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Finding Shakespeare in the Palace of Westminster

Have you ever noticed Shakespeare’s influence on the Houses of Parliament?     

In 1623, William Shakespeare’s First Folio was published. This brought together most of Shakespeare’s plays in print for the first time. As plays were not typically published at the time, the First Folio shows how important and revered Shakespeare’s plays were.

The playwright’s work has long supplied vocabulary for political and public life. His words appeared in periodicals, he supplied language for protest, and choice references still serve as satirical shorthand. Shakespeare’s stage productions also had an impact on the Palace’s architects, designers, and artists.

From the stage-like qualities of monumental wall paintings to cutting satires, in this online exhibition we’ll share where you can find Shakespeare’s influence in the Houses of Parliament today.   

Use the buttons below to slide through the artworks and discover more about Shakespearean influences in the Palace of Westminster.  

Large bold and colourful mural style painting. In the centre of the composition a white man is on bended knee in front of a white woman. There are many onlookers, six men to the left of the painting and a group of nine to the right, including two large white dogs. To the left of the painting, is a docked ship. The ships sails carry white flags with red crosses. There is a bright blue sea and clear blue sky. In the background of the scene, there are white cliffs and a large red brick building to the right. The kneeling man and the woman are in the centre of the painting. The man’s left knee rests on a red tiled floor. He wears a brown cloak over his left shoulder and holds the woman’s right hand in his right hand. The woman is standing with her right arm extended towards the man. She wears a long white gown, with a tall white collar. Her hair is worn tightly and a delicate crown rests on her head. The onlookers wear Tudor court dress in mostly red, white, brown and black.

Shakespeare in the Palace

Queen Elizabeth Commissions Raleigh to Sail for America 1584, Mural by Alfred Kingsley Lawrence, WOA 2597

This wallpaper sample shows a dark green design on a lighter green background. The design is made up of a repeat pattern with different symbols illustrated within 8 pointed stars. There are three distinct symbols which make up the repeat pattern which are: a portcullis, gate like design, a Tudor rose and fleur de lys, which is a stylised lily flower shape. In between each star and connecting the overall design is a basket weave pattern.

Augustus Pugin (1812-1852), who was responsible for the interior design of the Palace, was greatly influenced by Shakespearean stage design. He began his career creating sets for the London theatres in Covent Garden in the 1820s and 1830s. In 1831, he designed a set for a production of ‘Henry VIII’ which recreated the architecture of Westminster. 

This particular wallpaper design, which is part of the Architectural Fabric Collection, bears striking similarity to set designs of the period. In addition, the symbol of the fleur-de-lis, which has been a popular symbol in heraldry for centuries, was a common feature in Shakespeare’s plays, featuring in ‘Henry V’, ‘Henry VI’ and ‘The Winter’s Tale’.

Pugin’s wallpapers are found throughout the Palace of Westminster.   

Heraldic wallpaper, design by Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin, AFC 005232   

This drawing is a square fragment of a larger drawing. As a result the composition has been cropped. Two male figures dominate the foreground. They are Prince Henry and his companion. Prince Henry appears as a young white adult on the right-hand side. He wears a small crown on his head and looks downwards. His left hand is clenched and raised to his chest. He wears a tabard like shirt which looks like a sheet draped across his front. Another white adult man stands to the left and slightly behind the Prince. He has short wavy hair and has his left hand on the Prince’s right shoulder. He is looking away from us. Behind the two figures, where the drawing has been cut, the torso of a third figure can be seen standing alongside an architectural square column. The drawing is a back ink wash on a dark brown paper background, which has then been attached to canvas.

The Fine Arts Commission was responsible for the artistic decoration of the new Palace of Westminster. It was appointed in 1841 and led by Prince Albert.

British painters were invited to submit artworks known as ‘cartoons’ to a competition. Cartoons are preparatory works produced before a final artwork is commissioned and made.

Westminster Hall hosted a display of competition entries in 1843. Many artists reached for Shakespearean subject matter as inspiration. Over 11% of the first competition depicted the playwright’s scenes or subjects. Several went on to be commissioned for the Palace, in both direct and subtle ways.  

