Much confusion remains over the exact number of designs Blake created for Cromek's project, but current scholarship suggests that he completed twenty-two or twenty-three watercolors, of which twelve were then engraved by Louis Schiavonetti. The Grave was finally published in July 1808 and had more than 500 advance subscribers, including many of the most prominent artists of the day.
The Gambols of Ghosts is one of the freest and most dynamic compositions from the entire group and was singled out by John Flaxman in a letter discussing the commission.1 The design, which was never engraved for publication, illustrates an early passage of the poem in which Blair evokes images of the graveyard:
Well do I know thee by thy trusty yew,
Cheerless, unsocial plant! That loves to dwell
'Midst sculls and coffins, epitaphs and worms,
Where light-heel'd ghosts and visionary shades,
Beneath the wan cold moon (as fame reports)
Embodied thick, perform their mystic rounds.
The composition is suitably frenetic and complicated to embody the movements of 'light-heel'd ghosts' and goes far beyond Blair's brief description. Blake creates two moving circles of figures perpendicular to each other - one, which goes around the tree, is made up of dancing or running ghosts, the other, which starts at the ground and circles up and over the tree, begins with ghosts emerging from the ground and ends with one flying through the church door. Cutting through the second circle is a procession of saved souls slowly entering the church. The effect is of constant movement and turmoil that makes it difficult to distinguish the saved and damned at first glance.
Blake's palette adds to the eeriness of the scene. The overall color scheme is gray and blue with only a few touches of red, as on the angry figure of the male ghost emerging from the ground at the left. Even 'the wan cold moon' is gray with only the slightest touch of yellow, and the highlights on the figures are truly ghostly.
There is a preparatory drawing for the design in the Yale Center for British Art, New Haven and a further, less finished drawing, in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, which may shed some light on Blake’s imagery.2 The Washington drawing is described as A Resurrection Scene, but the dominant compositional element is an arc of figures rising into the sky, which gives much the same feeling as the present watercolor. Specific motifs like the church, the moon and the ghosts emerging from the ground are also repeated. It seems possible that The Gambols of Ghosts is itself a kind of resurrection but without a judging Christ or any of the associated hierarchical elements – a concept that surely would have appealed to Blake.
1. Flaxman wrote to William Hayley, a patron and friend of Blake, on 18 October 1805 discussing Cromek's original commission. See G.E. Bentley, Blake Records, second edition, New Haven and London 2004, p. 206.
2. M. Butlin, The Paintings and Drawings of William Blake, New Haven and London 1981, pp. 464-464, no. 636, reproduced pl. 863 and p. 450, no. 600, reproduced pl. 840.
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