Scene-stealers why 18th-century painters were obsessed with London’s theatres

Scene-stealers: why 18th-century painters were obsessed with London’s theatres

As theatrical paintings by Johann Zoffany and Marco Ricci are offered at Christie’s, Alastair Smart spotlights the moment in art history when dramatic art took centre stage

Early in 1763, there was a riot at Covent Garden Theatre, during a performance of Thomas Arne’s opera Artaxerxes. The public had grown used to the custom of sneaking into a show’s second half at a concessionary rate. Covent Garden’s management, however, announced on its playbills that only full-price tickets for Artaxerxes would be available.

Hence the riot, in which infuriated locals smashed up the interior of the theatre mid-performance. Such unrest was a fairly frequent occurrence in 18th-century London — a sign of how seriously the public took its theatre.

If one includes spectacles such as ballet, opera and pantomime alongside drama, England had around 300 places of regular theatrical entertainment in 1805: more than 10 times the number that had existed a century earlier.

Venues increased in size, too. Covent Garden Theatre had a capacity of 1,000 when it was constructed in the 1730s, making it the largest theatre London had ever seen. By the end of the century, after several rebuilds, capacity had increased to 3,000.

This was a golden age for theatre in Britain, one in which it became a truly popular form of entertainment. Although they sat in different parts of the auditorium, people of all classes attended, from workmen to monarchs. (The British royal family, unlike many of their European counterparts, had no private theatre, meaning King George III and Queen Charlotte had to attend public performances to indulge their love of drama.)

In such a context, it’s no surprise that stars were born. They included Charles Macklin, John Philip Kemble, Sarah Siddons and, most famous of all, David Garrick. The British press carried reviews of these actors’ performances — as well as gossip about their private lives.

William Hogarth (1697-1764), David Garrick as Richard III, 1745. Oil on canvas. 190.5 x 250 cm. Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool. Photo © National Museums, Liverpool  Bridgeman Images
William Hogarth (1697-1764), David Garrick as Richard III, 1745. Oil on canvas. 190.5 x 250 cm. Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool. Photo: © National Museums, Liverpool / Bridgeman Images

It was in a bid to capture these celebrities at work that a new artistic genre took off: the theatrical painting. A fine early example is William Hogarth’s 1745 picture of Garrick as Shakespeare’s Richard III (above), the role with which the actor made his name. He is seen in his tent on the eve of the Battle of Bosworth, having woken from a dream in which he is rebuked by the ghosts of his murder victims.

Another master of the genre was German-born Johann Zoffany, who captured the details of a performance with photographic accuracy. Among his finest pictures is that of Macklin as Shylock in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Painted in 1768, it depicts a distraught Shylock, reeling from the news that his daughter Jessica has eloped — and taken his money and jewels with her.

Hogarth sold his painting of Garrick as Richard III for £200 — a sum that he himself noted ‘was more than any painter was known to receive for a portrait’

Theatrical paintings represented a kind of win-win arrangement for actor and artist. The former benefited from an image that would enhance his or her celebrity — particularly as engravings were often made after a painting, so as to cater for the mass market.

Artists, meanwhile, were pretty much guaranteed a success, given their subject’s fame. Hogarth sold his painting of Garrick as Richard III for £200 — a sum that he himself noted, with pride if also exaggeration, ‘was more than any painter was known to receive for a portrait’.

Theatrical painting can be seen as a British variant on another artistic genre: history painting. The latter had long been fashionable in France and Italy, and drew for its subject matter on historical events, classical mythology and the Bible.

Johann Zoffany, R.A. (Frankfurt 1733-1810 London), Garrick with Burton and Palmer in The Alchymist. Oil on canvas. 41⅞ x 40⅛ in (106.5 x 101.9 cm). Estimate £1,000,000-1,500,000. Offered in Old Masters Evening Sale on 8 July 2021 at Christie’s in London
Johann Zoffany, R.A. (Frankfurt 1733-1810 London), Garrick with Burton and Palmer in 'The Alchymist'. Oil on canvas. 41⅞ x 40⅛ in (106.5 x 101.9 cm). Estimate: £1,000,000-1,500,000. Offered in Old Masters Evening Sale on 8 July 2021 at Christie’s in London

The genre never really caught on in Britain, but the hit staging of plays by dramatists such as Shakespeare and Ben Jonson helped a theatrical variant to develop in the 18th century.

