Shakespeare in Art

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Hello I am Tom de Freston the Leverhulme Artist in Residence at Cambridge University. I would like to tell you more about my work representing Shakespeare in Art.

The Blinding, Oil on Canvas, 2011

In 2010 I was commissioned to make a new body of paintings in response to the plays of Shakespeare. The paintings will be unveiled at the Cambridge Shakespeare Conference in September 2011. The exhibition of works will also include a new body of poems written by Kiran Millwood Hargrave. The two set of works have evolved alongside each other through a close working relationship. A catalogue of the paintings and poems will accompany the show and can be purchased upon request.

The primary concern in my work is the question of whether Tragedy can exist in painting. As such Shakespeare is an ideal source of inspiration.

A number of paintings have been inspired by King Lear. ‘End Seen’ depicts the moment when Cordelia’s body is brought on stage to accompany her dead sisters.

Endscene, Oil on Canvas, 2011

The geometric symmetry of the architecture is exaggerated by the mirrored poses and faces of the witness figures and the sense that Goneril and Regan are clones of each other, both fitted out with mutated Marilyn Monroe masks. The rigid nature of this setting is challenged by the intrusion of a thunderous weather condition. The battle between the safe, rigid architectural interior and the unruly natural force is analogous to the central ideological struggle in Lear between artificially constructed order and the chaos of nature.

In ‘Lear and the Fool’ two figures appear in a storm reminiscent of romantic imagery.

Lear and the Fool, 2011

For all the Fool’s caricatured sillyness it is Lear who seems most ludicrous, stripped down to just his socks. Elsewhere the particularly Shakespeare delight in the spectacle of punishment is explored through the character of Gloucester. In ‘The Blinding of G’ (The top picture on this page) the scene is as much King Lear as it is internet beheadings and Guantanamo Bay. In ‘The Waterboarding’ the torture is extended, with the sense that the canvas as much as the figure is subjected of an enforced and artificial drowning.

Waterboarding, 2011. Oil on canvas

In ‘Bathroom’ the painting gives a nod to both J. L. David’s ‘Death of Marat’ and Francis Bacon’s ‘Death of George Dyer’.

Bathroom, oil on canvas, 2011

The central subject though is Macbeth, who watches a double of himself in the bath, the vision a product of his murder of sleep. Elsewhere Macbeth and Lady Macbeth appear in a bathroom which seems to sit uncomfortable on top of a surface more akin to the internal workings of a cadaver.

‘A Midsummer’s Night Dream’ attempts to capture the sense of mystery and absurdity in the forest.

MSND Oil on Canvas 2011

Outside of the above Hamlet, Othello and King Richard III are tackled in pictorial form. But the scene which I have kept going back to is Gloucester’s jump from the cliff at Dover. A number of paintings have looked to captured the discrepancy between what Gloucester thinks is happening and where he thinks he is, and what is actually happening and where he actually is. As such I ended up staging the scene inside on a set of stairs, look to push the discrepancy further. At the end I don’t know if ‘Blasted’ has anything to do with Gloucester anymore.

Blasted, oil on canvas, 2011

It is closer to a snap shot from a film by Alfred Hitchcock or David Lynch. And perhaps this is the key. I had no desire to take make illustrations of Shakespeare, for the image to be subservient to the text. I wanted to use Shakespeare as a loaded literary start point for autonomous visual ends.

To see more of Tom’s work go to

About Tom: Tom de Freston is the Leverhulme Artist in Residence at Cambridge University, making works in response to Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’. He is also the Artist in Residence at the Leys School. Tom has previously held the Levy Plumb Residency at Christ’s College, Cambridge and has held lecturing positions at Cambridge University and Warwickshire College.

On Easter Sunday 2011 Tom’s two altarpiece paintings were unveiled at Christ’s College Chapel, the first such commission in it’s 500 year history. The monograph to accompany the occasion included essays on Tom’s work by Sir Nicholas Serota and the Hon. Rowan Williams, amongst others. This was the third monograph on Tom’s work.

Tom has exhibited widely and his next solo show will be with HRL contemporary in September and October 2011 at Frameless Gallery in London.



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Author:Liz Dollimore

Someone who loves listening to people talk about Shakespeare Liz tweets at @shakespeareBT

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