Drawings for King Lear

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Drawings for King Lear

While in Paris in 1843-4, Ford Madox Brown sketched a set of eighteen pen-and-ink studies for King Lear. Two designs he later developed as finished paintings--Lear and Cordelia (1848-49) and Cordelia's Portion (1866)--and a third he turned into an oil-sketch, Cordelia Parting from Her Sisters (1854). Sixteen of the drawings were shown in 1865 at his Picadilly Exhibition, and Brown wrote the captions that appear below the drawings for the exhibition catalog. The sixteen sketches with captions are owned by the Whitworth Gallery in Manchester, and the two without captions are in the City Museum and Art Gallery of Birmingham. The drawings are done in pen and sepia ink over pencil on paper; they are approximately 11 x 14 inches in size.

The idea of a series such as this was not original with Brown; the German artist Moritz Retzsch had completed his series of outlines of Shakespeare's plays (1828-46), which included a series on King Lear, and Eugène Delacroix had published his series of thirteen lithographs for Hamlet in 1843, a year before Brown executed his drawings. Critics think Brown knew the work of both artists and was influenced by them.

Brown regarded these sketches as no more than "outlines," writing in the catalogue that accompanied his 1865 retrospective exhibition that they "were never intended but as rude first ideas for future more finished designs" (19). Despite their unfinished quality, they powerfully evoke what Lucy Rabin describes as a "vaguely remote historical period" (52), a time represented by Shakespeare as post-Roman but still pre-Christian. Ford Madox Hueffer, the painter's grandson, suggests that the crudity of the sketches was, in fact, deliberate--Brown's attempt to portray in bold, almost flat designs the barbarity of Lear and the era in which he lived (53).

Brown reveals in these simple depictions an understanding of King Lear that far surpasses anything the critics had to say about a play that was not at all popular in the nineteenth century. Charles Lamb observed early in the century that "Lear is essentially impossible to be represented on a stage," and at the end of the century--as in, for example, a review of Sir Henry Irving's King Lear at the Lyceum Theatre--the critics were still quoting Lamb and asserting that King Lear "would not be tolerated for an hour if produced without the name of Shakspere" (Illustrated London News 101:637). Small wonder that Sir Henry Irving was reportedly nervous and anxious when he produced this unpopular play at the Lyceum in 1892.

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