Shakespeare at Petworth

Henry Fuesli's Macbeth, Banquo and the Witches, 1793-4

Celebrate one of the world’s greatest playwrights at Petworth. The extraordinary art collection, the finest in the National Trust’s care, contains several examples of artists interpreting Shakespeare’s works.

Petworth’s extraordinary art collection contains several examples of artists interpreting Shakespeare’s works. George O’Brien Wyndham, 3rd Earl of Egremont (1751–1837), more famously known as JMW Turner’s patron but also a keen patron and collector of British art, had a taste for scenes of a more sinister nature. Artists of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were busy producing works that appealed to his taste, such as Sir Joshua Reynolds’s notable Macbeth and the Witches in the Square Dining Room.

Other scenes include James Northcote’s Murder of the Princes in the Tower, from Shakespeare’s Richard III. This shows the poignant moment from Act IV Scene III in which the two Princes are about to be killed. JMW Turner’s Jessica, often overlooked as a Shakespeare subject, is an interpretation of Shylock’s daughter from Act II Scene V of The Merchant of Venice. This picture is said to have been painted in response to a challenge that nobody could successfully paint a portrait on a yellow background.

The Murder of the Princes in the Tower and King Edward V by James Northcote
The Murder of the Princes in the Tower and King Edward V by James Northcote

Several Shakespeare scenes now at Petworth were intended to be displayed at the Boydell Shakespeare Gallery, owned by Alderman John Boydell (1720–1804). Boydell established the gallery in 1786, at a time when Shakespeare was associated with a growing sense of British identity. The gallery also fostered the culture of British history painting, popularised by the likes of Sir Joshua Reynolds, James Northcote and Henry Fuseli. Boydell’s venture, although initially popular, failed to attract enough subscriptions; 170 works of art were sold at the Boydell Sale at Christie’s in 1805. The 3rd Earl of Egremont subsequently acquired some of these works for Petworth.

Henry Fuseli (1741-1825), Macbeth, Banquo and the Witches, 1793-4 / NT 486261
Scene from Macbeth by Henry Fuseli

Petworth is also home to a unique collection of nine early Shakespeare plays, including first edition quartos of Othello and Richard II. These early plays, including others by authors such as Thomas Dekker, Christopher Marlowe and John Webster, were collected by Algernon Percy, 10th Earl of Northumberland (1602–1668) in the mid-seventeenth century. Deeper research into these plays and how they arrived at Petworth was recently undertaken by scholars at the University of Sussex.