John Boydell and the closet romantic 1786–90
In 1786 Romney became central to one of the most elaborate schemes of patronage in the history of British art: John Boydell’s Shakespeare Gallery. Boydell was an engraver and print publisher who had become successful by exploiting the rising domestic market for cheap engravings: his catalogue at around this time listed more than four thousand prints. Romney’s Infant Shakespeare series, an allegory also treated by Fuseli, derives from various legends featuring a life choice, such as the choice Hercules made between vice and virtue which was realized on canvas by West. Post-war scholarship has greatly raised awareness of the ‘convulsive virtuosity’ evident in many of Romney’s drawings. This private and empowering aspect of his work was consistently closer to his heart than the ‘drudgery’ of his more public portraiture. Drawings were Romney’s ‘delight by day and his study by night and for this his food and rest were often neglected’.