with me, and we will make short work

At a time when illustrations of Shakespeare's scenes were in high demand, Henry Bunbury accepted the call and painted beautiful adaptations.

Rosalyn Smith
Watercolour by Henry William Bunbury for Thomas Macklin's Poet's Gallery
Watercolour by Henry William Bunbury for Thomas Macklin's Poet's Gallery

This watercolour painting is by the caricaturist Henry William Bunbury (1750 - 1811).  He painted it on commission for Thomas Macklins Poet's Gallery which opened in London in 1792.  Bunbury produced a further 24 paintings of Shakespeare scenes for Macklin, a print seller and picture dealer.  The original paintings were reproduced as engravings, they were very popular and sold both in Britain and in Europe.

Bunbury's work is representative of a vibrant print making and dealing market in 18th Century England.  Macklin himself had set up his Poet's Gallery as a rival venture to John Boydell's Shakespeare Gallery which had opened in 1789. Both aimed at tapping in to the popularity of Shakespeare's works and especially the demand for illustrations of scenes from his plays.  By the 18th Century bound volumes of Shakespeare's plays were common in the homes of the well-to-do.  It was not uncommon for people to have the volumes bound themselves and add in illustrations.  Boydell's prints were probably the most well known but Macklin's were also popular because Bunbury preferred to deal with the lighter or comic scenes from the plays.  In this one, for example, we see Romeo and Juliet about to be married.

If it wasn't for the popularity of prints we may not have some of the most well known paintings of scenes from Shakespeare's plays that exist today.  Many paintings and drawings of Shakespearian subjects during the 18th and 19th Centuries were produced primarily to be engraved.  Painters such as Henry Fuseli (1741 - 1825), Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723 - 1792) and Thomas Stothard (1755 - 1834) produced many of the original paintings for the prints.  At a time when the only real money was in portrait painting, these artists may not have been able to venture into scene painting if it was not for the efforts of men like Boydell and Macklin.

What I also find interesting about these paintings is the emergence of 'imaginary' scenes.  That is, scenes that were not based on stage productions or that did not feature well known actors or actresses.  English painter Robert Edge Pine announced in newspapers in the early 1780s that he intended to produce a series of paintings of Shakespearian scenes and publish the prints.  'It may be proper to observe,' he said

'that the pictures proposed, are not meant to be representations of stage scenes,

but will be treated with the more unconfined liberty of painting,

in order to bring those images to the eye, which the writer has given to the mind, and which,

in some instances, is not within the power of the Theatre...'

Painting offered new opportunities and methods to depict scenes from Shakespeare's plays. Pine was saying that in some instances paintings had more power to bring Shakespeare's imagination to life than a stage performance did.  This statement was perhaps as controversial then as it is now, and I wonder what Shakespeare himself would have thought about it.

Romeo and Juliet Engraving by J. J. Vandenburgh of Henry William Bunbury's watercolour painting. In a stone cell, Juliet in a long white dress and with a white head-covering, sits on a bench. Romeo in a grey doublet and white short hose, wearing a hat with a feather, holds her left hand as the look at each other. On the right the friar, with his back to them, is making a dismissive gesture with his right hand.
Engraving by J. J. Vandenburgh of Henry William Bunbury's watercolour painting (see above)