130
130
* William Blake
London 1757 - 1827
OBERON AND TITANIA ON A LILY
Estimate
400,000600,000
LOT SOLD. 520,000 USD
JUMP TO LOT
130
* William Blake
London 1757 - 1827
OBERON AND TITANIA ON A LILY
Estimate
400,000600,000
LOT SOLD. 520,000 USD
JUMP TO LOT

Details & Cataloguing

Old Master Drawings

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New York

* William Blake
London 1757 - 1827
LONDON 1757 - 1827
OBERON AND TITANIA ON A LILY

the upper part of a W visible lower right, perhaps a fragment of a signature


watercolor


211 by 162 mm; 8 5/16 by 6 3/8 in
Read Condition Report Read Condition Report

Provenance

William Russell, by 1857;
his sale, London, Christie's, 10-12 December 1884, lot 111 (£1/18/0 to Benson);
sale, London, Sotheby's, 27-29 April 1927, lot 174, illustrated (£155, to Bennett);
with P.& D. Colnaghi & Co., London, from whom purchased in 1929 by Philip Hofer;
thence by descent to the present owner

Exhibited

Manchester, Art Treasures, 1857, watercolor section 130;
Cambridge, Mass., Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University, Works of William Blake, 1930;
Philadelphia, Philadelphia Museum of Art, William Blake, 1757-1827.  A Descriptive Catalogue of the Works of William Blake Selected from Collections in the United States, 1939, no. 183;
Boston, Museum of Fine Arts, William Blake: Painter and Poet, 1957;
London, Arts Council, Shakespeare in Art, 1964, no. 34;
Hartford, Wadsworth Athenaeum; Hanover, N.H., Hopkins Center Art Galleries, Dartmouth College; and Boston, Museum of Fine Arts, One Hundred Master Drawings from New England Private Collections, 1973-74, no. 45, reproduced

Literature

W. M. Rossetti, 'Annotated Catalogue of Blake's Pictures and Drawings,' in Alexander Gilchrist, Life of William Blake, London 1863, vol. II, p. 237, no. 213; also enlarged edition, London 1880, vol. II, p. 251, no. 241;
E. Mills, The Life and Letters of Frederic Shields, 1912, p. 255;
W. Moelwyn Merchant, 'Blake's Shakespeare,' in Apollo, vol. LXXIX, 1964, p. 320, reproduced, plate 7 (reprinted in Robert N. Essick, ed., The Visionary Hand, Essays for the Study of William Blake's Art and Aesthetics, Los Angeles 1973, pp. 241-42, reproduced plate 67);
John E. Grant, 'Two Flowers in the Garden of Experience,'  in Alvin H. Rosenfeld, ed. William Blake: Essays for S. Foster Damon, 1969, pp. 358, 487-88, no. 33;
Suzanne R. Hoover, Pictures at the Exhibitions,' in Blake Newsletter, vol. VI, 1972-73, pp. 6-8; reproduced plate 1;
David Bindman, Blake as an Artist , London 1977, pp. 39-40, 84;
Morton D. Paley, William Blake, 1978, p. 34, reproduced plate 21;
Martin Butlin, The Paintings and Drawings of William Blake, New Haven and London, 1981, no. 245, reproduced plate 294;
E.W. Dörrbecker, ed., William Blake, The Continental Prophecies, vol. IV in Blake’s Illuminated Books, general editor David Bindman, London 1995, pp. 311-14;
Robin Hamlyn and Michael Phillips, William Blake, New York 2001, p. 278

UNPUBLISHED LETTERS INCLUDED WITH THE DRAWING:
Lawrence Binyon, 27 May 1927, addressee not mentioned;
G. F. Bentley, Jr., 13 September 1969, to Philip Hofer, and Idem, 8 October 1969, to Eleanor Garvey

Catalogue Note

This dense and richly colored work shows Oberon, the fairy king, sitting up awake on a lily blossom, while Titania is stretched out asleep on a neighboring flower.  The subject matter derives from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act II, scene 2.  Oberon, who is furious with his wife for refusing to relinquish her page, has just sprinkled her eyes with a potion that will cause her to fall in love with the first living creature she sees when she awakes. It is a fully finished composition, apparently intended to be appreciated in its own right, though Blake later used it as the basis for an illustration in The Song of Los, published in 1795.  In doing so he made certain changes to the composition, but Oberon and Titania is unique in Blake’s work, for there are no other watercolors that are so closely related to his illuminated books. 

