Here is another sneak peek of a new NGC custom registry set that I am working on. Please feel free to share anything related!
The Boydell Shakespeare medal is so named because of the gentleman who commissioned its production, Alderman John Boydell. Saving any historical tidbits for the section below, it is worth mentioning that this medal is a notable exception to those typically struck at the Soho Mint. The design directly violates the guidance Boulton provided to Droz in a letter fifteen years earlier. In his letter dated December of 1787, Boulton instructs Droz that "Any allegorical figures should be few and simple and as free as possible from obscurity". This guiding principle was closely adhered to at the Soho Mint well after Droz departed, yet this medal clearly violates this. The obverse design depicts two allegorical figures, which without additional context would likely be easy to identify, but the depiction of Shakespeare absent the inscription on the reverse would prove far more obscure. As it turns out, the obverse was closely modeled after the sculpture created by Thomas Banks in 1789 at the direction of Boydell (Pollard, 1970), which explains why Boulton's general design principles were seemingly disregarded. This is one of a handful of collaborative pieces between Küchler and Phillps, the obverse being engraved by the former and the reverse by the latter. According to Pollard (1970), the dies for the medal would be completed by the summer of 1802, but Boydell would not issue the medals until 1805, which he would later blame on the Soho Mint. It is worth noting that nearly all of these medals were struck in silver, with only a handful of gold specimens, one of which was presented to King George III. Additionally, it appears that several were likely struck in copper at a later date under the careful supervision of James Watt Jr. The presence of these "late Soho" pieces is interesting given that Boulton refused a request made by his friend, Ambrose Weston, to purchase an additional copy of the medal. In the excerpt provided by Pollard (1970), Boulton is recorded to have said the following in his response –
"… I shall charge the die to the Alderman, I cannot honorably strike one medal more from it than the number he think proper to order; but I suppose he could have no objection to obliging any of his subscribers with duplicates or more upon their paying for them…".
Perhaps Watt Jr. felt justified in producing the copper versions, given that the venture giving rise to the production of the originals had since been relinquished by Boydell. On any note, Tungate (2020) reports that 654 were struck in 1804 and 1805, with an additional 100 examples being struck in 1807. Regardless of when they were struck, all examples are dated 1803 and adhere to the standard specifications agreed upon by Boulton and Boydell. According to Vice (1995), the dies for this medal were held for Matthew Pier Watt Boulton when deciding how to dismantle the Soho Mint in 1850. From his records, it appears that one punch and two dies were never in danger of being included in the original auction catalog. Although their existence is possible, restrikes in the typical sense (i.e., medals struck after the demise of the Soho Mint) are not known to me.
Historical Context: John Boydell sought to apply art to commerce in a way that would subsequently appeal to the nationalistic sensitives of the era while also generating a handsome profit for himself. As already mentioned in the introduction to this set, the appreciation of art and design had gradually transformed from an activity restricted to the elite to something predominantly consumed by the rising middle class. From a business perspective, a larger base of consumers paired with the tastes of popular society provided an environment ripe for opportunity. The encouragement of the arts was seen as a noble pursuit, and patrons of any level were often held in high esteem. This fact was likely not lost on Boydell, but he and his partners took it one step further. According to Friedman (1973), historical painting was held in the highest regard by both society and the Royal Academy, but it had been in decline for some time as contemporary artists could generate far more income for themselves by focusing on portraits and landscapes. This translated into a sense of national embarrassment as foreign artists were all too willing to fill the gap, which directly inflamed English societal efforts to gain independence from foreign artists and establish themselves as a beacon of art among their European counterparts. Of chief concern was England's ability to compete with the finest French artists, a point that was only further heightened by the continual wars within Europe. In part, this movement prompted the widespread proliferation of the most notable English artists across many domains, William Shakespeare being no exception. The consumption of Shakespearian productions was all the rage in the 18th and 19th centuries, which is evident in the sheer amount of controversy surrounding his work. I discovered one such fascinating story about a series of forged letters and unpublished plays while researching a new addition to my wife’s collection of Shakespeare books. Written by George Chalmers and published in 1797, the book entitled "An Apology for The Believers in the Shakespeare Papers" deals a devastating blow to the credibility of the forged documents. The copy in our library was presented to Sir Stephen Cottrell and inscribed by the author. Although this is a very interesting story on its own, it is tangent to the current topic, so I digress. On any note, contemporary society placed a high value on art, most notably that of historical painting, and that paired with the prolific consumption of all things, Shakespeare created the perfect opportunity for Boydell.
