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Boydell Gallery, 90 Cheapside, London, designs for ornamentation for picture frames for Alderman John Boydell, 1784, possibly executed (3)

Alderman John Boydell (1720-1804) was a talented engraver and successful print seller hailed as a ‘commercial Maecenas’ by his contemporaries. Most notably the founder of the celebrated Shakespeare Gallery, Boydell’s commercial success and subsequent patronage of British artists and engravers transformed the eighteenth-century art market. With direct commissions to artists, first producing historical paintings and later Shakespearean scenes, Boydell was assessing popular interest. He then cannily commissioned engravings of the pieces in order to produce commercial prints. Boydell’s innovation freed artists from previous restricting conventions, where commissions were traditionally dependent on aristocratic patronage. His business ventures simultaneously opened up the art market to the middle classes, whilst furthering the English school of print making.

Born 19 January 1720 in Dorrington, Shropshire, Boydell was the eldest of seven children to Josiah Boydell (1691-1757) and his wife Mary (1693-1777). At the age of twenty he was apprenticed for six years to William Thomson, an engraver based in Union Court, Holborn. In 1748 he married Elizabeth Lloyd, and spent their honeymoon producing views of Snowdonia and Welsh castles for publication. He later produced A collection of prints engraved from the most capital paintings in England, which proved hugely successful, with a subscription list headed by George III; Augusta, Dowager Princess of Wales; and the Earl of Bute.

In 1751 he purchased his own shop at the corner of Queen Street, Cheapside, 'at the sign of the unicorn'. Recognising a growing trend for French prints, Boydell became acquainted with Parisian printmaker Pierre-Francois Bason, and developed a successful import and export trade.

From 1783 Boydell transformed the upper floor of his print shop in Cheapside into an exhibition gallery. The gallery’s purpose was to exhibit new pieces commissioned by Boydell, whilst simultaneously promoting the sale of his prints. A contemporary account records a visit to Boydell’s Cheapside premises and comments on his use of elegant window dressing, with the shop facing on to a main thoroughfare and greatly admired by passers-by.

It is with his gallery and print shop in mind that Boydell commissioned John Singleton Copley to produce a historical piece, paying £800 to the artist. Historical subjects were proving to be popular with the public. In May 1781 Copley’s exhibition of his ‘The Death of the Earl of Chatham’ had been extraordinarily successful, with visitors paying one shilling to view the piece. Indeed greater numbers attended Copley’s single piece exhibition than the Royal Academy’s summer exhibition that same year. The chosen subject for the Boydell commission ‘The Death of Major Francis Peirson’ celebrated the British defence of Jersey following French invasion. In the early hours of 6 January 1781 French troops landed on the island of Jersey. They proceeded to march on St Helier where they swiftly captured Governor Moses Corbet, forcing his surrender. In response, the British garrison and Jersey militia launched a counter attack, led by the 24 year-old Major Francis Peirson. A battled ensued in Royal Square where the French troops were defeated, but in which Peirson was killed by a French sniper. Boydell recognised public sentiment for such a piece, and Copley, an American artist from Boston, used it as an opportunity to underline his political allegiance to the British crown. The piece was completed in April 1784, which directly coincides with Adam’s scheme of three designs for monumental frames.

The painting was first exhibited at 28 Haymarket Street where it was shown alongside Copley’s ‘The Death of the Earl of Chatham’ and ‘Watson and the Shark’. The exhibition ran from 22nd May-24th July 1784 and received excellent reviews. Those attending the exhibition received a free printed explanation of ‘The Death of Major Peirson’, which also advertised Boydell’s intention to reproduce a print of the piece. For the huge sum of 2,000 guineas Boydell employed the engraver James Heath for an engraving of Copley’s work. The finished print measured 30 by 22 ½ inches and took twelve years to complete. It was finally published in January 1796 and sold for 4 guineas a print.

