This richly inked drawing was made by Daniel Maclise in 1837 showing the conclusion of Act II, scene II of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Maclise, a master illustrator, has carefully divided the sheet allowing the viewer to see Romeo take leave of Juliet still at her balcony and skulking behind a wall to the left Juliet’s Capulet cousin, Tybalt, dagger drawn preparing to challenge Romeo to a dual. Preserved in excellent condition, this highly worked sheet points to Maclise’s mastery as a designer, condensing multiple narrative elements into a single sheet of paper.
Daniel Maclise was born in Ireland and trained at the Cork Drawing Academy. In 1827 he travelled to London where he entered the Royal Academy Schools; he received a silver medal for a drawing after the antique in 1829 and began submitting works for the Academy’s annual exhibition. Through these regular exhibition works Maclise established himself as an ambitious history painter on a grand scale, at the same time Maclise worked as an illustrator supplying eighty-one drawings of eminent literary and political figures to Fraser’s Magazine. Maclise’s fluency as a draughtsman is amply captured in this masterful design. Whilst the present design seems never to have been engraved, it seems likely that Maclise was thinking of a book illustration rather than an exhibition work. The 1830s and 1840s were the great decades of illustrated books and Maclise was much in demand by publishers, he produced illustrations for Charles Dickens’ second and third Christmas Books.
By 1837 Romeo and Juliet was a popular subject. In 1830 Vincenzo Bellini’s opera I Capuleti e Montecchi was premiered, JMW Turner showed Juliet and her Nurse at the Royal Academy in 1836 and constant performances in London and Paris meant that a young Hector Berlioz wrote his ‘dramatic symphony’ on Romeo and Juliet in response to seeing the play in 1827. Maclise we know was an avid theatregoer and in 1835 had been introduced to the greatest Shakespearean actor of his generation William Charles Macready. Maclise’s relationship with Macready would eventually result in a series of innovative, dramatic theatrical portraits. The present drawing is more modest but shows how attentive Maclise was to Shakespeare’s play. The sheet does not show a continual narrative, the fight between Tybalt and Mercutio and the fatal duel between Tybalt and Romeo happens later in Act III, rather it captures Tybalt full of murderous intent, dagger in hand, searching for Romeo after the Capulet ball, Maclise shows his companion still in masquerade dress. Maclise has condensed into a single sheet, the pivotal relationships of the play – Romeo’s love for Juliet, her cousin Tybalt’s enmity for the Montague, Romeo. Maclise gives visual force to these competing emotions by boldly dividing the sheet, he leaves a line of reserved paper as a highlight at the centre of the composition, on the left he shows the entrance to a staircase shrouded in darkness, the figures of Tybalt and his companion modelled with rich hatched lines, whilst on the right the vignette of Romeo looking up at Juliet is bathed in the light of a bright full moon.