The artwork shown here is a part of a cartoon by artist Richard Redgrave (1804-1888), inspired by Shakespeare’s Henry IV.

Prince Henry Acknowledging the Authority of Judge Gascoigne, fragment of cartoon, Richard Redgrave, Drawing, about 1854,  WOA 3346c  

This painted scene is set within a gold and stone arch. In the upper left-hand side, it shows a seated white man robed in red pointing to an open arched window. Below him a young white man with brown hair stretches his left hand out towards two figures wearing hats and capes, who have drawn their swords. Behind this young central figure, who wears a gold tunic with a belt, is a kneeling white man with a beard and long brown hair holding a sword horizontally. On the floor in the foreground is a discarded feather hat. To the right-hand side of the picture, below the seated figure and behind the central figure, is a man in a green tunic with his hands tied behind his back. He has his head lowered, and is held by a soldier in armour, who grips his back with his left hand and holds a tall pike staff with his right. Other figures look on from the sides. In the bottom right-hand corner of the painting, another man is looking towards the general figure and drawing his sword. He has a pink tunic and beige hooded cloak, and a red hat. In the background of the painting there is some gothic style stonework columns, and we can see part of a large wooden internal roof structure in the hammerbeam style.

This fresco in the House of Lords chamber, by artist Charles West Cope (1811-1890), draws on the arrest of Prince Hal recounted in ‘Henry IV’. While the scene might seem like a rather niche moment of constitutional history, it is of structural importance to Shakespeare’s ‘2 Henry IV’, a play concerned with parliamentary process.

The Lord Chief Justice, Judge Gascoigne, concludes the drama by restating the relationship between the monarch and parliament. He therefore offers a fitting subject for the House of Lords, where this painting represents the virtue of Justice.  

Victorian art often drew heavily on Shakespeare, as illustrations of his work helped galvanise the genre of British history painting. 

Prince Henry Acknowledging the Authority of Judge Gascoigne,  Charles West Cope, Fresco painting, 1849, WOA 2966  

The focus of this painting is an older white man with a bald head and a long white beard who sits on a simple throne (that reaches a v shape at the top). The trone is underneath an arched and decorated canopy. He frowns towards a figure on his left. With his right hand, he holds out a crown, which is being grasped by a man with a brown beard and wearing a helmet and a red cape or cloak. The woman prominent on the right is white with blonde hair running to her shoulders as well as a braid running above her ears. She looks away into the distance, and is wearing a long purple and white gown. Behind her, a man with receding hair and a beard looks on towards the seated older man. On the centre left in front of the seated man, a white woman with brown hair, wearing a yellow and dark red tunic, looks to her right, while next to her another woman in a white headcloth tied with a knotted string and wearing an off-white tunic with a pattern of hearts and stripes on the sleeve, looks upwards. To the left of the painting, behind the man reaching for the crown, are several onlooking figures. In the background, are tall columns with foliate detailing at the top in gold.

After the commissions for the Lord’s Chamber, the Fine Arts Commission turned their attention to the Upper Waiting Hall, often known as Poet’s Hall. 

Each wall painting in the hall is inspired by British poetry or literature.

John Rogers Herbert painted ‘King Lear Disinheriting Cordelia’. Taken from the opening of ‘King Lear’, the scene warns of a nation divided, but gestures outside London to regions across Britain and the Empire. 

King Lear Disinheriting Cordelia, John Rogers Herbert, Fresco Painting, 1850, WOA 2884

In this drawing a female figure is shown in side profile. We can see the left-hand side of her face and shoulder. Her eyes are looking downwards and look almost closed. Her mouth is closed and her lips are pursed, giving the impression that the female is unimpressed. Her face is shaded using white and black chalk or pencil. The female has a high forehead with curls brushed back over a headdress. A small crown sits high on her head. There is a tight ruff around her neck which her chin rests on. The rest of her clothing has been depicted in loose pencil lines without much detail. In the bottom left corner, the artist has signed the work with ‘AK Lawrence, 1927’.

