As we are unsure of the date of William Shakespeare's birthday, it is traditionally celebrated around 23rd April, ironically the date of his death. This falls in springtime when, according to the poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson 'a young man's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.'
This year, in particular, the lovelorn have endured long periods of separation while they wait to be reunited. By contrast, in Shakespeare's tragedy Romeo and Juliet, the headstrong young lovers refuse to accept the separation caused by their warring families, and are impelled along a path which ultimately leads to their deaths.
The play has inspired art in all forms, from the musical West Side Story to Dire Straits' classic hit Romeo and Juliet, and Malorie Blackman's novel Noughts and Crosses. As the success of the recent film of Romeo and Juliet from the National Theatre in London demonstrates, the story of the 'star-cross'd lovers' retains its powerful influence today.
Here we look at what artists on Art UK have made of this timeless tale.
While some artists have been drawn to the tragedy of the story, in the nineteenth century artists were swept away by the romance. Ford Madox Brown (1821–1893) shared the aims of the Pre-Raphaelite painters who rejected the rapid industrialisation of their world and revered the early Renaissance ideal of beauty.
Spurning the conventions of academy art teaching they used brilliant colour to celebrate the historic past, glorifying nature and placing an emphasis on emotion and subjectivity which reflected the concurrent Romantic movement in literature and art. The Pre-Raphaelites created a list of 'Immortals' and placed Shakespeare among them.
In this painting of the scene following the night that the young newlyweds have just spent together in secret, Romeo, burying a last kiss in Juliet's neck, gestures urgently with his left hand to show her that he must leave before they are discovered by her mother Lady Capulet. Madox Brown conveys the passion and distress of the moment in the lovers' intertwined bodies. The billowing rich silks of Romeo's red costume suggest the fire of his love, while Juliet glows like an icon in gold. The artist meticulously details the apple blossom growing just below, alluding to Romeo's earlier remark that 'this bud of love, by summer's ripening / May prove a beauteous flower when next we meet'.
Voted as Britain's most romantic artwork in a recent poll, Frank Bernard Dicksee's painting of the same scene reflects a growing trend for sentimentality in Victorian painting. This work is based on an illustration he created in the 1880s for a luxury edition of Romeo and Juliet and embodies Romeo's line 'Farewell, farewell, one kiss and I'll descend'.
His detailed depiction shows the balcony from within, with the golden light of dawn, the sign that Romeo must leave, illuminating the outer arch which frames the city of Verona in the distance. The couple are framed symbolically on one side by a passionfruit climber, its flowers in full bloom, and on the other by a bunch of white lilies that seems to foretell their deaths. Dicksee drew heavily on history and legend in his work and was influenced by the chivalric subject matter and intense colours used by the Pre-Raphaelites.
Whilst the Romeo and Juliet of Victorian paintings are portrayed as real people whose tragic circumstances are designed to evoke our sympathies, there is a long tradition of art that captures the theatrical productions. No one did more to revive Shakespearean theatre in the eighteenth century than the influential playwright, producer and actor David Garrick. Garrick revolutionised theatre by doing away with the previously formulaic declamatory style of acting and introducing a much more naturalistic style of performance. He played numerous Shakespearean roles and managed the Drury Lane Theatre for 29 years, bringing Shakespeare to mass audiences and reviving many Restoration dramas.
This 1753 painting of the tomb scene is one of three versions by Benjamin Wilson on Art UK and represents Garrick's actual staging, with the Capulet tomb set towards the back of the stage. This enormously popular work spawned many engravings and other iterations such as box lids and enamel plaques. Garrick as Romeo stands in a characteristic pose of recoil, seen in other artworks, as he witnesses Juliet come back to life just after he has taken a lethal poison.
