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Shakespeare's Principal Characters

  • Object:

    Oil painting

  • Place of origin:

    Great Britain (painted)

  • Date:

    1812 (painted)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Stothard, Thomas RA, born 1755 - died 1834 (artist)

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Oil on panel

  • Credit Line:

    Given by John Sheepshanks, 1857

  • Museum number:


  • Gallery location:

    Paintings, Room 82, The Edwin and Susan Davies Galleries, case SOUTH WALL

Physical description

Oil on panel depicting, from left to right: Olivia, Malvolio, Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheek from Twelfth Night; Falstaff, Celia and Rosalind from As You Like It; Prospero and Miranda from The Tempest; King Lear and Cordelia; Ophelia and Hamlet; and Lady Macbeth and the witches. The work is signed and dated 1812.

Place of Origin

Great Britain (painted)


1812 (painted)


Stothard, Thomas RA, born 1755 - died 1834 (artist)

Materials and Techniques

Oil on panel

Marks and inscriptions

'Thos Stothard 1812'
Signed and dated by the artist


Height: 36.8 cm estimate, Width: 140.3 cm estimate

Object history note

Given by John Sheepshanks, 1857
Extract from Parkinson, Ronald, Catalogue of British Oil Paintings 1820-1860. Victoria & Albert Museum, HMSO, London, 1990. p.xviii.

John Sheepshanks (1784-1863) was the son of a wealthy cloth manufacturer. He entered the family business, but his early enthusiasms were for gardening and the collecting of Dutch and Flemish prints. He retired from business at the age of 40, by which time he had begun collecting predominantly in the field of modern British art. He told Richard Redgrave RA, then a curator in the South Kensington Museum (later the V&A) of his intention to give his collection to the nation. The gallery built to house the collection was the first permanent structure on the V&A site, and all concerned saw the Sheepshanks Gift as forming the nucleus of a National Gallery of British Art. Sheepshanks commissioned works from contemporary artists, bought from the annual RA summer exhibitions, but also bought paintings by artists working before Queen Victoria ascended the throne in 1837. The Sheepshanks Gift is the bedrock of the V&A's collection of British oil paintings, and served to encourage many other collectors to make donations and bequests.

Historical significance: Thomas Stothard (1755-1834) was a highly prolific painter, book illustrator and designer. After his father's death in 1770 he began his working life apprenticed to a Huguenot silk weaver. At the completion of his apprenticeship in 1777 he entered the Royal Academy Schools, and there struck up life-long friendships with the sculptor John Flaxman and with William Blake. He exhibited at the Royal Academy from 1778 until his death in 1834, and from 1778 also began to produce illustrations for various publishers and magazines such as the Ladies' Magazine. He sometimes exhibited the original designs for such illustrations at the Royal Academy exhibitions. In his day he was highly respected as a history painter in oil, but the V&A collections of drawings and watercolours reflect his reputation during the 19th century predominantly as an illustrator, as well as a designer of a multitude of objects such as silver salvers to funerary monuments. As the Dictionary of National Biography notes, Stothard took 'advantage of the opportunities afforded by publishing and the industrial arts, while maintaining a reputation in the more respectable reaches of high art'. For example Stothard exhibited works on a grander scale than was his norm for Bowyer's 'Historic Gallery' (1790-1806). But many of the oils now in the V&A are on a modest scale and are perhaps designs for printed illustrations, rather than 'finished' history paintings. Stothard played a respected part in the art world of his day, and from 1812 until his death at the age of seventy-nine he held the post of librarian of the Royal Academy.

This painting depicts, from left to right: Olivia, Malvolio, Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheek from Twelfth Night; Falstaff, Celia and Rosalind from As You Like It; Prospero and Miranda from The Tempest; King Lear and Cordelia; Ophelia and Hamlet; and Lady Macbeth and the witches. The work is unusually signed and dated 1812.

A review of the Sheepshanks Collection in The Art Journal, 1857, (p.240) was critical of this painting, "... each impersonation speaks for him or herself; but this is not all we would desire in such a picture. The precisian [sic] looks at the composition and exclaims, 'Alas, how little did Stothard know of the proprieties of costume!'. These too were the high days of the asphaltum infatuation, and the picture is cracked down to the canvas". Stothard exhibited two paintings depicting characters from Shakespeare at the Royal Academy in 1813 (no.149) and in 1821 (no.209). The catalogue entry for the picture shown in 1821, "Shakespeare's Characters- Falstaff, As You Like It, King Lear and Macbeth" may indicate a picture of a different design to FA 197, or may simply be an abridged description of one of the versions of this subject. Boase wrote of the Academy exhibition of 1813, "Stothard contributed a group of Shakespeare's characters, but it was hung above the work of a younger artist, as Stothard himself admits [no reference given], his picture only obtained a glance from the crowd when they could get close enough to admire the delicate precision of David Wilkie's Blind Man's Buff".

Two sheets of pen sketches for the various figures are in the V&A (museum numbers 7341 and 7342). In the Tate Gallery's reduced version (no.1830) some slight alterations are made notably in the sprites above Prospero, the moon over Hamlet's head, and the position of Malvolio's left arm, which in FA 197 has gone to form an unmistakeable gesture. The watercolour version in the Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester (no.D.38.1892) follows the Tate design closely, though again with some minor adjustments. A further version, or perhaps a copy, was bought by Agnew at Sotheby's on the 4th December 1957 (lot 154, panel, four and half by sixteen inches). Mrs Bray (Life of Thomas Stothard, RA, 1851, p.244) makes further references to pictures of this subject; in an account of Stothard's studio sale of 1834, and among works by Stothard exhibited at the British Institution in 1841.

In 18th century Britain William Shakespeare's plays underwent something of a renaissance in popularity. A number of significant new editions of his work were published and the theatrical revival from the mid 18th century relied heavily on productions of his plays. Shakespeare had become associated with a rising British nationalism, which led also to a growing interest in British history. This tendency was exploited by John Boydell's Shakespeare Gallery; Boydell was an engraver and publisher who commissioned oil paintings for exhibition, with the intention of generating interest in printed versions. He began the project in 1786, which led to an illustrated edition of Shakespeare's plays, and a folio of prints. It is not clear whether Stothard exhibited finished oil paintings in Boydell's gallery, but he contributed designs to both the Folio and the Illustrated edition. The taste for Shakespeare continued into the early 19th century, and Stothard clearly felt there was a market for such images, as witnessed by his exhibition of this subject in both 1812 and 1821.

Descriptive line

Oil painting entitled 'Shakespeare's Principal Characters' by Thomas Stothard. Great Britain, 1812.


Oil paint; Panel


Oil painting

Subjects depicted



Paintings; Shakespeare


Prints, Drawings & Paintings Collection

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