More broadly across the Palace, Shakespearean references have been used to project ideals about nationhood. The paintings in St Stephen’s Hall, completed in 1927, are a series titled the ‘Building of Britain’.  

Alfred Kingsley Lawrence’s (1893-1975) ‘Queen Elizabeth Commissions Raleigh to Sail for America, 1584’ drew on the painter’s passion for Shakespearean stage acting. The painting and its preparatory sketch make visual allusion to dramatic postures and stage blocking. 

Study for Queen Elizabeth,  Alfred Kingsley Lawrence, Drawing, 1927, WOA 2770  

This painting shows two male figures and a female figure sat around a table, with a third male figure standing the background. The figure to the far left of the painting has his back to the viewer and is in shadow. He appears to have dark skin and a long brown beard. He wears a circular hat with voluminous fabric rim, and a tassel hanging from its lid. He wears silver armour with a red cloak. A gold sword hangs on his right hip. His right hand is on his knee, and his left hand is raised in the air, as if he is gesturing whilst talking. He is looking at an older white man who sits opposite him. This man has bushy long white hair and is wearing a heavy looking red embroidered coat with buttons down the middle. He looks directly at the man opposite him. Across the table from the two male figures is a young white woman who is sitting leaning with her elbows on the table. She is looking at the man in shadow and appears to be listening to him. She wears a veil on her head and an off the shoulder dress. Behind her stands a male attendant. He is a young adult man with long brown hair, and a red and black shirt with large sleeves. He also watches the man in shadow. The scene takes place at night-time, with a view of the sea visible in the background through a large arched window. To the right-hand side of the window is a tapestry room divider. In the foreground of the right hand side of the artwork there is an open book with a small pair of glasses resting on top. There is also a tall golden ewer style jug on top of a golden platter. To the left-hand side there is part of a columned archway. On the table is a small bowl of fruit. A golden chandelier hangs from the ceiling.

Shakespeare has also long been used to explore whom ‘the nation’ represents. In 1825, Ira Aldrige became the first black man to play Othello, and his likeness as a famous actor is captured in several of the period’s portraits.  

Charles West Cope produced his vision of the third scene of ‘Othello’ in 1868, which depicts Othello in the foreground and in shadow. He is telling his story, and of his love for Desdemona, to her father the Duke of Venice.

The Life’s Story Othello Act I Scene III,  Charles West Cope,  Oil Painting, 1868,  WOA 5396 

A white male adult figure stands within an interior setting, looking directly at the viewer with a neutral facial expression. He stands with his left hand on his hip and his right arm raised and bent at the elbow. He wears a black suit, with trousers, long dress jacket and waistcoat with a metal chain across it. He also wears a white collared shirt with a black cravat. He has dark hair, with a receding hairline and a curl on his forehead. He also has curly hair around his ears. To the left hand side of the picture is a table covered with papers, a feathered writing quill and a top hat. The room the figure is standing in has a wooden floor and a wooden panelled wall with notices stuck on it. Some papers are on the floor.

Shakespeare’s literary ‘greatness’ grew in the 19th century. His works became popular among working-class Chartist and suffrage movements. The Chartist newspaper, ‘The Northern Star’, made many Shakespearean allusions or quotations.  

Numerous Chartists, including Henry Vincent, were involved in the printing industry, which made Shakespeare more available to a growing readership. 

Henry Vincent, Chartist Agitator , by an unknown artist,  Monochrome mezzotint, unknown date, WOA 1753

This landscape shows a river winding into the distance with a small bridge crossing it in the background. Trees and fields intersect the landscape. In the foreground, to the right hand side is large and very green bushy tree with small trees underneath. To the right-hand side of the foreground are three figures, which appear small in comparison to the trees. They are so small the details of their faces are not depicted. The standing figure in a pink and white dress with a bonnet leans against a tree stump. Two seated figures rest on a fall tree trunk, one is dressed in yellow, the other in blue. The sky which takes up the upper half of the picture is blue and a few clouds are depicted to the right hand side. At the bottom of the print, text reads, ‘J Farington R Adel! Pub. June 1.1793 by J & J Boydell Shakespeare. View of Chertsey Bridge from Wooburn Farm. Gallery Pall Mall & Cheapside. J.C. Stadler fculp!’. The text is mostly in neat italic handwriting style, except the main title ‘Chertsey Bridge’ which is in decorative block capitals.

