The National Trust’s “first known painting of a scene from Shakespeare” is now its second

william hogarth – National Trust images/John Hammond

The National Trust has long described his 1730s painting by William Hogarth, inspired by The Tempest, as “the first known painting of a scene from Shakespeare”.

Now that claim has been shattered by the significant discovery of a 1720s image inspired by The Merchant of Venice.

It was painted by Pieter Angellis, a Flemish artist working in London whose paintings are in the National Portrait Gallery and other public collections. A London dealer found it in Holland, where it had been misattributed. Traces of Angellis’ signature emerged during the restoration.

The attribution has been confirmed by Professor Robin Simon, a leading expert on British art and literature, who told The Telegraph: “It depicts the trial scene in The Merchant of Venice, where Shylock asks for his pound of flesh, a crucial moment in the play. It is beautifully painted.”

He added: “There is no doubt that this is the first surviving history painting painted from a text by Shakespeare.

“It predates the painting hitherto positively identified as the first painting based on an original Shakespearean text, Hogarth’s scene from The Tempest.”

He will publish it in a forthcoming book after it was acquired by the Garrick Club in London, where he chairs the Works of Art Committee.

Merchant of Venice

Merchant of Venice

The painting, a 30 x 25 inch oil painting on canvas, has been dated to around 1720. It was probably painted in London, where the artist worked for at least a decade, until 1727. He died in France in 1734 and returned to England.

The National Trust Hogarth entitled ‘Ferdinand courts Miranda (from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Act I, Scene II)’ hangs in Nostell Priory, his Palladian home near Wakefield, West Yorkshire.

Professor Simon – visiting professor at University College London’s English Department – said: “We know that Hogarth studied Shakespeare’s text directly because at that time The Tempest was only ever played in musical form, with lyrics by Dryden and Davenant in which these scene does not occur.

“Likewise, Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice was never performed on the early eighteenth-century stage. It appeared only in the form of a 1701 adaptation by George Granville, The Jew of Venice. Granville’s negotiation scene was enlivened with additional action as Bassanio drew his sword to defend Antonio and attack Shylock.”

In his book entitled Shakespeare, Hogarth and Garrick: Plays, Painting and Performance, Professor Simon writes that Angellis’s painting does not illustrate the court scene as it appears in Granville’s play, but followed Shakespeare’s original text: “Right on the Bassanio is on stage, holding his purse to Shylock in his red cap as he offers to pay even ten times the ducats demanded. Antonio in black beside him gently holds Bassanio. Shylock has his knife out, ready to take his pound of flesh. The interior is designed to evoke the gilded splendor of… the Doge’s Palace in Venice.”

The National Trust’s online description of its Hogarth reads: “It is the first known painting of a scene from Shakespeare.” The Art Fund, which helped the National Trust acquire it in 2002, described it similarly.

Inspired by new editions of Shakespeare’s plays

When the Trust heard about the new discovery, it said its “on-site interpretation” described it as “one of the earliest” paintings. But Professor Simon argued that since a 1730 painting by Hogarth Falstaff is not from Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 2 but from Thomas Betterton’s adaptation of the play, there hasn’t been another as yet, “that was the only way it was played at the time”.

Simon McCormack, Property Curator at Nostell Priory, said they will change their description: “We look forward to reading Robin Simon’s insights.”

dr Paul Edmondson, a leading scholar at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford-upon-Avon, said of the newly discovered painting: “The setting beautifully resembles the Doge’s Palace in Venice – the imaginary site of the trial.”

Brian Allen, who was director of the Paul Mellon Center for Studies in British Art and trustee of the National Portrait Gallery, said: “I don’t think there’s any doubt that it’s by Angellis.”

Professor Simon believes that this painting was inspired by new editions of Shakespeare’s plays in 1709 and 1714 and that it was part of a planned series of scenes from the plays – as was the nine-picture series for The Life of Charles I. with accompanying engravings, to which Angellis contributed three paintings.

“The Shakespeare series just never happened and this is probably the one that survives,” he said.

Shakespeare, Hogarth and Garrick: Plays, Painting and Performance will be published by Paul Holberton in April

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