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image P213

Henry Howard (1769 - 1847)

The Vision of Shakespeare


Oil on canvas

Height: 125.7cm
Width: 100.3cm

Inscription: Shakespeare. Resting on the lap of fancy is contemplating the "visions of glory" which she invokes, while Lyrical Poetry rising from the earth invites him to ascend the brightest heaven of invention. Tragedy and comedy are calling before him. The shadowy forms of his principle dramatic characters near him. Titania, watched by Oberon, is sleeping in her bower; and a train of fairies are sporting about him. On one side the stars are shooting from their spheres "to hear the sea maid's music", on the other side is the Tempest, the enchanted isle, and its inhabitants. Above is Hecate, riding on a cloud and Genii, the offspring of fancy, are hovering near her sweetest child.
Inscription note: Incorporated within the picture frame but on a separate panel, beneath the painting.

Museum number: P213

Curatorial note

The 18th and early 19th centuries saw a great revival of interest in Shakespeare, with celebrated actors like John Philip Kemble and his sister Sarah Siddons performing regularly in his plays. John and Eliza Soane enjoyed visits to the theatre and Soane continued to go to the theatre even after his wife’s death in 1815. Soane’s admiration for Shakespeare as the greatest literary genius in England’s history is embodied in the Shakespeare recess, dedicated to his memory. The recess contains two paintings by Henry Howard: Lear and Cordelia (P212) and The Vision of Shakespeare, in which the bard can be seen seated in the lap of Fancy with Tragedy and Comedy above, urging him on ‘to the highest pinnacle of invention’. A strong Shakespearean theme runs through Soane’s collection of paintings, two of which came from Alderman John Boydell’s famous ‘Shakespeare Gallery’ – including the large picture of a scene from The Merry Wives of Windsor (P211) by James Durno which hangs on the staircase next to this recess. Boydell commissioned George Dance, Soane’s first architectural master, to design the Shakespeare Gallery, on Pall Mall, to house a collection of pictures illustrating scenes from Shakespeare which he commissioned from all the leading artists of the day and many of which he later had engraved to illustrate his new edition of Shakespeare’s plays. The Gallery eventually went bankrupt and the paintings were sold in 1805.

Provenance help-art-provenance

Commissioned by Soane in 1829. Soane Archive: Soane's Notebook [his diary] records on 10 August 1829 'Mrs. C. … went with me to Mr Howard … settled subject, Shakspeare [sic] in the midst of his creations'. The office ledger for 1829 records a payment of £300 to Henry Howard on 27 April which may be related to the commission. Although Howard's son Frank stated subsequently (see bibliography) that the painting was 'purchased out of the exhibtion at the RA' (i.e. in 1830), Soane's notebook entry demonstrates that it had in fact been commissioned a year earlier and the picture must have been shown at the RA after it had been completed for Soane. It seems to have been conceived as a pendant to the 'Lear and Cordelia' and both were hung in October 1829 in Soane's newly created 'Shakespeare Recess' off the staircase at 13 Lincoln's Inn Fields. This painting was then exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1830, no.92.


Soane, Description, 1830, pp.21 and 41
Description,1835 p. 56
Howard, F. (ed.) A course of lectures on painting ...by Henry Howard, Edited with a memoir of the author by Frank Howard', London 1848, p.lxxiii
Millenson. S. F., 'Sir John Soane's Museum', UMI Research Press, 1987, p. 90, fig. 56
Altick. R., 'Paintings from Books', 1985
Thornton and Dorey, Miscellany, 1992, p.124
New Description, 2007, pp.74-75 and 101

Exhibition history

Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1830

If you have any further information about this object, please contact us: worksofart@soane.org.uk