John Boydell: The Enlightenment man.

By coincidence or by the famous law of series, our collection was enriched with artworks from two large projects undertaken by English engraver, art dealer, publisher and politician John Boydell (19 January 1720 – 12 December 1804). In particular, Goldin Fine Art owns multiple engravings from Claude Lorrain's Liber Veritatis and the Shakespeare Gallery (please follow the links to read our blog posts).

Boydell, a brilliant representative of the Age of Enlightenment, was a son of a land surveyor and was supposed to follow in his father's footsteps; hence, his skillfulness in drawing and sketching. Boydell, however, chose another path and became an apprentice to an engraver, William Henry Toms. As an engraver, he did not win laurels and soon realized that selling artwork of other artists was more profitable than engraving himself. 

First published by J&J Boydell, London, 1792. Reissued by Shearjashub Spooner  in "The American edition of Boydell's Illustrations of Shakespeare's dramatic works, by the most eminent artists of Great Britain." #9. New York, 1852. 

The next stage in Boydell's career was marked by curating ambitious publishing projects. To name a few, volumes dedicated to the Houghton Gallery collection acquired by Catherine II for the Hermitage Museum, Claude Lorrain's Liber VeritatisThe Bridge Book, and A Collection of Prints Engraved after the Most Capital Paintings in England represent milestones on the book publishing timeline of the 18th century.

Boydell's efforts to promote English engraving to the Continent, especially in France, were no less successful. If at the beginning of the 18th century French engraving dominated the English market, by the end of the same century the situation changed to the opposite. English engraving had conquered the European market. The turning point was the publication of Richard Wilson's  “Destruction of the Children of Niobe” initiated by Boydell. The French began to accept this English engraving in exchange for theirs. England went from an importer of prints to an exporter and owes that to John Boydell. In recognition of his outstanding achievements, he was first elected Alderman of the engravers and later Lord Mayor of London in 1790. 

Boydell Lord Mayor portrait NYPL

John Boydell, Lord Mayor of London, 1791
(from the European Magazine, April 1792, New York Public Library)

His entrepreneurial talent was crowned by the prominent Shakespearean project (more about it in our blog). As a result of the French revolutionary wars, Boydell's business declined, and he was almost bankrupt by the early 19th century. He had to sell the Shakespeare Gallery via a lottery, and the funds to pay off the debts were received after his death in 1804. 

Boydell’s undeniable merit increased awareness of the importance of public art in British society and contributed to the creation of the National Gallery of Art in 1824. He generously donated paintings from his own collection to the City of London to set an example for other art collectors. Boydell's mission can be clearly found in his own words:

"It may be a matter of wonder to some, what enducements I could have to present the City of London with so many expensive Pictures; the principal reasons that influence me were these:
First: to show my respect for the Corporation, and my Fellow Citizens,
Secondly: to give pleasure to the Public, and Foreigners in general,
Thirdly: to be of service to the Artists, by shewing their works to the greatest advantage: and,
Fourthly: for the mere purpose of pleasing myself."

Materials used for writing this blog post: John Boydell In Wikipedia.

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