The Magnificent Elephant Folio of the Boydell Shakespeare[William Shakespeare]. [John and Josiah Boydell, printers]. A Collection of Prints from pictures painted for the purpose of illustrating the dramatic works of Shakespeare. London: John and Josiah Boydell, 1802-1803. First edition of the magnificent copper plate engravings from Boydell's Shakespeare, long regarded as the most beautiful illustrations of Shakespeare's plays. Approximately 28 x 21.5 inches. Two large folio volumes bound into one. Engraved title vignette of Volume II (engraved title-page and frontispiece of King George III both lacking from Volume I), engraved portrait of Queen Charlotte and ninety-six plates from paintings by Reynolds, Smirke, Northcote, Porter, Stothard, Hamilton, Bunbury, Opie and Westall. Contemporary full brown calf, covers elaborately ruled and paneled in gilt, spine perished. Covers detached and dried and worn. Plates slightly foxed. Plates are very good to near fine in a tattered binding.
These plates were published both as part of a nine-volume folio set of Shakespeare's dramatic works and in the present form, as a suite of plates, priced at 60 guineas. Having amassed a fortune in the engraving and print selling business, Boydell determined in 1786 to undertake one of the great enterprises in English publishing history. He commissioned paintings by the leading British artists of the day (including Reynolds, Smirke, Northcote, Porter, Hamilton, and Westall) and exhibited them in a specially built gallery in Pall Mall. By 1802 Boydell's Shakespeare Gallery had 162 paintings illustrating Shakespeare's works. Over the course of a decade, the best engravers had executed copper plate engravings of the finest paintings, and the completed work was published in 1802. One of the plates, "Capulet finds Juliet Dead, " was engraved by William Blake. For his engraving Blake altered the artist's design considerably by adding additional figures around the Juliet. Unfortunately, the French revolution had killed off the foreign trade which had made Boydell wealthy, and the publication of the Shakespeare engravings made him insolvent. His vast collections and inventory were sold by lottery in 1805, the winner among the 22,000 tickets sold then selling the collection at auction.
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