At the same time, 19th century illustrations aligned Shakespeare with not only British history but the British landscape itself. Publishers like John Boydell produced lavish views of the locations in his works, aligning Shakespeare with the fabric of the nation.  

Here, we get a glimpse of Chertsey Bridge, where Henry VI is brought for burial at the start of ‘Richard III’: ‘Come, now towards Chertsey with your holy load / Taken from Paul’s to be interred there’ (1.2.27-8).   

View of Chertsey Bridge from Woodburn Farm,   Joseph Farington (artist), Joseph Constantine Stadler (engraver), John Boydell (publisher) , Coloured aquatint, 1795,  WOA 5252    

This cartoon depicts a woman pleading in front of the king. Various other characters are watching her. The king appears as a large man in the upper right hand corner of the picture. He has a tight, white curly hair and sideburns. He has large rosy cheeks and looks off to the right. He wears a large blue and white soft hat, a white ruff and a gold chain hanging around his neck, with a white fur and red and blue coat. He has a large gold goblet in his right hand. He sits under a golden canopy with red curtains. Below him are two tables, both draped in blue cloth. One is high and the other is long and low. At the low table sit three male figures. The one nearest the king is an older white man wearing a black gown and white curled wig. He wears small glasses and is bent over the table writing with a feathered quill. On the floor next to him is a large green bag with a label on it that says ‘A Green Bag! Filled with Spite, Envy, Malice, Hatred and Lies.’ Sitting next to him and opposite him are two younger white male figures. They are both dressed in large rimmed red hats and long red coats with white shirt collars. The three seated men are all looking towards a female figure who is standing at the end of the table, looking towards the king. She is a young adult white woman with long brown curly hair and wearing a gold tiara. She wears a white and gold dress with a long red jacket. A speech bubble appears from her mouth with the following text: ‘Sir, I desire you do me right and justice, And to bestow your pity on me: for I am a most poor woman, and a stranger, Born out of your dominions; If, in the course and process, of this time, you can report, And perove [sic] it too, against mine honour aught, My bond to wedlock or my love and duty against your sacred person, in God’s name, Turn me away: and so give me up to the sharpest kind of justice.’ Standing behind the woman is an older man who is looking at her. He has short white hair and wears a high necked white shirt with a green and gold waistcoat, dark trousers and a long grey coat. Several other men, holding staffs watch the scene from the side-lines. Underneath the picture, in the centre is a title in bold which reads: KING HENRY VII and then in smaller text to the right ‘Act II, Scene IV’. Underneath the title is the subtitle ‘How to get un-married’ In the bottom left-hand corner is the text: ‘London Pubd by J. L. Marks 37 Princes Str Soho.’ In the bottom right-hand corner is the text: ‘Principle Characters, King of England by the ****, Queen of England by the Q****, Cardinal Wolsey L**d C*********h.

Shakespearean references have long provided a vocabulary for commentary on public and political life. The Parliamentary Art Collection holds many examples of prints and drawings that demonstrate how satirists and caricaturists appropriated Shakespeare’s well-known characters, scenes and plays to comment on key events of the day, with both the monarchy and the government as regular targets.    

The failed marriage of George IV was a particularly common topic for satirists. In this example, we see Queen Caroline taking on the role of Shakespeare’s Queen Katherine in ‘King Henry VIII’ pleading for pity now that ‘she is a stranger in a foreign kingdom’.    

King Henry VIII. Act II, Scene IV, the divorce of Queen Caroline,  by an unknown artist, J.L. Marks (publisher),  Coloured line engraving, about 1820,  WOA 5183   

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