Executed in an almost monochromatic range of grays and greens, Blake successfully captures the absolute stillness of the tomb. The watercolor speaks generally of the concept of death as the great leveller and although it does not illustrate a specific verse from the poem, in the finalised publication, Cromek positioned the engraved version of the image opposite the following lines:
When self-esteem, or other’s adulation, Would cunningly persuade us we were something Above the common level of our kind, The Grave gainsays the smooth-complexion’d flatt'ry, And with blunt truth acquaints us what we are.
The watercolor is closely related to a pen and wash drawing that Blake made as a young man in the early 1780s (fig. 1).1 However, whereas in that work, the figures are clearly corpses lying on a battlefield, here, they are firmly enclosed within a tomb and take the form of medieval sculpture. Even the knight’s crossed legs suggest limbs modelled in stone rather than flesh. The figures are rigidly aligned, holding their identifying attributes – the counsellor’s scroll, the king’s sceptre, the knight’s sword and the mother's child. The only real deviance from this hieratic approach is the mother, who is slightly off line, her head tilted to the child, and her features not quite so stony as the others.
The inspiration for this approach to the subject dates to Blake’s early days as an apprentice to James Basire, the engraver. Basire sent him to Westminster Abbey to copy the tombs and other carvings, and Blake apparently spent many happy months making drawings. Some were later engraved and used in Richard Gough’s Sepulchral Monuments in Great Britain of 1786. That Blake drew upon these images some twenty years later is not surprising given the subject he was illustrating and the fact that he seems never to have forgotten a motif.
1. M. Butlin, The Paintings and Drawings of William Blake, London 1981, pp. 51-55, no. 136
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