The Mail on Sunday - Event
Shakespeare In Art: Tempests, Tyrants And Tragedy
Theatrical paintings are rarely great – their inspiration has come from the playwright, not the artists. George Romney’s The Tempest and Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s The Death Of Lady Macbeth could not be said to be those artists’ masterpieces. Despite both being in the latest show at Warwickshire country house and gallery Compton Verney, the exhibition, which aims to reveal the impact of Shakespeare’s plays on artists over the centuries, succeeds. The pictures – and the quality of the artists – are a reminder, on the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, how much he has been admired, and for how long.
The show is divided into separate rooms devoted to paintings inspired by King Lear, Hamlet, Macbeth, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Tempest and Henry VIII. The pick of the bunch is John Singer Sargent’s full-length 1889 portrait of the celebrated actress Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth. Another highlight is a wonderfully cartoonish 1783 painting by Henry Fuseli of the three witches from Macbeth.
Shakespeare’s impact on art was at its greatest in the late 18th century, when a whole Shakespeare Gallery was built on London’s Pall Mall – the subject of another, small show at Compton Verney. A print publisher, John Boydell, commissioned artists – including Romney, Fuseli and James Northcote – to paint vast canvases of Shakespeare scenes for the gal-
Compton Verney, Warwickshire Until June 19
lery. The whole enterprise was mocked by some, including the satirical engraver James Gillray, who attacked Boydell for his greed – and for not commissioning Gillray to do any of the commercial engravings of the pictures.
Modern artists’ treatment of Shakespeare is a mixed bag. There is a moving 2015 installation by Davy and Kristin McGuire of a drowning Ophelia – a holograph of a struggling girl has been projected beneath a pool of water, surrounded by the ‘crowflowers, nettles, daisies and long purples’ listed in Hamlet. It is a clever, original take on Millais’ Ophelia in Tate Britain. But there are some depressingly dreary photos by Tom Hunter of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one an achingly unedgy picture of Titania sleeping on a billiard table in a dimly lit snooker club in Hackney.
This is a show not for experts on the Bard’s life and works but those at least a little familiar with his greatest hits. They will leave knowing a lot more about the genius born seven miles down the road, and about how his creations have reverberated down the centuries through the world of art.