The Death of Cardinal Beaufort

WAG 1540


Fuseli drew this in Rome in 1772 and it was the first picture he exhibited at the Royal Academy. Fuseli had long held a fascination with the works of William Shakespeare (1564 - 1616), depicting many of his works. He often tried to convey the inner emotions of Shakespeare's characters and well as his own interpretations of the plays. This drawing illustrates 'Henry VI, Part II' and the death of Cardinal Beaufort in Act III, Scene 3. This was a popular passage in Fuseli's time, for its expression of tragedy, pity and fear. WAG 1540 was the first major work by Fuseli to be publically exhibited in England and of great importance both in the development of the artist's style and in the reception of Roman neoclassicism in Britain. It has an agitated, jerky, slightly classicist, mannerust style carried over from Shakespearean illustrations done in England. There is also a baroque style evident in the even lighting, subdued shadows, parallel arrangement of figures, the careful, flat composition and controlled pen strokes of Fuseli's style in the early 1770's. There are mannerist qualities to the drawing, but seems to be best placed as a transitional drawing between baroque and neoclassicsm. The importance of the drawing, particularly as an exhibited, finished frawing, lies in those elements which anticipate the style of the Romey-Blake-Fuseli-Flaxman circle 20 years later. This includes particular qualities in the expressionist vigour of the abstract, generalised style, the repeated forms of staring faces and of the supernatural. This is the first illustration of this subject outside of book illustrations, the scene was popular with contemporary English critics, especially for the depiction of fear and pity through the contrasting attitudes between the King and Cardinal. These qualities are emphasised by Fuseli's adoption of a generalised, indeterminate setting and costume, rather than the more detailed, descriptive reportage of his earlier Shakespearean drawings. Fuseli was close friends with William Roscoe (1753 - 1831), the Liverpool businessman, lawyer and abolitionist, once describing Roscoe as 'the man nearest my heart'. Fuseli visited Liverpool often, exhibiting works at the Liverpool Academy over several years. Many Liverpool collectors owned works by Fuseli, probably purchased at these exhibitions. Local artists, including the sculptor John Gibson (1790 - 1866), studied and were influenced by Fuseli's works. This is one of the artworks presented by the Liverpool Royal Institution. Liverpool’s economic development grew directly from Britain’s involvement with transatlantic slavery: the kidnapping, enslavement and forced migration of people from West Africa to the Americas and many to the Caribbean. Many members of the Royal Institution made their fortunes directly through the trade or indirectly through the wider economy. This wealth was largely how they were able to bring rare art and treasures, such as this, to the city.