To modern audiences, it may look odd to see the lovers both still alive when Shakespeare's text has Juliet waking only after Romeo has perished, but Garrick reworked the scene to allow the lovers the chance to say their farewells, a tradition that endured well into the nineteenth century. In a notorious theatrical battle of 1750, competing productions of the play were mounted at the Drury Lane and Covent Garden theatres with Garrick's Juliet, played by the actress George Anne Bellamy, gaining the best notices. It may be this production shown here.
Retaining the Garrick interpretation but in a distinctly different version of the tomb scene, here we see the lovers in their final moments with the overturned cup of poison lying at their feet. It was not unusual for actors in the eighteenth century to wear contemporary courtly dress in their roles, something which may look strangely anachronistic to the modern eye, but which bears comparison with a production today featuring the lovers in t-shirts and jeans.
This Juliet, Anne Brunton, came from a theatrical family – her father managed the Theatre Royal, Norwich. After she moved to Philadelphia in 1796 with her first husband Robert Merry she played Juliet again at the Chestnut Street Theatre. Joseph Holman is known to have played Romeo in 1784 at the Covent Garden Theatre, a production that may have inspired this work. He also moved to Philadelphia, where he managed the Walnut Street Theatre.
In Joseph Wright of Derby's searing revelation of the tragic final scene, Juliet, weeping over her dead lover, is disturbed by an approaching guard whose shadow we see in the doorway. Wright employs his mastery of light to illuminate her as a monumental figure in the moment before she uses a dagger to join her husband in death.
This painting was among many made for the Shakespeare Gallery initiated in 1876 by engraver and publisher John Boydell. Artists such as Joshua Reynolds, Robert Smirke, James Northcote and John Francis Rigaud were commissioned to create artworks for the gallery, but when Wright discovered that he had been consigned to a secondary and less well-paid class of painters he consequently had a row with Boydell which resulted in this painting being rejected.
More often than not it is indeed Juliet rather than Romeo who is the focus of the artist. Sally (Sarah) Booth, seen here, opened the 1827 season at the Georgian Playhouse Wisbech (now the Angles Theatre) as Juliet. Described as 'small in stature, nervous, with hair inclining to red' she was often cast in juvenile roles. At this moment, having been betrothed against her will to Paris (and already secretly married to Romeo) Juliet stands in her bed-chamber under an ominous moon, contemplating the herbal draught that will put her into a semblance of sleep.
One of the twentieth-century theatre's most renowned Juliets, Peggy Ashcroft played the part for the second time in 1935 under John Gielgud's direction, with Edith Evans as the Nurse, earning glowing reviews. The part of Romeo was taken on alternate nights by Gielgud and Laurence Olivier. Ethel Léontine Gabain was known for her oil portraits of actresses in character and was particularly drawn to depictions of women in a state of melancholy. She gained a prestigious reputation for her lithographs and was elected President of the Society of Women Artists in 1940.
The same theatre production features in Walter Richard Sickert's moving depiction of Juliet with her nurse. A frequent theatregoer, Sickert made many friends among actors and painted Peggy Ashcroft and Edith Evans several times. His technique of flat dry-scraped paintwork, seen here, often left bare patches of canvas visible and allowed for expansive flat patches of tonal colour. The graphic style owes something to Sickert's method at this time of painting from press images and embodies the simple heartache of a young girl in the throes of love, drawing comfort from the one person she can trust.
In this tiny oil painting (16.1 x 26.9 cm), possibly a study for a larger work, John Everett Millais marks the 'fearful passage' of Romeo and Juliet's 'death-mark'd love' with a tableau of the final scene where the Montague and Capulet families agree to be reconciled. The intensity of colour and use of natural light to illuminate the scene are typical of Pre-Raphaelite sensibility. By placing the bodies of the lovers in the centre he cuts the painting across the diagonal, reminding us of the division between the families that will ultimately be healed by the tragedy.
This story with its enduring theme of young love thwarted and doomed by prejudice and misunderstanding remains relevant for every age and will continue to be the spur to new interpretations.
Lucy Ellis, freelance writer