"The Finest Set of Shakespeare Illustrations Ever Made"[William Shakespeare]. [John and Josiah Boydell]. A Collection of Prints from Pictures Painted for the Purpose of Illustrating the Dramatic Works of Shakespeare, by the Artists of Great-Britain. Volume I. London: Published by John and Josiah Boydell, Shakespeare Gallery...Printed by W. Bulmer and Co., 1803 [Dedication dated 1805].
The magnificent elephant folio issue of the prints for the Boydell Shakespeare (26.75 x 20.875 inches; 681 x 530 mm.). Volume I only.  leaves of text. Engraved frontispiece portrait of George the Third by Benjamin Smith after William Beechey (dated "Decr. 1 1804"), with tissue guard, engraved title vignette by William Leney after a sculpture by Anna Seymour Damer (dated "June 4 1803"), and thirty-nine engraved plates by Benjamin Smith, Jean Pierre Simon, Robert Thew, Caroline Watson, Luigi Schiavenetti, Thomas Ryder, Isaac Taylor Junior, Charles Gauthier Playter, Peter Simon, John Ogborne, Thomas Ryder Junior, John Browne, William Leney, Samuel Middiman, William Charles Wilson, George Sigmund and Johann Gottlieb Facius, Francesco Bartolozzi, James Fittler, James Caldwall, and James Parker, from paintings and sculpture by Thomas Banks, George Romney, Henry Fuseli, Joseph Wright, Francis Wheatley, Angelica Kauffman, Robert Smirke, Rev. William Peters, James Durno, Thomas Kirk, John Francis Rigaud, William Hamilton, William Hodges, John Downman, Raphael West, Johann Heinrich Ramberg, John Opie, Richard Westall, and Sir Joshua Reynolds. The Dedication and Preface are dated March 25, 1805. The plates are dated from March 1, 1791, to December 1, 1802. All plates mounted on guards. Text in double columns.
Contemporary diced russia over thick boards. Neatly rebacked, with original spine laid down, and with corners renewed. Covers bordered in gilt with outer double fillet and inner decorative border, smooth spine elaborately paneled in gilt with two brown leather labels decoratively tooled and lettered in gilt. Turn-ins decoratively tooled in gilt. Small leather repair on front cover, upper portion of spine renewed, with reddish brown label decoratively tooled and lettered in gilt. Frontispiece portrait and title creased and lightly foxed, with a small ink mark in the lower blank margin, slight abrasion to title, affecting the "R" in Prints," dedication leaf creased. Some marginal foxing, edge browning, and occasional soiling. Small dampstain in the upper gutter of most plates, not affecting any images. Old bookseller's description on front pastedown. Small circular ink stamp "Bib. Maj. Collegii Stonyhurst" on front free endpaper and at foot of title. Faint pencil signature of a Mr. Paltrick on front free endpaper. An excellent copy of these sumptuous plates.
"Boydell in 1786 embarked upon the most important enterprise of his life, viz. the publication, by subscription, of a series of prints illustrative of Shakespeare, after pictures painted expressly for the work by English artists. For this purpose he gave commissions to all the most celebrated painters of this country [i.e., England] for pictures, and built a gallery in Pall Mall for their exhibition. The execution of this project extended over several years. In 1789 the Shakespeare Gallery contained thirty-four pictures, in 1791 sixty-five, in 1802 one hundred and sixty-two, of which eighty-four were of large size. The total number of works executed was 170, three of which were pieces of sculpture, and the artists employed were thirty-three painters and two sculptors... It appears from the preface to the catalogue of 1789, and from other recorded statements of Boydell, that he wished to do for English painting what he had done for English engraving, to make it respected by foreigners...Boydell's ' Shakespeare ' was published in 1802, but the French revolution had stopped his foreign trade, and placed him in such serious financial difficulties that in 1804 he was obliged to apply to parliament for permission to dispose of his property by lottery...The lottery consisted of 22,000 tickets, all of which were sold. The sum received enabled Boydell to pay his debts, but he died at his house in Cheapside on 12 Dec. 1804, before the lottery was drawn...It is true that the Boydell 'Shakespeare' taken as a whole, seems now to shed little lustre on the English school, but this was not Boydell's fault; he employed the best artists he could get - Reynolds, Stothard, Smirke, Romney, Fuseli, Opie, Barry, West, Wright of Derby, Angelica Kauffman, Westall, Hamilton, and others. It must also be remembered that this was the first great effort of the kind ever made by English artists, and its influence cannot easily be overestimated" (D.N.B.).
"According to the prospectus, issued in 1786, a type foundry, an ink factory, and a printing house were all specially erected for the production of this edition...During the last decade or two [ca. 1890-1910], complete surviving sets have greatly decreased in number owing to a curious utilitarian development. Print dealers have discovered that this edition can be profitably broken up, the plates when framed being specially adapted for wall decoration" (Jaggard, page 508).
This series of plates was originally published in 1802 as part of the nine volume folio set of The Dramatic Works of Shakespeare, revised by George Steevens (the first part being issued in 1791). "There can be no doubt that Boydell's Shakespeare, published by Alderman John Boydell and his nephew Josiah, was the most splendid of bibliophile editions undertaken in the 18th century or at any other time...No printing press, which has hitherto existed, ever produced a work in nine large volumes in folio so uniformly beautiful" (Franklin, pages 47-48).
"It is my experience that the large prints do not lose their quality of surprise...For such great moments in a play, tragic or comic or in some way dramatic, as were naturally chosen by publishers and artists, the scope of vast copper-plates offered opportunities in which the engravers time and again rejoiced...We are most fortunate to receive it thus: a decade or two later the medium would have been to aquatint, or lithograph on poorish paper brown-spotted across one-and-a-half centuries. For strong definition on excellent paper at the summit of skill, their performance has our grateful applause" (Franklin, page 215).
Colin Franklin, Shakespeare Domesticated, pages 47-48, 215-216. Jaggard, pages 506 and 508. Shaksperiana, Part III, 34.
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