By Sheri Boggs and Michal Bowen
The making of an engraving is, in many ways, like the crafting of good theater. The artist pays careful attention to each and every line and notes even the smallest detail, how it fits within the scheme of the whole. Then there is the lighting, the deliberate play of darkness and light as the artist etches some figures in intricate shadow and bathes others in the milky light of innocence. As in a play, there is blocking -- figures are set in specific spaces for maximum narrative and dramatic impact. And finally, there is the breathless wait -- much like waiting for the curtain to rise -- while paper is applied to the inked surface and run through a press, the artist waiting in suspense to see if it all worked.
It's no surprise, then, that engraving lends itself so well to the works in the newest show at Gonzaga's Jundt Art Museum. "The Boydell Shakespeare Prints" is a sampling of late 18th- and early 19th-century steel engravings illustrating various scenes from Shakespeare's plays, including Othello; Richard III; Julius Caesar; Henry IV, Part I; Henry VIII; and Hamlet.
The engravings were part of a bold multimedia project undertaken by John Boydell in the 1780s. An engraver himself, Boydell had become wealthy as an arts printer. He commissioned the leading artists of the day, including Sir Joshua Reynolds and Henry Fuseli, to paint scenes from Shakespeare. Boydell opened his Shakespeare Gallery in 1789, then commissioned Britain's most talented engravers to make plates from the paintings, which were published in a nine-volume edition of the works of Shakespeare in 1802, and a giant "elephant" folio version in 1805.
Arguably, Boydell's primary intention in this endeavor was to invigorate the traditions of English historical painting; Shakespeare's plays simply provided a praiseworthy means of doing so. As Gonzaga English Professor Michael Bonin, who will deliver a lecture on Boydell's prints next Thursday, points out, "the engravings were Boydell's attempt to create a historical painting school to rival European scenes from the New Testament or mythology. He wanted to Anglicize that -- and what better place than Shakespeare, as a source of heroic and elevating scenes?"
Bonin and co-curator Scott Patnode have chosen to showcase 12 of the 28 engravings donated by the Oregon Province of the Jesuits to the university in 1978; this is the first time in more than 20 years that they have been displayed publicly. Three plays -- Othello, Richard III and the First Part of Henry IV -- are represented by three prints apiece; individual engravings portraying scenes from Hamlet, Julius Caesar and Henry VIII round out the exhibit.
The Boydell collection emphasized pictorial art over the theatrical. While the single best Boydell print partakes of traditions in painting, it illustrates an event from Richard III that Shakespeare didn't even intend theater audiences to see. The burial of the two young princes whom Richard has had murdered is narrated, not enacted onstage: "The chaplain of the Tower hath buried them; / But how or in what place I do not know," says Sir James Tyrrel, the leader of the killers. James Northcote's painting, Burying the Royal Children, consequently wrests the emphasis from the verbal to the visual. (It was engraved by William Skelton in 1795, two centuries after Shakespeare's play and a bit more than 300 years after the historical murders.) As Bonin suggests in his written commentary on the exhibition, Northcote -- and Skelton after him -- borrow from the Pieta and other scenes depicting the lowering of Christ from the cross to create a sense of martyrdom and primal evil. The conspirators' arms, the staircase, even the winding sheets angle diagonally downwards, creating a strong sense of descending movement. Yet this action occurs in the painting, not in the acted play. Northcote evidently intended to supplement the playhouse experience; he greeted knowledgeable playgoers with envisionings of fictionalized events that they were beginning to regard, with typical 18th-century British imperial pride, as historical events in themselves.
Another of the Richard III prints, also by Northcote, is entitled The Royal Children; Dighton and Forest, the Murderers; Richard III, Act IV, scene iii, and depicts a moment just before the innocent princelings are smothered. Yet again, this is an episode not staged in the play. In the indicated scene, we don't witness the murders; instead, Tyrrel recounts the murder secondhand and in soliloquy. By having the conspirator speak directly to the audience, the playwright evidently wanted listeners to imagine for themselves the obscenity of the murders. The painting objectifies the historical record; the play, on the other hand, targets spectators' subjective experience of moral evaluation.
The three Othello prints on display depict the happiest and the most tragic moments in the Moorish general's relationship with Desdemona. Thomas Stothard painted and Thomas Ryder engraved the reunion of Othello and Desdemona after a stormy sea-crossing. The chiaroscuro -- contrasts of darkness and light inherent in the engraving process -- reinforces the visual contrast and conventional taboo of the African embracing the white society girl. Yet the real darkness is at the edge of the picture, where the villain Iago lurks. In a symbolic grouping that might reflect stage practice -- or, indeed, might have inspired later generations of actors -- Othello is rapt at the sight of his wife (here, etherealized), while both Desdemona's confidante, Emilia, and some of the Moor's servants avert their gaze. Even Michael Cassio, Othello's dashing lieutenant, seems not to look directly at the married couple. But Iago, bearded and venomous, glares from out of the shadows at the pair whose marriage he will destroy. Stothard groups his figures much as a theatrical director might.
The two other Othello prints on display both depict the moments before another murder-by-smothering. Desdemona Asleep, by Josiah Boydell (John's brother) radiates light; Boydell idealizes Desdemona's purity with illumination that isn't derived from stage practice.
In Richard Westall's Brutus and the Ghost of [Julius] Caesar, Brutus' muscular, foreshortened leg recalls Michelangelo and denotes the heroic conception of Shakespeare's tragic characters typical of the Enlightenment: this is no wavering, neurotic Brutus who has committed a murder and then frets about it. Boydell's artists all depicted Shakespeare's characters in the heroic mode; given the doubts, fashionable today, about anyone's heroism, the Boydell engravings provide an instructive glimpse at how other people made Shakespeare their contemporary.
"The influence of Michelangelo and Raphael are especially strong along those lines," says Bonin. "These figures are dramatic, colossal even. These are not understated works."