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Sunday, 12 August 2018

John Hamilton Mortimer’s etching, “Richard II”, 1775




John Hamilton Mortimer (1740–1779)

“Richard II”, 1775, from the series, “Twelve Characters from Shakespeare” (1775–76), etched and published by John Hamilton Mortimer in London.

Etching on laid paper, trimmed around the image borderline and backed with a support sheet.
Size: (oval sheet trimmed at the image borderline) 34.4 x 28.3 cm

The text lettered on the plate but trimmed off in this impression is offered by the Metropolitan Museum of Art: (titled above the image borderline): "Richard II"; (below the image borderline) "For within the hollow crown, / That rounds the mortal temples of a King, / Keeps Death his court, & there the antick sits / Scoffing his State & grinning at his pomp, / Allowing him a breath, a little scene / To monarchize, be feard & kill with looks / Infusing him with self & vain conceit, / As if this flesh which walls about our life / Were brass impregnable & humoured thus / Comes at last & with a little pin / Bores thro' his castle walls & farewell King / Richard II. Act 3, Scene 2 / Published May 20, 1775 by J. Mortimer, Norfolk Street, Strand"

Sunderland 1986.96.2 (John Sunderland 1986, “John Hamilton Mortimer, His Life and Works”, The Walpole Society, vol. 52, cat. no. 96.2”)

The British Museum offers the following description of this print:
“The character from Shakespeare's 'Richard II', head and shoulders in an oval, directed to right with head turned to left, looking over right shoulder, eyes wide with fear, wearing crown surmounted by small figure of death; thin border at edge of plate.”

See also: Benedict Nicholson, 1968, “John Hamilton Mortimer ARA, 1740-1779”, exh. cat., Towner Art Gallery, Eastbourne, cat. no. 79 iv; Tim Clayton 1997, “The English Print 1688”–1802. Yale, p. 237; Marcia Allentuck 1993, "New John Hamilton Mortimer Drawings of Shakespearean Characters" Burlington Magazine. vol. 115, no. 845, August 1973, pp. 530 ff.

Condition: crisp, well-inked and well-printed impression trimmed around the image borderline (with loss of the lettered text beyond this borderline), backed with a support sheet of archival (millennium quality) washi paper. There is a small spot of darkening at the top of the sheet, otherwise it is in excellent condition (i.e. there are no tears, holes, folds, abrasions or foxing).

I am selling this exceptionally rare and highly sought after etching or AU$420 in total (currently US$306.82/EUR268.77/GBP240.23 at the time of posting this listing) including postage and handling to anywhere in the world.

If you are interested in purchasing this large and famous masterpiece showing the skeletal figure of Death wearing a feather crown about to dispatch the vain and arrogant Richard II with a pin, please contact me (oz_jim@printsandprinciples.com) and I will send you a PayPal invoice to make the payment easy.


I don’t imagine that many folk would have difficulty in reading this remarkable image as a comment on the folly of kingly power. After all, Richard II is shown with the tiny feather-crowned skeletal figure of Death lolling within Richard’s crown and about to dispatch him with a VERY long pin. Certainly, this image of Richard as a vain man—what the Met describes as “an arrogant potentate, gorgeously dressed in a turban and jewels” (https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/62.602.162/) —fits well with Mortimer’s aim for his series of twelve Shakespearean characters (in which this etching features) as proposed by Constance C. McPhee (2016):  to “explore a subtle range of tragic emotions and use quotes from the plays to point out the instability of royal power and social position.” (http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/shaa/hd_shaa.htm)


Regarding Mortimer’s motivation to explore “tragic emotions”, the following passage is inscribed below the image borderline (sadly trimmed off in this impression):

"For within the hollow crown,
That rounds the mortal temples of a King,
Keeps Death his court, & there the antick sits
Scoffing his State & grinning at his pomp,
Allowing him a breath, a little scene
To monarchize, be feard & kill with looks
Infusing him with self & vain conceit,
As if this flesh which walls about our life
Were brass impregnable & humoured thus
Comes at last & with a little pin
Bores thro' his castle walls & farewell King."
(Richard II, act 3, scene 2)









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