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Thomas Stothard - Scenes from Shakespeare's Plays

Acting Head of Collections, Rosalyn Sklar, looks at two paintings by Thomas Stothard bequeathed via the Art Fund.

Rosalyn Sklar

At the end of 2019 The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust was fortunate in receiving two paintings by Thomas Stothard, RA (1755 – 1834). The two oil paintings, each no bigger than a piece of A4 paper, feature scenes from two of Shakespeare’s plays. They were a bequest from Richard Jeffree via the Art Fund.

The larger of the two shows a wedding scene from Much Ado About Nothing (Act 4 Scene 1). Eleven figures crowd the foreground. Foremost among them are Hero, the bride - who is seen in a partial faint slightly to the left of the foreground - and Claudio, the groom, who is turning away in anger, his right arm extended behind him in a gesture of dismissal. The action depicts a moment towards the end of the play when Claudio announces that he thinks Hero has been unfaithful.

Give not this rotten orange to your friend. She’s but the sign and semblance of her honour. Behold how like a maid she blushes here! O, what authority and show of truth Can cunning sin cover itself withal!

— Much Ado About Nothing, Act 4 Scene 1

Those familiar with the play will know that Hero has not actually been unfaithful to Claudio but that Claudio has been tricked into thinking that she has. The play ends happily when Hero’s innocence is proven, Claudio repents and they get married.

Much Ado About Nothing by Thomas Stothard SBT 2019-17/2
A scene from Much Ado About Nothing by Thomas Stothard (SBT 2019-17/2)

The smaller of the two paintings shows a scene from Macbeth. Lady Macbeth admonishes her husband when he returns from the murder of Duncan still carrying the bloody daggers used to commit the crime. Seizing the weapons to return them to Duncan's chamber, she exclaims:

“Infirm of purpose! Give me the daggers."

— Macbeth, Act 2 Scene 2

About the Artist

Thomas Stothard was an English painter, illustrator and engraver. He was born in London but spent most of his childhood away from the city, attending schools in Yorkshire and Essex. His talent for drawing led to an apprenticeship with a draughtsman of patterns for brocaded silks in Spitalfields. After his master died he dedicated himself to drawing. Stothard was interested in illustrations from early in his career and spent his spare time illustrating the works of his favourite poets.

In his early 20s, Stothard became a student of the Royal Academy. He continued to work on book illustrations and became a regular contributor to the Novelist’s Magazine. He also designed plates for pocket-books, tickets for concerts, illustrations to almanacs, and portraits of popular actors. As a painter, Stothard carried out commissions for decorative wall paintings and friezes for grand houses and contributed to John Boydell’s Shakespeare Gallery, Thomas Macklin’s Poets’ Gallery and Robert Bowyer’s ‘Historic Gallery’ – benefitting from the popularity of history paintings at the time. His oil paintings are usually small and brisk in nature but he did produce some larger works, for example, The Pilgrimage to Canterbury now at Tate and The Arrival of the Princess of France from Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour's Lost in the collection of the Royal Shakespeare Company. These larger works are more finely wrought than his smaller paintings, showing the full extent of his skill as a painter.

A scene from Macbeth by Thomas Stothard (SBT 2019-17/1)
A scene from Macbeth by Thomas Stothard (SBT 2019-17/1)

The range and number of Stothard’s works illustrate how successfully he negotiated the separate worlds of ‘high art’ and ‘popular art’. He was able to take advantage of the opportunities provided through publishing and, what the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography refers to as, ‘industrial arts’ whilst at the same time he was a respected and sought after artist producing significant oil paintings for galleries.

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