Shakespeare. Again, we are spoiled for choice. But William Blake was a poet as well as an artist, so it seems fitting to choose this ink and watercolour study, Lear and Cordelia in Prison (Shakespeare did not depict the scene in his play: Blake’s source may have been Nahum Tate’s adaptation or, more likely, John Milton’s History of Britain, where Lear appears as the last of the descendants of Brutus and the first King of England).
The picture isn’t a technical triumph: Sir Joshua Reynolds is said to have advised the young Blake to work with ‘less extravagance and more simplicity, and to correct his drawing’, and you get a sense of what he might have meant here. But it is highly affecting, the exhausted king curled in sleep like a child, and poor Cordelia thrown into the parental role, left alone with her pity.
Other artists who depicted scenes from Lear include Ford Madox Brown, James Barry and Holman Hunt (the pre-Raphaelites were addicted to Shakespeare — see also Ophelia and Mariana by John Everett Millais). Far wilder, though, is Julia Margaret Cameron’s startling photograph King Lear allotting his kingdom to his three daughters (1872).