Peter Whitfield. Illustrating Shakespeare.
Peter Whitfield is the prolific author of some twenty books on a wide variety of topics, including history, poetry, and literary criticism. His recent books include London: A Life in Maps (2006), A Universe of Books: Readings in World Literature (2007), English Poetry: A New Illustrated History (2008), The Image of the World: 20 Centuries of World Maps (2010), The History of Science (2010), and Travel: A Literary History (2012). The former Director of Stanford's International Map Centre in London, Whitfield appears to have succeeded in marking out for himself a place within a particular publishing niche. His intelligently written texts tend to support copious numbers of attractive colored illustrations in books that are beautifully designed and relatively modest in price. Whitfield's Illustrating Shakespeare, like a significant number of his other books since the 1990s, has been published by the British Library and seems marketed toward a popular but educated and informed lay readership. An attractive-looking book that might grace any coffee table, Illustrating Shakespeare invites the casual browser to enter the fascinating world of art based on Shakespeare.
But do not expect ground-breaking research that advances our current state of knowledge, and do not expect analysis that engages rigorously with previous scholarship. Rather, what Whitfield offers is a fast-paced tour through more than three centuries of art inspired by Shakespeare's works. His narrative is flee from scholarly apparatus that acknowledges the previous scholarship upon which he is building, or that demonstrates where his opinions and analysis differ from or expand upon what others have done before, or that signals opinions and facts that the author may be placing before the reader for the first time. In contrast to previous scholarly volumes that tend to concentrate on a single facet of Shakespearean art or a single period of time, Whitfield's book, with its mix of commentary and more than one hundred images, attempts within a single 160page volume to delineate most of the key varieties of art based on Shakespeare from the earliest known images to the present time.
Whitfield begins his verbal and pictorial narrative by touching on key questions concerning the purpose of Shakespearean art. He examines the degree to which artists from the eighteenth century on began to reach toward "some essential inner truth of the plays" (8). He looks at the breaking away from images limited to a reflection of stage performance and the advent of works of art with a life independent of the theater, a development that relates to the emergence of an iconography of Shakespeare. To complete his introductory chapter, Whitfield then cites the work of such outstanding artists as Fuseli, Delacroix, and Abbey as somehow representative of the epitome of this change, arguing that "[w]hat these artists were aiming at was not merely to give a plain, simple, instantly recognisable snapshot from some part of a play, but to create an image that was memorable in itself, that became a work of art in its own right--and that, as it did so, might subtly alter the way we view that play" (14).
Successive chapters then take the reader on a more or less chronological journey, beginning with discussion of two images: Henry Peacham's 1595 penand-ink drawing purportedly of a scene from Titus Andronicus, and the unsigned frontispiece engraving of Lucrece's suicide from the 1655 edition of Shakespeare's poem The Rape of Lucrece. Summarizing only some of the controversy concerning the Peacham drawing, and stumbling somewhat over the Lucrece frontispiece (the engraving is not necessarily by William Faithorne, and the male figure in the engraving is not necessarily Lucrece's husband Collatine), Whitfield moves quickly to Nicholas Row& six-volume edition of Shakespeare printed by Jacob Tonson in 1709. This groundbreaking work, with its series of small engravings, one for each play, is commonly agreed to be the starting point for the systematic illustration of Shakespeare's plays. Unfortunately, Whitfield's central tenet that works of Shakespearean art are to be judged according to their aesthetic merit, their psychological realism, and their independence of theatrical trappings, leads him to disparage the engravings as "for the most part simply images of theatrical scenes, of actors standing on a stage, surrounded by props" (20). According to Whitfield, the "problem of breaking out of the theatre into real drama was one that would occupy the artist for much of the eighteenth century" (23).