The inspiration for Oberon and Titania on a Lily comes from several sources, the first obviously Shakespeare.  The story must have particularly interested Blake for although he did not make many illustrations to Shakespeare, he made two other watercolors based on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, both portraying the fairy king and queen.  The first, Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing, in the Tate, has been dated by Butlin to circa 1785 (Butlin, op. cit, vol. I, p. 61, no. 161, reprduced vol. II, pl. 182).  It is a fully colored, finished work with much of the sweetness of Oberon and Titania on a Lily.  However the composition in the Tate watercolor is a bit tighter and more formal and the principal figures shorter and more robust. The second, Oberon and Titania, Preceded by Puck, in the Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, D.C. (Butlin, vol. I, p. 126, no. 246, reproduced vol. II, pl. 295), is a later work, closer in style to our drawing, although less finished.  The figures of the king and queen are ethereal, their long elegant bodies almost hidden by heavy robes that curl up like mermaids’ tails, and they travel in darkness, surrounded by the same starry sky as in Oberon and Titania on a Lily.  Butlin has dated both to circa 1790-93, though other commentators have suggested an earlier date for our work (Robert Essick, an unpublished email, November 11, 2005 and perhaps Binyon (see 1927 letter below) ‘It was etched in relief as a full-page illustration to The “Song of Los” (1795) with certain alterations:  but actually I think this drawing is [considerably {crossed out}] several years earlier in date.’*) 

The direct source for the composition of Oberon and Titania on a Lily is a work by Blake’s younger brother Robert that appears in Blake’s Notebook.  Between around 1785 and 1809, William Blake kept a notebook in which he recorded his ideas for various compositions, as well as poems and discussions of artistic matters.  However the notebook was actually begun by his younger brother Robert and contains six pages of drawings by him, including Titania and Oberon Reclining on a Poppy (Butlin, op. cit., vol. I, p.86, no. 201 5(13), reproduced vol. II, pl. 232), datable to circa 1785-87.   The drawing, which is in pen and wash, is less finished than William Blake’s design and shows the fairies from above, apparently awake, lounging on a poppy.  Two lily blossoms dangle over their heads. Robert died of tuberculosis in 1787, at the age of 24, and Blake, who was devoted to him, was devastated.  But Robert continued as an inspiration to Blake for the rest of his life and it was characteristic that he used one of Robert’s drawings as the basis for his own composition.  In doing so he transforms it and fills it out, bringing it more into line with the text of the play where Oberon watches as Titania sleeps. 

Another transformation occurs when Blake turns the composition into a print.  It appears in reverse as plate 5 of The Song of Los.   The forms are larger, the figures heavier and more substantial and even the lily seems less attenuated than in the watercolor.  Oberon particularly has more weight and is in the throes of a stronger emotion, while in the drawing he is regal and detached.  The colors have also changed. In the watercolor Blake uses a saturated but relatively cool palette.  Greys and browns dominate, and even Oberon’s and Titania’s robes, red and yellow respectively, are subdued.  The coloring in all known impressions of the print is hotter and more violent.

The Song of Los is one of a group of three books, known as the Continental Prophecies, published between 1793 and 1795; it is known in only six copies.  While the interpretations of Blake’s works are legion, it is generally agreed that these works grew out of the agitated but intellectually active radical movement in England, which was greatly influenced by the French and American revolutions.  The first two volumes, America and Europe, represent the cataclysmic events that have passed, while The Song of Los stands for what is to come.  The protagonist, Los, is Blake’s alter ego, who struggles against the deadening affects of organized religion.  The book is divided into two sections, Africa and Asia, and separating them is Oberon and Titania

The imagery of the rest of the book is of anxiety and violence, while Oberon and Titania strikes a pensive note.  Even in the complicated world of Blake’s iconography, it is difficult to reconcile the presence of the fairy queen and king with the combative world of Los.  Various explanations have been offered, but perhaps, given its connection to Robert, who was always a force of goodness in Blake’s personal world, it is intended to represent a moment of hope or a harkening back to a better world. 

*Most scholars now believe that the image was printed planographically and was not etched in relief (see Robert Essick, William Blake, Printmaker, Princeton 1980, p. 128).

Old Master Drawings

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New York