Following its exhibition at the Haymarket, ‘The Death of Major Peirson’ was relocated to Boydell’s Gallery above his shop at 90 Cheapside. On 6 August 1784 The Morning Herald describes the piece in situ, significantly commenting on the frame in which it was held:

‘a beautiful piece of carve-work. Three ovals are placed on the top of the frame, in the centre of which is Mr Copley’s portrait painted by the able artist Mr Stuart’

The description is a clear match for Adam volume 20/253, strongly suggesting the design was executed. The three oval portraits mentioned are in reference to a further Boydell commission made to Gilbert Stuart for fifteen portraits of painters and engravers associated with his print business. Boydell intended the portraits to be displayed in his gallery, and we can see three such pieces incorporated in Adam’s design for the Copley frame (Adam volume 20/253). Above, John Copley’s portrait is positioned centre, and this is flanked by further portraits of James Heath the engraver and Josiah Boydell, Boydell’s nephew. Adam produced an alternative design in which only Copley’s portrait is incorporated in the frame (Adam volume 20/254), flanked by the outlines of roundels from which we may assume that the portraits of Heath and Boydell were intended to be affixed to the wall behind. From The Morning Herald account it seems likely that it was the more elaborate of the two designs (Adam volume 20/253) that was executed. Interestingly Adam volume 20/255, a design for a composition of several frames, also incorporates oval and round frames which are comparable to Adam volume 20/253 and 20/254. We may assume these were designed with the Stuart commission in mind.

Despite his extraordinary success as a print maker and the widespread popularity of his ventures at the Cheapside and Shakespeare galleries, by 1804 Boydell faced financial ruin. The French revolutionary wars had led to the collapse of his export trade, leaving him £80,000 in debt. In an attempt to raise the required funds, Boydell sought permission from Parliament to hold a lottery. Forming the 62 prizes were a number of pieces from his collection, alongside the leasehold for the Shakespeare Gallery in Pall Mall, to be distributed ‘by way of chance’. A total of 22,000 tickets were sold at 3 guineas a ticket, with ‘The Death of Major Peirson’ forming the first prize. It was won by a Mr Tassie, who subsequently sold it at auction. The lottery was a success raising £78,000; Boydell however did not live to see the prizes drawn. He died 12 December 1804, and was buried at St Olave Jewry where a portrait bust and memorial tablet were dedicated to him.

Copley’s ‘The Death of Major Peirson’ was auctioned at Christie’s on the 8th of March 1806. By the time of the sale it seems the piece had become separated from its frame and the three Stuart portraits. The three pieces survive independently, with Stuart’s portrait of Copley held in the National Portrait Gallery. Following the 1806 auction ‘The Death of Major Peirson’ was purchased by Copley himself. It was subsequently sold by his family in 1864, when it was acquired by the National Gallery for £1,600. It is now held within the Tate collection.

A. Stratton, ‘Boydell’s Shakespeare Gallery in Pall Mall’, Architectural Review, 1917, XLI, pp. 48-52; A.T. Bolton, The architecture of Robert and James Adam, 1922, Volume II, Index pp. 52, 63; Diary of Sophie v. la Roche, trans. C Williams, 1933, pp. 237-239; E. Harris, ‘Robert Adam’s ornaments for Alderman Boydell’s picture frames’ Furniture History, Vol. 26, 1990, pp. 93-98; E. Ballew Neff, ‘The History Theatre – Production and spectatorship in Copley’s The Death of Major Peirson’ John Singleton Copley in England, 1996, pp. 60-90; A. Rylance-Watson, ‘John Boydell’s Shakespeare Gallery (1789-1805)’, www.bl.uk, 15 March 2016; ‘John Singleton Copley by Gilbert Stuart (NPG 2143)’, www.npg.or.uk; T. Clayton, ‘Boydell, John – (1720-1804)’, oxforddnb.com; R. Howe, ‘Boydell’s Monument to Shakespeare’ www.shakespeare.org.uk, 26 June 2017; ‘The Death of Major Peirson – John Singleton Copley, 1783’, www.tate.org.uk (accessed June 2018)

Anna McAlaney, 2018
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