Alderman (John) Boydell

(Dorrington, in the parish of Woore, Shropshire, January 19, 1720 - December 12, 1804, Cheapside, London)

boydellBritish publisher noted for his reproductions of engravings. He helped alter the trade imbalance between Britain and France in engravings and initiated a British tradition in the art form. A former engraver himself, Boydell promoted the interests of artists as well as patrons and as a result his business prospered.

The son of a land surveyor, Boydell apprenticed himself to William Henry Toms, an artist he admired, and learned engraving. He established his own business in 1746 and published his first book of engravings around the same time. Boydell did not think much of his own artistic efforts and eventually started buying the works of others, becoming a print dealer as well as an artist. He became a successful importer of French prints during the 1750s but was frustrated by their refusal to trade prints in kind. To spark reciprocal trade, he commissioned William Wollett's spectacular engraving of Richard Wilson's The Destruction of the Children of Niobe, which revolutionised the print trade. Ten years later, largely as a result of Boydell's initiative, the trade imbalance had shifted, and he was named a fellow of the Royal Society for his efforts.

In the 1790s, Boydell began a large Shakespeare venture that included the establishment of a Shakespeare Gallery, the publication of an illustrated edition of Shakespeare's plays, and the release of a folio of prints depicting scenes from Shakespeare's works. Some of the most illustrious painters of the day contributed, such as Benjamin West and Henry Fuseli.

Throughout his life, Boydell dedicated time to civic projects: he donated art to government institutions and ran for public office. In 1790 he became Lord Mayor of London. The French Revolutionary Wars led to a cessation in Continental trade at the end of the 1790s and without this business, Boydell's firm declined and he was nearly bankrupt at his death in 1804.



The Shakspeare Gallery

The Shakspeabe Gallery was built by Alderman (John) Boydell in 1789 for the reception of pictures to illustrate scenes from the works of our immortal poet; these pictures were afterwards engraved to adorn the beautiful edition known as the Boydell Shakspeare. It was built on the site of Mr. Dodsley's house in Pall Mall. The original idea of publishing this grand work arose from a conversation at the table of Mr. Josiah Boydell, at West End, Hampstead, November 1787: the company consisted of Mr. West, Mr. Eomney, Mr. P. Sandby, Mr. Hayley, Mr. Horle, Mr. Brathwaite, Alderman Boydell, and the host. The scheme was there fully discussed and approved, and soon after commenced with such activity that a great number of pictures were painted by leading artists of the time even before the Gallery was finished for their reception. The great object of the promoters was to establish an English School of Historical Painting, and they believed that no subjects were better adapted for that purpose than scenes from Shakspeare. The cost of this splendid monument to the genius of Shakspeare was considerably more than 100,000.

At the conclusion of the publication, executed under the editorial care of George Steevens, the Subscribers were each presented with a silver medal in commemoration of the event, bearing on one side an appropriate inscription, and on the other a beautiful facsimile of the alto-relievo in the front of the building by T. Banks, R.A. The writer possesses one of these medals in the highest state of preservation.

The pictures were finally disposed of by lottery, the principal prize-holder being Mr. Tassie, seal engraver, of Leicester Square, wlio became the lessee of the Gallery, and of whom the Directors of the British Institution purchased the lease. Most of the pictures were sold by auction, after the lottery had taken place, by Mr. Christie, on the 17th, 18th, and 20th of May, 1805, in separate lots.

In a statement written by Alderman Boydell, and read by Sir John Anderson to the House of Commons on his Motion for an Act to enable the pictures of the Shakspeare Gallery to be disposed of by lottery, the Alderman says, that he had laid out with his brethren in promoting the commerce of the Fine Arts in this country above £300,000; when he first began, the whole commerce of prints in this country consisted in importing foreign prints principally from France. But by his exertions in establishing a School of Engraving in England, he was ultimately successful in changing the whole course of that commerce, and foreign markets became principally supplied from England. That his attempt to establish an English School of Historical Painting, by originating the Shakspeare Gallery, must have convinced the world that Englishmen want nothing but the fostering hand of encouragement to bring forth their genius in this line of art. This Gallery he had once flattered himself with being able to have left to the nation, but the French Revolution had so broken up his trade and connection throughout Europe and on the continent, and so far crippled his resources, that he was compelled to petition the Legislature for an Act to permit of the disposal of his property by lottery, consisting of pictures, galleries, drawings, &etc. which if so disposed of, would produce more than sufficient to pay the whole of his debts and liabilities. The revenue arising from the exportation of prints reached the sum of £200,000 per annum, but by the convulsions of the French Revolution that branch of the revenue was nearly annihilated.

Boydell's Lottery Bill passed during the Session; 22,000 tickets were issued, and it was singular that the Alderman should just live long enough to see the Shakspeare lottery disposed of, not a ticket remaining unsold on the day of his death, which took place at his house in Cheapside on the 12th December, 1804, aged 86. He became Alderman of the ward of Cheap, 1782; Sheriff, 1785; Lord Mayor, 1790. Although he was not a fine engraver, he was the greatest encourager of art in his time. His remains were interred in the church of St. Clave, Jewry. — Gent.'s Magazine, January 1805.



The Rise and Progress


The British Institution


Recollections of the British Institution

for promoting

The Fine Arts in the United Kingdom

with some

Account ot the means employed for that purpose;


Biographical Notices of the Artists who have received Premiums



By Thomas Smith



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