The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

A ghost for Halloween

I’d like to say that I cleverly scheduled the installation of Benjamin Wilson’s William Powell as Hamlet encountering the Ghost for last Friday so that the Founders’ Room would have a ghost in time for Halloween. Unfortunately, there were witnesses around when I finally noticed the coincidence, and this blog is open to comments, so I’ll just have to let that one go. The important part is: there’s a new painting on display in the Founders’ Room. Come see it! Folger staff and readers can visit the Founders’ Room any time during normal working hours; visitors have access during the daily docent tours.

Benjamin Wilson, "William Powell as Hamlet Encountering the Ghost," oil on canvas, ca. 1768–69

Hamlet Encountering the Ghost takes the place of Catherine Trentham, Lady Stanhope, an early 17th-century portrait lent to the library by private collector H.E. Igoe in 2004. Lady Stanhope‘s return home provided an opportunity to feature Shakespeare more prominently in the room, and this large oil on canvas painting by Benjamin Wilson (1721–1788) was the obvious choice: both painting and frame had been cleaned and conserved in 2005, making the important piece exhibitable for the first time in years, but apart from the summer 2009 exhibition The Curatorial Eye, there hadn’t been an opportunity to display it.

Benjamin Wilson, a leading portrait painter in mid-18th-century England, pioneered the “theatrical conversation piece,” a specialized version of the popular “conversation piece” portrait. People in a conversation piece appear informally, in small scale, as if being observed from a distance in everyday life as they (for example) chat, drink tea, or walk around. In a theatrical conversation piece, the people portrayed are actors in character. When Mr. and Mrs. Folger purchased this painting in 1905, it was thought to be yet another portrait of eighteenth-century superstar David Garrick (1717–1779). In fact, it depicts William Powell (1735/6–1769), a now-forgotten star whose popularity at the time of the painting was on the verge of rivaling Garrick’s. Sadly, Powell’s promising career was cut short when he died of pneumonia in his early 30s.

In addition to his work as an artist, Benjamin Wilson was a scientist, one particularly known for his experiments in electricity. For this reason, I really hoped that conservation treatment to remove the painting’s grime and discolored repairs would reveal a bolt of lightning in the stormy sky, but no such luck. In any event, the conservation carried out by Page Conservation, Inc. (the painting) and Gold Leaf Studios (the frame) made a tremendous improvement (the Folger’s own conservators specialize in book and paper conservation). The most dramatic difference came from removing the discolored varnish, which changed the overall color cast from greenish-yellow to cold blue moonlight:Folger FPa88 "before" and "after" conservation photographsCleaning and conservation did nothing to change the painting’s natural darkness, of course. Hamlet meets his father’s ghost on the castle ramparts at night, and Wilson designed the scene so that an unseen moon provides the only light, which is reflected onto Hamlet’s face by the ghost’s armor. I particularly like the way this highlights William Powell’s use of a standard 18th-century pose representing “fear” — wide eyes and an outstretched hand, with fingers spread. The back-lit finger are a nice touch:

Detail, William Powell as Hamlet, by Benjamin Wilson
Detail of Folger FPa88, showing William Powell as "Hamlet"

Before Mr. and Mrs. Folger purchased it at Christie’s, the painting belonged to English actor-manager Sir Henry Irving (1838–1905), the greatest Hamlet of his day, manager of London’s Lyceum Theatre, and the first actor to be knighted. Irving’s success rested in large part on the work of his long-time business manager, a man who not only ran the daily business of the Lyceum and the company’s many tours, but who also introduced innovations such as numbered seating and advance reservations. Today, that business manager is best remembered for another achievement, a story he wrote with a main character who physically resembled Henry Irving. The business manager was Bram Stoker. The story was Dracula. Happy Halloween!

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