Being the opportunistic businessman that he was, Boydell embarked upon the construction of a gallery depicting scenes from the most famous Shakespeare plays. In doing so, he could bolster his reputation as a patron of the arts while also triggering a sense of national pride on behalf of his customers by devoting his efforts to reinvigorate the practice of historical art. As argued by Friedman (1973), Boydell had the perfect trifecta of momentum that almost all but guaranteed the early success of his Shakespeare Gallery. The general idea was easy enough to envision. Boydell would commission some of the most renowned and up-and-coming artists to paint scenes from Shakespeare's numerous works. These paintings would then be displayed in a dedicated gallery, which patrons could view upon paying an entrance fee of one shilling. The admission cost was low relative to that of the Royal Society and further catered to the needs of all patrons (Friedman, 1973). The Shakespeare Gallery was opened at Pall Mall in 1789. At its opening ceremony, the gallery contained a mere thirty-four paintings. By 1805 that number had grown to 167 unique works of art (Friedman, 1973). A buzz of excitement throughout London marked the early days of the Shakespeare Gallery at Pall Mall, and guests from across the continent soon came to marvel at the breadth of the talent on display. By all accounts, the gallery was a great success.
To offset the high initial costs, Boydell and his partners devised a plan to produce prints of these paintings and sell them on a subscription basis. Those interested were given the option of either purchasing the larger format prints or the same images in a smaller format. The former would cost the subscriber 2 Guineas initially, with another Guinea due upon delivery. The latter would only cost 1 Guinea upfront, with another due upon delivery. In both instances, the initial subscription cost only afforded the subscriber one volume of prints of the nine that were proposed. Although the business idea was simple enough, in theory, the practical execution of the plan was far more complicated.
One of the primary issues faced by Boydell and his partners was the rampant abandonment on behalf of their subscribers. The initial subscription fees were far from sufficient to offset the high costs of commissioning the artists. Without collecting the other half of the payment upon delivery and the initial fees for future subscriptions, the financial situation of the venture quickly became bleak. It appears several court proceedings were registered on behalf of Boydell to collect the money owed by his subscribers, the most notable of which was the case against Drummond, which resulted in Boydell's defeat (Friedman, 1973). The documents binding the patrons to their dues were far too disorganized and ambiguous, making them all but indefensible in court. From all contemporary documents that I have viewed, paired with the work of many others such as Freidman (1973), it appears the quality of the prints were far inferior to the expectations of the subscribers. This issue was further compounded when Boydell and his partners decided to alter the terms of the subscription in 1792. Before the changes, the prints were the same between the large and small format subscriptions, but the new approach altered this to give rise to two distinctly different versions. This new approach was wildly unpopular. Subsequently, the already dwindling number of subscribers was further reduced to nearly one-third of what it had initially been (Friedman, 1973). To reverse this seemingly evitable ruin of their business venture, they hatched the idea to issue medals to their loyal subscribers, but only to those who subscribed to the large format. As already noted in the introduction of this set, collecting medals and being a patron of the arts was all the fashion in contemporary society. More specifically, collecting Soho Mint products was a particularly tasteful pursuit. I imagine Boydell could think of few better ways to reinvigorate his subscribers than by commissioning a medal to be struck at the Soho Mint and exclusively available only to his current subscribers.
Although the exclusivity of the medals paired with their production at the Soho Mint was a stroke of marketing genius, it proved too little too late. The subscriptions were the lifeblood of the Shakespeare Gallery, and their plummeting numbers paired with the international events that unfolded in this era eventually led to its demise. By December of 1803, Boydell had petitioned and successfully negotiated a special act of parliament granting him a lottery. In justifying his request, he argued the "unhappy revolution" (i.e., the French Revolution) destroyed any potential profit from the continent and that his fervor for supporting the artistic independence of England had made him blind to reality (Friedman, 1973). In other words, he had overestimated the profit to be made by foreign visitors, and his desire to build the Shakespeare Gallery fueled his decision to invest any profit into further commissions without setting money aside for himself. Luckily for the nearly bankrupt Boydell, the lottery was a great success. According to Freidman (1973), 22,000 tickets were sold, raising a sum of £45,000. The Shakespeare Gallery was dismantled upon the execution of the lottery held in late January of 1805. The paintings were given to the lottery winners, and unfortunately, it appears many of them have since disappeared. Although the Shakespeare Gallery met a painful end, it has captured the attention of countless modern scholars. Thanks to their efforts, we can now enjoy a virtual tour of what the Shakespeare Gallery likely looked like (see the interesting links section below for more information).
