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If my slight muse do please these curious days,
-Sonnet, xxxviii, 5.
THE STORY OF THE BOYDELL SHAKESPEARE.
OHN BOYDELL (a name which all lovers of Art have
learned to reverence) was one of the most remarkable selfmade men of the eighteenth century. Born at Dorrington, in
1719, he was brought up by his father for a land surveyor, but at a very early age, his mind was directed toward engraving by the sight of a print in Baddeley's Views of different Country Seats. An extremely indifferent plate it happened to be, executed by Toms, but his mind was fired and his determination soon taken to follow the trade of engraving. At twenty-one years of age, he bound himself apprentice to Mr. Toms, whom after six years of hard work he bought out and started business for himself by issuing a book of six plates entitled, The Bridge Book, from the fact that there was a bridge in each plate. These were all of his own workmanship, and this book he was wont to say proudly in after years
was the first that had made a Lord Mayor of London. This was his start, and upon the profits of this, he based his future enterprises. I say enterprises, for his life was full of them and always on the grandest scale. It was his liberal patronage of the Fine Arts, however, that distinguished him from other and even more successful business men. Although possessed of the rarest faculties for coining money, he always made purely selfish considerations of personal gain secondary to the great purpose of his life—the encouragement and furtherance of home industry and art. And as schemes of such a nature, properly conducted, were almost sure of profitable returns, it so came about that by the year 1786, when the Shakespeare enterprise was set on foot, he was a wealthy and universally respected Alderman, of London.
And how had he brought this about? On his entrance into business, engraving in England, was at a very low ebb. All works of merit were imported from France, Italy and Holland, while very inferior prints were all that English artists were thought capable of executing. Beginning, as others had done, by importing from abroad, he gradually increased his capital and obtained a firm foothold. Then, true to his purpose, he determined to check the constantly increasing importation of foreign prints, by establishing an English School of Engraving of equal merit, and this, he actually did, the result being that by 1786 the whole tide of commerce in engravings had been turned, and he was rolling up wealth by exporting English works to the Continent. Thus, as a patron of Art, he not only made his own fortune, but secured for his workmen a world-wide fame. Woolett, Sharpe, Heath, and many others owed largely to him their reputations and fortunes.
Thus much sufficing to show Boydell's position, we come to the eventful year of 1786: eventful both in the history of English art and in the bibliographical study of Shakespeare. In November of that year there was assembled at the table of alderman Boydell, a party of gentlemen, in a certain way representative. The artists, West and Romney, the men of letters, Hayley, Hoole and Braithwaite, and Mr. Nicoll, his Majesty's publisher. In the course of conversation, Boydell was congratulated upon having lived to see the finished fruits of his long labors.
He was now sixty-seven years of age and might with justice have retired on his honors. But in reply to his friends, he intimated that he was still unsatisfied. He had done what he could for the encouragement of engraving, but it had always been and was still a cause of chagrin to him that England was accused of having ‘no genius for historical painting. On the contrary, he firmly believed that as engraving had taken firm root with proper patronage, historical painting only needed a similar encouragement to succeed : and that encouragement he longed to give, if only the right stimulus could be devised, the proper subject found, to call out the latent talent of the artists at home. Mr. Nicoll, then suggested that there was one subject upon which all must agree - there could be no difference of opinion, and that was Shakespeare. This instantly met with universal approval. Messrs. West and Romney, recognizing the rare