Shakespeare, Hogarth & Garrick: Plays, Painting & Performance by Robin Simon - review by Jonathan Yarker

Jonathan Yarker

All the World’s a Canvas

Shakespeare, Hogarth & Garrick: Plays, Painting & Performance


Paul Holberton Publishing 256pp £55 order from our bookshop

In 1745 William Hogarth published a subscription ticket for his great engraving David Garrick as Richard III. The illustration on the ticket, which is essentially an ephemeral print, shows a laurelled scroll, a palette and a tragic mask threaded onto a single ribbon. In a neat visual shorthand, Hogarth carefully links himself with Shakespeare and Garrick. These three figures are the main subjects of Robin Simon’s wide-ranging and fascinating book. Shakespeare, Hogarth & Garrick examines the genre of 18th-century theatrical portraiture to unpick the relationships between actors and artists. Simon’s text combines a rich and immersive knowledge of the allied worlds of theatre and studio with close looking, an underrated discipline. His approach yields fascinating rewards. Take Hogarth’s depiction of Garrick en rôle as Richard III. Much critical ink has been spilt on the picture, now in the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, and Hogarth’s attempt to transform a contemporary portrait into a history painting. The composition is filled with details: for instance, the tents behind Richard, with armed figures seated round a fire. It is a feature that cannot be found in Shakespeare’s text but, as Simon explains, depicts lines from the play as performed by Garrick. This was a hybrid work written by Colley Cibber, who borrowed scenes from 3 Henry VI, ideas from Macbeth and, in the case of the soldiers who ‘by their Fires of Watch/With Patience sit, and inly ruminate/The Morning’s Danger’, a scene from Henry V set on the eve of Agincourt. The source is important because it informed Hogarth’s portrait: Cibber’s amendments turned Richard from villain into flawed hero.

This handsome and well-illustrated book originated as the prestigious Paul Mellon Lectures, given by Simon in London and New Haven in 2013. Consisting of nine chapters, it offers a highly suggestive guide to the ways in which the Georgian stage inflected British art. The first chapter provides a useful account of the theatre in 18th-century London and includes a discussion of the entertainments mounted in booths at Southwark Fair, the subject of a 1733 painting by Hogarth. In a fresh interpretation of that painting – which was engraved as part of the subscription for A Harlot’s Progress – Simon argues that ‘Hogarth’s narrative sense, the very shape of his progresses, had been formed or at the very least inspired by his own experience of watching drolls’.

At the heart of the book is an expert account of theatrical portraiture in Georgian Britain. This peculiarly British genre encompasses works which sit at the intersection of reportage, portraiture and history painting, providing myriad traps of interpretation for the uninitiated. As Simon explains, these paintings were not

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