Solomon Hart painted ‘Othello & Iago’ in oil on canvas in 1855 and it was exhibited at the Royal Academy the same year. (copy of insert in RA 1855 Exhibition catalogue in research pack).
The painting depicts a scene from Shakespeare’s Othello (listed as Act IV scene iii on the RA reference to the painting)*. In this famous scene Iago plants the seed in Othello’s mind that Michael Cassio was not to be trusted around his wife Desdemona. It was all part of Iago’s plot to have Cassio killed leading to the ultimate destruction of Othello, who Iago hated. The plot was laid.
The painting was so well received that it was also chosen to be exhibited at the prestigious International Exhibition also known as the Great London Exposition (World Fair) held in London on the Cromwell Road on the land which later was used to build the Natural History and Science museums beside the Victoria & Albert Museum. Over 6 million people attended the Fair between 1st May – 1st November 1862. The population of the UK in 1862 was circa 28 million.
Hart produced a smaller study in oil prior to producing the near life size original (The Papillon Gallery painting for sale) and also produced a watercolour version in 1857 which he gave to William Smith (1808-1876), one of London’s premier watercolour and print collectors and an officer of several artistic institutions as well as a major donor to the British Museum and adviser to the RA.
The oil study canvas is 39 x 33cm and is signed and dated 1855.
The only difference between the watercolour and two oils versions is that there is no Desdemona, Cassio and Emilia in the background of the watercolour version.
William Smith also took the painting to the Commissioners for the International Exhibition of 1862 and they wanted to exhibit it at their forthcoming World Trade Fair.
Solomon Hart wrote to William Smith on 31/3/1862 (original letter held now by RA library) regarding the watercolour ‘Othello & Iago’ stating that ‘it gratifies me very much that the Commissioners of the International Exhibition decide to place it on their walls for the oncoming art gathering, for I myself, think it is the best watercolour drawing I have ever done’.
So in May 1862 the incredible situation occurred where an oil and watercolour version of the same Shakespeare scene appeared at the same time painted by the same highly renowned and regarded artist at an international World Fair!. A copy of the Sale catalogue highlighting both painting entries is on the research file. Solomon Hart would have been extremely proud of such an achievement, particularly as he became the RA librarian in 1864!
William Smith died in 1876 and bequeathed his watercolour version to the Victoria & Albert Museum, London (pictures of the painting with me at the V&A Research library on file). It was exciting to see the original in the flesh.
Solomon Hart died in 1881 at the age of seventy-five.
The sale of his remaining works was undertaken at a special auction held by Christies (Messrs. Christie, Manson & Woods) at their Great Rooms, 8 King Street, St James Square (where they are still based) between 29 - 30/7/1881.
It was also exciting to find that the oil version of ‘Othello & Iago’ was highlighted as the most significant work on the front page of the sale catalogue (copy attached), together with ‘Dinner Time at Penshurst, 1655 and ‘The Submission of the Emperor Barbarossa to Pope Alexander III.
‘Othello & Iago’ was sold to a buyer called ‘Grindlay’ at the auction for the pricely sum of 35 guineas three shillings and sixpence (equivalent to £4,283 today).
It is believed that the Study painting was inherited together with many other drawings to Harts cousin who lived in Baltimore, America where it stayed in private hands for 134 years.
It came to auction in America in 2015 later. When purchased the frame was showing signs of damage and was listed as being called ‘The Plot’. The Plot was a reference to the famous Shakespeare scene. The frame was further damaged after a trip to Kestenbaum’s in New York and a suitable frame of the era was used. The original frame has been retained for restoration if required but as the work was part of the inheritance it probably was not framed when travelling to America.
The painting, with history unknown at that stage, was valued at Christies in London as £3-£5,000.
Following extensive research at the National Art Library at the V&A, the Royal Academy and internet the true history and story of this remarkeable painting , the study and its sister watercolour version truly came to light in the most exciting way! The only piece of this entriguing puzzle remaining is to find the whereabouts of the original large oil version. ‘Grindlay’ is the key!
It is a lovely piece of history and great to uncover such a delightful painting!
*The actual scene is Act iii scene iii from Othello at the garden of the castle, not Act IV scene iii.