Obverse: The obverse design of this medal is rather striking. It depicts Shakespeare looking to the distance while resting upon a rock wearing a buttoned tunic with a decorated collar. His right arm is stiff against the rock, holding his weight up, and his right arm rests on the shoulder of the allegorical figure "Genius of Painting". His right leg is outstretched while his left leg is bent and partially obscured by his left leg. The rock rests upon a rectangular pedestal. Upon which is engraved in four lines, "HE WAS A MAN | TAKE HIM FOR ALL IN ALL | I SHALL NOT LOOK | UPON HIS LIKE AGAIN". The Dramatic Muse appears at the left of the rock with her gaze set on Shakespeare. A theatrical mask adorns her hair, which seems to be tied in a close-fitting knot. Her left arm is outreached, holding a laurel wreath. A four-stringed Greek lyre rests between her chest and her left arm. Her right arm is outstretched with her hand open toward Shakespeare. A loose scarf runs from her left shoulder meets her figure at her lower back, flowing freely in front of her before lopping back behind her. She wears a clinging dress with her right shoulder exposed. Her left foot is back with her toes resting on the foreground. Her right foot is slightly forward and flat, bearing her weight. Her dress is long and freely flows to the floor in the space between her feet. On the right, the Genius of Painting is depicted looking to the right. Her right arm is outstretched with an open hand pointing to Shakespeare. Her left hand is down and bent in front of her holding a paint palette with several noticeable globs of paint. Her left shoulder and both breasts are exposed, but her dress is draped over and pinned by her right arm. The dress extends to the floor, but her outward extended left leg is exposed from the knee down. Her right leg is bent behind her and rests on her toes. Her dress piles behind her and to the left of her right foot. This entire design seemingly rests upon a stage detailed with vertical hatch markings. A small area devoid of detail occurs between two raised lines. Immediately below, a larger void area occurs in the shape of a semicircular protractor. The outer portion of this shape is blank, with the engraving "M·B. Soho occurring on the top left and "C·H·KUCHLER. F." occurs at the right. The usually hollow portion of the protractor shape is adorned with the same vertical hatch markings described earlier. All of this is contained within a very thin raised circular line and a relatively thick beveled rim.
Reverse: A scroll appears at the top under a tipped over four-string Greek Lyre pierced by a laurel branch. Several raised lines radiate from this design. The legend "THIS | MEDAL | REPRESENTING SHAKSPEARE BETWEEN | THE DRAMATICK MUSE AND THE GENUIS OF PAINTING | IS RESPECTFULLY PRESENTED TO | THE PERSON| WHOSE NAME IT BEARS | IN GRATEFUL COMMEMORATION OF THE GENEROUS SUPPORT | GIVEN BY THE SUBSCRIBERS | TO THE GREAT NATIONAL EDITION OF THAT | IMMORTAL POET | BY | I. I. & J. N. BOYDELL. | AND | G. & W. NICOL. | 1803.". All of this is contained within a very thin raised circular line and a relatively thick beveled rim. The reverse has some pleasant pastel toning.
Edge: This example has a plain edge, but often these are encountered with an engraved edge with the recipient's name (i.e., the subscriber). Boydell wanted these medals to be large, but he was also concerned with the cost. The edge engraving required a decent thickness, which translated to an increase in the cost.
Notes: This particular example has retained its original shells and was purchased from my good friend William (Bill) McKivor in 2020 before he passed away. This medal has a special place within this collection, as it brings back fond memories of our conversation. Bill and I were discussing ways to intrigue my better half in my numismatic pursuits. In passing, I mentioned that she greatly enjoys Shakespeare. Over the years, I made it a tradition to pick up antique copies of his works whenever I traveled without her to academic conferences. Her small but growing (albeit not lately due to the pandemic) collection of leather-bound books on the subject were a point of exception to her immunity from the collecting bug. Bill and I laughed while determining if it truly counted as I was the only one adding to the collection. As our conversations often did, that turned into us discussing the Soho Mint. At the time, I had just started exploring the Soho Mint medals, and I had no idea that it existed. Bill joked that perhaps this would be a shiny piece of metal that my wife and I could mutually enjoy, given the topic. I was happy to report to Bill that my wife had given the nod of approval and seemed to enjoy looking at the medal. I suppose I lost her in the details when I started to explain why it came about, but it was interesting to see her attention captured by it. Bill also seemed to get a chuckle out of this, suggesting a Shakespeare collection of tokens and medals. Of course, in his usual way, he was forthcoming with what he knew and named off a dozen or so pieces that could be included in the proposed set. Bill could carry on a good conversation about almost any topic. Beyond the fond memories, the piece is one of my favorites because of its impressive presentation made possible by the simple yet elegant design and the relatively large size. To date, it is also the only silver medal in this collection. For those interested in pursuing Soho Medals, I recommend trying to find an example of this type. It appears these medals come up for sale rather often but frequently have not retained their original shells.
Friedman, W. H. (1973). Some Commercial Aspects of the Boydell Shakespeare Gallery. Journal of the Warburg and Courtland Institutes, 36, 396-401.
Pollard, J. G. (1970). Matthew Boulton and Conrad Heinrich Küchler. The Numismatic Chronicle, 10, 259-318.
Tungate, S. (2020) Matthew Boulton and The Soho Mint: copper to customer. Worcestershire: Brewin Books.