Jonson’s masterpiece The Alchemist  would provide Garrick with one of his most enduring roles — that of the greedy, gullible tobacconist, Abel Drugger. Zoffany produced a superb painting of one performance (above), capturing the glint in Drugger’s eye as he imagines the boost to his business promised by the other two men on stage.

That pair — called Subtle and Face, and dressed in black and red respectively — claim to be alchemists but are actually tricksters. They have just duped Drugger and can both be seen raising a smirk.

The author Horace Walpole described The Alchemist as ‘one of the best pictures ever done by this Genius’

In 1770, Zoffany exhibited Garrick with Burton and Palmer in ‘The Alchymist’ at the Royal Academy, where the author Horace Walpole described it as ‘one of the best pictures ever done by this Genius’.

On 8 July, the painting is being offered at Christie’s in London as part of the Old Masters Evening Sale.

Zoffany was one of a plethora of foreigners who flocked to London in the 18th century. Three others — all of them important figures from Italy — are connected to a second canvas (below) being offered in the same sale.

It was painted by the Venetian master Marco Ricci around 1709, and captures a rehearsal for the opera Pyrrhus and Demetrius. Among those depicted are the castrato star, Nicolò Grimaldi (usually known by his stage name ‘Nicolini’), pausing grandly in front of a harpsichord, and the celebrated soprano Francesca Margherita de L’Epine, seated behind the instrument.

Marco Ricci (Belluno 1676-1730), An Opera Rehearsal, 1771. Oil on canvas. 18⅞ x 22½ in (48 x 57.1 cm). Estimate £400,000-600,000. Offered in Old Masters Evening Sale on 8 July 2021 at Christie’s in London
Marco Ricci (Belluno 1676-1730), An Opera Rehearsal, 1771. Oil on canvas. 18⅞ x 22½ in (48 x 57.1 cm). Estimate: £400,000-600,000. Offered in Old Masters Evening Sale on 8 July 2021 at Christie’s in London

It’s worth pointing out that the relationship between theatre and painting wasn’t one-directional. The former, quite clearly, provided inspiration for the latter. However, art provided inspiration for acting too.

Contemporary handbooks for actors recommended that they visit galleries to study gestures and poses. They ‘ought not to be a stranger to painting and sculpture’, as the theatre critic Charles Gildon put it in 1710.

Garrick, in particular, paid close attention to artworks such as the Raphael cartoons (which were on public view at Hampton Court Palace) and developed a large repertoire of poses from them for the stage. This was key when it came to pioneering his bold, new style of acting.

At the start of the 18th century, actors had tended towards declamation, delivering lines in a grand, formal manner, where sound was everything. Garrick helped effect a shift towards more naturalistic performances in which acting became more active and visual.

As his biographer Thomas Davies wrote, after watching Garrick and Hannah Pritchard as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth in 1768: ‘You heard what they spoke, but you learnt more from the agitation of mind displayed in their action and deportment… The wonderful expression of heartfelt horror, which Garrick felt when he showed his bloody hands, can only be conceived by those who saw him.’

Zoffany produced a painting of that production (today owned by London’s Garrick Club, named in the actor’s honour). He captures the scene immediately after Duncan’s murder, in which Lady Macbeth reproves her wide-eyed, guilt-stricken husband for his loss of purpose.

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In line with dramatic performances becoming more visual, stage sets in the 18th century became more elaborate. Philip James de Loutherbourg’s work at Drury Lane Theatre was particularly noteworthy: he is credited with introducing three-dimensional scenery instead of flat painted screens behind the actors.

Lighting also advanced, with the advent of footlights and extra sidelights to better show off what was happening on stage.

Such innovations have all persisted to the present day. The fondness for theatrical painting, however, rather fell from fashion in the 19th century.

What we’re left with today, in the works of Hogarth, Zoffany, George Romney, Benjamin Wilson and others, are permanent records of ephemeral performances — in some cases, splendid records of splendid performances. On top of that, they’re testaments to an era when the visual and the dramatic arts were unprecedentedly entwined.