About the year 1785, Alderman J. Boydell, of London, conceived the project of establishing a 'Shakspeare Gallery,' upon a scale of grandeur and magnificence which should be in accordance with the fame of the poet, and, at the same time, reflect honor upon the state of the arts in Great Britain and throughout the world. Mr. Boydell was at this time a man of great wealth and influence, and a patron of the fine arts, being an engraver himself, and having accumulated his fortune mostly by dealings in works of that character.

He advertised for designs from artists throughout Great Britain, and paid a guinea for every one submitted, whether accepted or not; and for every one accepted by the committee, a prize of one hundred guineas. The committee for selecting these designs was composed of five eminent artists, Boydell himself being the president. The first painters of the age were then employed to paint these pictures, among whom were Sir Joshua Reynolds, Sir Benjamin West, Fusell, Romney, Northcote, Smirke, Sir William Beechy, and Opie.

Allan Cunningham, in his 'Lives of Eminent British Artists,' mentions that Sir Joshua Reynolds was at first opposed to Boydell's project, as impracticable on such an immense scale, and Boydell, to gain his approbation and assistance, privately sent him a letter enclosing a £1000 Bank of England note, and requesting him to paint two pictures at his own price. What sum was paid by Boydell for these pictures was never known. A magnificent building was erected in Pall Mall to exhibit this immense collection, called the Shakspeare Gallery, which was for a long time the pride of London.

The first engravers of England were employed to transfer these gems to copper, and such artists as Sharp, Bartolozzi, Earlom, Thew, Simon, Middiman, Watson, Fyttler, Wilson, and many others, exerted their talents for years in this great work. In some instances, the labor of more than five years was expended on a single plate, and proof impressions were taken for subscribers at almost every stage of the work. At length in 1803, after nearly twenty years, the work was completed. The price fixed (which was never reduced) was two guineas each for the first three hundred impressions, and the subscription list was then filled up at one guinea each, or one hundred guineas a set of one hundred plates.

Besides these subscriptions, large donations were made by many of the noblemen of England, to encourage the undertaking, and to enable Boydell to meet his enormous outlay. The cost of the whole work, from the commencement, is said to have been about one million pounds sterling; and although the projector was a wealthy man when he commenced it, he died soon after its completion, a bankrupt to the amount, it is said, of £250,000.

After these plates were issued, Boydell petitioned Parliament to allow him to dispose of his gallery of paintings by a lottery. The petition was granted, and the whole collection was thus disposed of. One of the finest of these pictures, King Lear, by Sir Benjamin West, is now in the Boston Athenæum.

One fact in relation to these plates gives great value to them. "All the principal historical characters are genuine portraits of the persons represented in the play; every picture gallery and old castle in England was ransacked to furnish these portraits."