Andrew Lambirth

England’s national saint

Andrew Lambirth on a splendid exhibition which shows the work of artists inspired by Shakespeare

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Shakespeare is all things to all people. The greatest writer we have, he was subtle to the extent of ambivalence. As a man he was sexually fluid, politically ambidextrous and not prepared to commit himself on anything, least of all religion. It's sometimes said that the son of a provincial glove-maker could not have had sufficient knowledge or experience to write the plays and poems he is credited with. These people perhaps forget the quality of imagination. Shakespeare is imagination and he was naturally a master of disguises. Those who say his plays were written by Sir Francis Bacon may be forgiven: they weren't, because Bacon didn't have the imagination. (Though I wouldn't be surprised to discover that Shakespeare on occasion pretended to be Bacon.) He, after all, died of a chill contracted whilst trying to freeze chickens. The Bard on the other hand retired – and, let's face it, it takes a special kind of artist to retire without endless comebacks – and died (relatively) peacefully in his best bed in Stratford.

So there's plenty of room for 'interpretation' when it comes to artists illustrating Shakespeare. And the exhibition Shakespeare in Art currently at Dulwich (until 19 October) offers a splendid array of the painters who have been inspired, or perplexed, by the enigma of the man and the work. Organised in association with Ferrara Arte in Italy, and lavishly sponsored by Baring Asset Management (the catalogue is a distinguished hardback in its own right, published by Merrell at £29.95), the featured artists range from Blake to Holman Hunt, by way of Gustave Moreau and Delacroix. We see stage designs and portraits of famous actors in character, scenes of bloodshed, dream and passion, and crowd-pleasers of the most melodramatic sort. In effect, a most exhilarating and enjoyable show.

To a student of body language the exhibition must prove a godsend: all those outflung arms, uncomfortable stances and postures perilous. Henry Fuseli (1741-1825), the Swiss romantic neo-classicist, comes quite into his own. 'Lady Macbeth Seizing the Daggers' is all fine frenzy and rolling eyes, and if this image is too intense for your taste, look to the wonderful Fuseli from the Kunsthaus in Zurich of Titania embracing Bottom, a typically idiosyncratic mixture of the heroic and the erotic. There are five watercolours of various scenes of fairies, dreams and ghosts, and a portrait of the Bard himself all by Fuseli's friend Blake, and a beguiling painting of the shadowy tomb of Romeo and Juliet by Joseph Wright of Derby. There are fine drawings by Romney and Alexander Runciman. 'Mad' Martin is always worth looking at – how did he come by such phosphorescent effects?

As the visitor traverses the galleries – and possibly the best way to see an exhibition of this sort is to wander back and forth, studying the pictures randomly as they catch the eye – history parades before us. The period covered by the exhibition is roughly 1730 to 1860, when the British – and their artists – were just beginning to appreciate Shakespeare after something of a lull. The word 'bardolatry' was invented some time later by George Bernard Shaw, but here is evidence of serious enthusiasm, of, in effect, a cult, which is strong meat to our more indifferent and less colourful age. As Jane Martineau writes in the catalogue: 'Garrick's Jubilee celebrations at Stratford-upon-Avon in 1769 elevated Shakespeare to the status of England's national saint', and this, revealingly, was the apotheosis of a man we don't even have a reliable portrait of.

Some of the best images are reserved for the last room, which showcases a weird and wonderful Turner from the Tate called 'Queen Mab's Cave'. As ever with Turner, the figures are poorly drawn (though with fairies he might be granted a certain licence), but this hardly seems to matter when the great glory of the picture is the wonderfully textured paintwork and the sumptuously subtle light effects. Turner manages to transmute what could have been mud in the hands of a lesser artist into supreme magic. So much the stranger that the alarmingly dreadful painting of Puck fleeing the dawn by David Scott (1806-1849) should be hung next to it. It is hideous and schmaltzy, and the head is unconvincingly attached to the winsome body. Yet turn your back to it and there are some fine Pre-Raphaelite pictures to be seen. For exactitude of intricate decoration it's hard to beat these neo-mediaevalists. Here we have Holman Hunt's 'Valentine Rescuing Silvia from Proteus', Millais's brilliant 'Ferdinand Lured by Ariel', Dyce's highly detailed landscape setting for 'Henry VI at Towton', and Maclise's 'Scene from Twelfth Night', with Malvolio at the height of thespian inanity. All good, clean fun.

Meanwhile in the Linbury Room (until 14 September) is an exhibition of drawings and paintings by Humphrey Ocean (born 1951) who was the gallery's artist-in-residence for 2002. The show is called How's my driving and focuses on the 'underdocumented hinterlands' of SW8, SW9, SE5, SE22 and SE23. Ocean is a man of strange humours who paints with a fragmented realism which sometimes approaches the highly detailed. He draws in brisk meticulous outline, and paints glamorously with refreshing conviction. He takes inspiration from Dulwich's famous collection, drawing from Teniers and painting portraits of his two daughters whilst keeping one eye on Gainsborough's 'Linley Sisters'. South London never had it so good.