Lot 5
  • 5

William Blake, 1757-1827

1,000,000 - 1,500,000 USD
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  • William Blake
  • The Good and Evil Angels Struggling for Possession of a Child
  • Inscribed on the verso of the support:   Purchased at Sotheby’s 28 April 1862./ Lot 182 “Allegorical Subject – A Man holding a Child with a chained demon issuing from a fiery abyss”/ by William Blake obit. 12 August 1828./ For a Biography of this Extraordinary Man see Cunninghams Lives of British Painters.  Abt. Blake -
  • Monotype, pen and black ink, watercolor, gouache and touches of graphite on paper

  • 17 1/4 by 23 1/16 in.
  • 43.8 by 58.5 cm


Mrs. Blake (gift from the artist)
Frederick Tatham (sold: Sotheby’s, London, April 29, 1862, lot 182)
Toovey (acquired at the above sale)
Henry Cunliffe (sold: Sotheby’s, London, May 11, 1895, lot 104)
Sabin (acquired at the above sale)
Mrs. Payne Whitney (acquired by 1919)
Mr. John Hay Whitney (by descent from the above)


New York, Grolier Club, 1919-20,  no. 53
Philadelphia, The Philadelphia Museum of Art, William Blake 1757-1827:  A Descriptive Catalogue of an Exhibition of the Works of William Blake Selected from Collections in the United States, 1939, no. 189
New Haven, Yale University Art Gallery, Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture collected by Yale Alumni, 1960, no. 177
London, Tate Gallery, The John Hay Whitney Collection, 1960-61, no. 4
London, Tate Gallery, William Blake, 1978, p. 65
Tokyo, The National Museum of Western Art, William Blake, 1990, p. 88



Elizabeth Luther Cary, The Art of William Blake, 1907, illustrated pl. 48
S. Foster Damon, William Blake, His Philosophy and Symbols, Boston, 1924, p. 327
Darrell Figgis, The Paintings of William Blake, London 1925, illustrated pl. 71
Boies Penrose, "William Blake," Art in America, New York, April 1939, illustrated p. 95
Kerrison Preston, ed., The Blake Collection of W. Graham Robertson, London ,1952, illustration no. 6
G. Wingfield Digby, Symbol and Image in William Blake, Oxford 1957, fig. 38, illustrated pp. 38-9
Anthony Blunt, The Art of William Blake, Oxford 1959, pp. 42, 61-2, illustration no. 32 a and b
David Bindman, Blake As an Artist, Oxford and New York, 1977, discussed pp. 69, 98-99
David Bindman, The Complete Graphic Works of William Blake, New York, 1978, illustrated no. 328 (Tate Version)
Robert N. Essick, William Blake Printmaker, Princeton, 1978, p. 143
Martin Butlin, The Paintings and Drawings of William Blake, vol. 1, New Haven and London 1981, no. 324, p. 175; vol. 2, illustrated pl. 405

Catalogue Note

The phrase eccentric genius would seem to have been coined specifically to describe William Blake.  His combination of literary and pictorial skills is unique not just to the English-speaking world, but to the world of art in its largest sense.  A man of humble origins, he was apprenticed to an engraver at the age of ten, and used the technical and practical skills learnt there as the basis of his art throughout his entire career.  By contrast, the subject matter of his works and indeed the means of depicting them derived primarily from his own internal forces.  Largely unappreciated at his death, he is now an extraordinarily popular figure.  The power of his personal imagery resonates with our agitated, modern sensibilities to reach the specialist and general audience alike.

The Good and Evil Angels Struggling for Possession of a Child is one of a group of twelve compositions known as the Large Color Prints datable to 1795-1805.  They show Blake at a period of remarkable productivity, in full control of his imaginative powers and technical skill.   The works are hand-colored monotypes, the largest and most successful works on paper that Blake had made to that date.  Historically the monotype is an oddity – the very name implies that it is printed from a matrix in only one example -- but creative artists, like Blake, Degas and Picasso reworked their monotypes by hand or printed a second or third impression from the matrix, further blurring the distinctions between print and drawing.  

As in the case of many of Blake’s works, scholars cannot agree on the exact technique used to produce them – whether the support for the original design was copper or millboard and what the ink was like – but all agree on the importance of the series in Blake’s oeuvre.  This is supported by Blake’s own view for he refers to them as “frescoes,” suggesting a comparison with Italian Renaissance painting.  

There are 32 different versions of the twelve subjects, though two remain untraced since the 19th century, and no more than four of any one composition.  The Good and Evil Angels Struggling for Possession of a Child is known in two versions, the present example and another in the Tate Britain, London.  It is generally accepted that the Whitney version was the first impression.  It is freer in handling, with none of the exaggerated musculature of the Tate.  Blake uses a thick medium on the matrix to create the major elements of the composition, then accentuates the outlines in pen and ink.  He revises and tones the figures with watercolor and gouache, allowing the smooth, opaque brush strokes to contrast with the somewhat low relief of the more translucent background.  There are also subtle compositional differences between the two versions, which reflect Blake’s continuous revision and recreation of the subject matter.  

The first appearance this remarkably personal conception of the conflict between body and soul is in plate 4 of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell of c.1790 (see fig. 1).  The basic elements of the composition are all there but in reverse and on a drastically reduced scale.  A few years later Blake revisits the theme in a watercolor The Good and Evil Angels, in the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery, Bedford (see fig. 2).  The main elements of the composition are essentially the same, though the work is much larger than The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.  The most significant change is the shift in the position of the child from the right side of the “Angel’s” body to the left.  He (or she) also seems less of a bundle tucked under the “Angel’s” arm, but a larger, more stable figure, capable of independent movement.  

The Whitney monotype takes this theme to another level.  The basic elements are the same, but the work is more finished and still larger in scale. There are, however, significant changes:  the “Angels’” heads are in three-quarter view rather than profile, -- which makes the figures more expressive and allows for greater differentiation between the two, -- and the composition is reversed.  The latter is, of course, the natural outgrowth of the printing process, but Blake exploits this for artistic and narrative purposes.  In the watercolor the two figures relate to one another much more statically.  By shifting Orc’s position so that he moves from left to right, Blake creates a more dynamic composition.  The figures are stronger and vigorous and the balance between them is uneasy.  The colors, too, are more vivid so that the characters seem more of flesh and blood. 

Monotypes by Blake are exceptionally rare.  Of the 30 Large Color Prints known today, eleven are in the Tate Britain, five are in other British museums, ten in American museums and one Newton (Butlin 307), is the property of an American religious institution. The remaining  three are currently in private hands but it is highly unlikely that any other than the present work will come onto the market. 

The appearance of such a rich and complex work as The Good and Evil Angels Struggling for the Possession of a Child is a unique opportunity for both scholars and specialists in the field.