Francis Hayman may not now be ranked among the "greats" of 18th-century English art - alongside Gainsborough, Hogarth, and Reynolds - but he was highly regarded in his day. He has not, however, completely vanished. A major exhibition was devoted to him in 1987, for example, in London and New Haven, Conn.
Hayman was a versatile artist. He painted single portraits and the popular family-group portraits known as "conversation pieces." He was a prolific and original book illustrator. He was chiefly known by his contemporaries, though, as a "history painter," with a particular bent for literary and theatrical themes.
His connections with the theater started early in his career, when he was a scene painter at London's Drury Lane Theatre. His acquaintance with David Garrick, the outstanding actor-manager of the period, stemmed from that time and became a lifelong friendship.
One theory has it that a certain "gentleman" named "Hayman," who appeared in minor roles in London productions over three seasons in the mid-1740s, was the painter himself. If so, this suggests a certain fluidity between the amateur and professional realms. After appearing in "As You Like It" in 1746, Hayman the actor disappeared, while Hayman the artist went on painting.
This small oil sketch, "The Play Scene From Hamlet," is a preparatory work for a large painting now known only by its description in a guidebook. The large painting was one of more than 50 pictures Hayman painted to decorate Vauxhall Gardens, a highly fashionable nightspot. It was one of four illustrating Shakespeare, placed in no less a setting than the Prince of Wales's Pavilion. What the prince may have learned about royal behavior from this particular picture can only be guessed at. Few of Hayman's Vauxhall paintings survive. Those that do are damaged by exposure to weather, the public, and incompetent retouching.
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