Nevertheless, Whitfield claims, a few of the 1709 engravings are both forceful and memorable and so escape his general stricture: the wild storm scene for The Tempest, the "plump and villainous-looking Iachimo emerging from the trunk into Imogen's luxuriously appointed bed-chamber" in Cymbeline, the "splendid classical backdrop" for the depiction of Thaisa being rescued from her sea chest in Pericles, and the closet scene in Hamlet. This last, we are told, "includes a minor stroke of genius in the upturned chair thrown to the floor by Hamlet as he leaps up at the entry of the ghost" (23). Untortunately, Whitfield appears to be unaware that the upturned chair in Frangois Boitard's design, a detail not referred to in Shakespeare's text, was a familiar piece of stage business at the time and thus does not arise from any "stroke of genius" on the part of an artist "breaking out of the theatre into real drama:' Indeed, the case can be made for identifying the Hamlet in the picture as the aging Thomas Betterton, his "down-gyved" stocking (a detail not mentioned by Whitfield) being an allusion to Ophelia's description of Hamlet's disturbing demeanor earlier in the play.
There follow successive short chapters that deal with both the illustrations in important editions of the plays and independent paintings. Among the earliest of these latter was Francis Hayman's depiction of the wrestling scene in As You Like It (ca. 1740-42), its outdoor landscape setting marking a step towards representations that have an artistic integrity quite removed from the theater. The chapter on "Hogarth and the Beginning of Shakespearean Painting" signals the way "accomplished painters began to turn their attention to the plays as sources of serious art" (30), but its very brief commentary hardly does justice to Hogarth's seminal role in this process. Here, Whit field's very compressed commentary leads to a measure of confusion. In discussing Falstaff Examining his Troops, "a picture almost certainly sketched at an actual performance" (30), Whitfield appears to be referring to the charcoal sketch (ca. 1728) in the Royal Library (Windsor Castle); however, his reference to it as a painting leads one to wonder whether he is instead describing the 1730 oil painting now in private hands. Because he supplies neither date nor location for the work he is discussing (there is also no accompanying illustration), the reader is left in the dark.
The brevity of the succeeding chapters in Whitfield's book (approximately four pages per chapter) inevitably results in key topics receiving less attention than they deserve. The illustrations of Kenny Meadows, John Gilbert, and Henry Selous are, for example, bundled together in "High Victorian Shakespeare: Gilbert and Others" and the author attempts to be all-inclusive by adding chapters on "Shakespeare in France" "Shakespeare in Germany," and "American Shakespearean Art," There are the expected chapters on such central topics as Fuseli, the Boydell Shakespeare venture, John Everett Millais, and the Pre-Raphaelites, together with an increasingly breathless series of topics leading into the twentieth century--"The Impact of Photography," "In the Age of the Book Beautiful," "Through the Lens of Modern Art" "Limited Editions Club," and "The Animated Tales." Occasionally and well worth their inclusion because of their not having been discussed in Stuart Sillars's two detailed and definitive recent studies of Shakespearean art, there are unexpected topics: Henry William Bunbury's series of satiric designs "on the August Shakespeare industry which Boydell was regarded as hyping up for financial gain" (54); John Gilbert's 1863 book of illustrations to Shakespeare's songs, some of them in color; and, also using chromo-lithography, John Murdoch's 1877 edition of Shakespeare's Complete Works with almost twenty unsigned color illustrations, two of which are reproduced by Whitfield.
As implied above, Whitfield's book should be consulted with caution on account of the brevity of its chapters and its occasional inaccuracies. Unfortunately for a reader anxious to read further, Whitfield's bibliography omits a number of important titles, among them Ronald Paulson's Book and Painting: Shakespeare, Milton, and the Bible (1982), Brian Allen's Francis Hayman (1987), David H. Weinglass's Prints and Engraved Illustrations by and after Henry Fuseli (1994) and his Fussli pittore di Shakespeare (1997), Alan R. Young's Hamlet and the Visual Arts 1709-1900 (2002), and two important recent studies of Ophelia, Kimberley Rhodes's Ophelia and Victorian Visual Culture (2008) and The Afterlife of Ophelia, edited by Kaara L. Peterson and Deanne Williams (2012). These caveats aside, Whitfield's book is to be commended for providing an accessible and affordable summary of an immensely rich and engaging subject, illustrated with a generous array of reproductions from both books and paintings.
ALAN R. YOUNG
Professor Emeritus, Acadia University