Vic Keegan’s Lost London 117: Shakespeare in Pall Mall

Vic Keegan’s Lost London 117: Shakespeare in Pall Mall

Walk down Pall Mall today and you are denied entry to almost every building on its south side, unless you are a member of one of the posh private clubs there. It is difficult to believe that in the late 18th century this street was a hive of public artistic activity, mainly revolving around Shakespeare.

This was triggered by the artrepreneur James Boydell, who opened the Shakespeare Gallery, designed by George Dance the Younger, in 1789 at Number 52 Pall Mall. It soon contained 180 specially commissioned paintings depicting scenes from Shakespeare plays, many by established artists such as James Fuseli, Joshua Reynolds and George Romney.

In those days Pall Mall was a mixture of high-class residences, bookshops and bourgeois brothels. A statue by Thomas Banks showed Shakespeare between representations of the Dramatic Muse and the Genius of Painting. Underneath was an inscription from Hamlet: “He was a Man, take him for all in all, I shall not look upon his like again”.

The statue was removed in 1869, when the building – by then occupied by the British Institution for Promoting the Fine Arts in the United Kingdom – was demolished. It was re-erected at the far end of Shakespeare’s garden at New Place in Stratford-upon-Avon, where it still resides (pictured above).

Entry to the Shakespeare Gallery was free and its intention was to direct British art in a more classical direction, choosing rich literary themes instead of portraits. Boydell also had a business plan. Like Hogarth earlier in the century, he sold engravings of the paintings here and on the continent with great success until the Napoleonic wars broke out, cutting off the continental market. This led to his bankruptcy and a fire sale of all his artworks in a lottery.

On January 28, 1805, William Tassie, a London gem engraver, struck lucky. His three guinea ticket to the lottery won him the gallery’s entire contents. Tassie refused an offer from Boydell’s nephew Joshua to buy them back for £10,000 and they were later sold at Christie’s for just over £6,000, way below their cost price.

As a result, the Boydell collection, which in its day challenged the artistic supremacy of the Royal Academy – which had itself been located in Pall Mall until 1780, when it moved to Somerset House – bit the dust. Many of the paintings disappeared for ever. But some have been retained in galleries and private collections.

The Boydell gallery was but the biggest of a mini explosion of artistic galleries in Pall Mall, often featuring Shakespeare. In 1788, the year before the Boydell gallery was founded, Thomas Macklin’s Poets’ Gallery, which showcased over 50 British poets including Shakespeare, opened to an enthusiastic response.

In 1794, James Woodmason moved his New Shakespeare Galley from Dublin to Schomberg House at 88 Pall Mall, across the road from Boydell’s initiative, which he copied by using illustrations and text employing some of Boydell’s artists. Among the works Woodmason commisioned were Matthew Peter’s Death of Juliet as she prepared for suicide, dagger in hand, and Fuseli’s depiction of Titania falling in love with Bottom from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

The Shakespeare galleries in Pall Mall must have left something in the air, because in the 1840s, some years after their closure, the great engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who was living in nearby Duke Street, commissioned paintings of Shakespeare scenes from some of the top artists of the day, including Edwin Landseer and Charles West Cope. They were hung in his spacious dining room, which came to be known as “the Shakespeare Room”.

There were other kinds of gallery in Pall Mall too. Henry Fuseli opened a Milton Gallery in the late 1790s; Christies had their showroom there; Schomberg House, the facade of which still exists today (complete with statues made of artificial Coade stone), was host to the studio of Thomas Gainsborough.

There were also the exhibition rooms of the Polygraphic Society, which aimed to make multiple copies of oil paintings available for people who couldn’t afford the originals. At the eastern end, at Spring Gardens, the Society of Artists had its main exhibition venue, while on King Street, off St James’s Square, there was another gallery, the Imperial Museum, (later the European Gallery) which showcased British and Continental paintings.

There are still lots of paintings in Pall Mall, but they are all behind the closed doors of the clubs. There is nothing, apart from the Schomberg facade to remind us of the street’s former glories.

The rest of Vic Keegan’s Lost London series can be found here. His latest volume of poetry can be bought here.

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Categories: Culture, Lost London

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