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William Blake
London 1757 - 1827
INSCRIBED TITLE-PAGE DESIGN FOR 'THE GRAVE' (THE SKELETON RE-ANIMATED)
Estimate
180,000260,000
LOT SOLD. 744,000 USD
JUMP TO LOT
1
William Blake
London 1757 - 1827
INSCRIBED TITLE-PAGE DESIGN FOR 'THE GRAVE' (THE SKELETON RE-ANIMATED)
Estimate
180,000260,000
LOT SOLD. 744,000 USD
JUMP TO LOT

Details & Cataloguing

William Blake
London 1757 - 1827
LONDON 1757 - 1827
INSCRIBED TITLE-PAGE DESIGN FOR 'THE GRAVE' (THE SKELETON RE-ANIMATED)
inscribed in pen and grayish black ink:  The Grave/ a Poem/ By Robert Blair/ Illustrated with 12 Engravings/ by Louis Schiavonetti/ From the Original Inventions/ of/ William Blake/ 1806.
pen and gray and black inks and watercolor over traces of pencil
332 by 266 mm.; 13 1/8 by 10 1/2 in.
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Provenance

Mrs. Robert Cromek;
Thomas Sivright, Edinburgh;
his sale, Edinburgh, C.B. Tait, February 1, 1836, and sixteen following lawful days, lot 1835, ‘Volume of Drawings by Blake, Illustrative of Blair’s Grave, entitled “Black Spirits and White, Blue Spirits and Grey”,’ for £1-5s-0d, possibly to John Stannard (1794-1882);
Henry Lawrence Stannard (1934-2001);
given to a relative in 1987;
Caladonia Books, Glasgow, 2001;
purchased  from the above, Fine Books, Ikley and Bates & Hindmarsh, Leeds, by the present owner, December 2002. 

 

Catalogue Note

For Blake one of the central themes of The Grave was the resurrection and liberation of the dead, and he chose this for his title-page.  In the poem Blair refers to the awakening of the dead in two separate passages:

But know that thou must render up the dead,
And with high interest too!  …
When loud diffussive sound from brazen trump
Of strong-lung’d cherub shall alarm thy captives,
And rouse the long, long sleepers into life,
Day-Light, and
Liberty. ------------ (p.28)

When the dread trumpet sounds, the slumb’ring dust,
Not unattentive to the call, shall wake;
And every joint possess it’s proper place,
With a new elegance of form, unknown
To it’s first state.
  (p. 32)

Here a surprisingly wingless angel, blowing a long, straight horn, rushes down toward a skeleton who has just pulled his shroud off and is beginning to rise.  Behind the latter is what appears to be a stone bench, no doubt part of his tomb, and around him are flames and billowing clouds of smoke.  The beautiful, muscular angel contrasts starkly with the boney creature who is bracing himself on his elbow and drawing up his legs, not yet possessing ‘a new elegance of form’ or purified by the surrounding fires. 

The trumpeter calling the dead to life is a theme that appears in Blake’s writing and designs over a period of many years.  In ‘A Vision of the Last Judgment’ he writes ‘The Graves beneath are opened & the dead awake & obey the call of the Trumpet…A Skeleton begins to Animate starting into life at the Trumpets sound’ (Erdman, p. 548). Blake first combined the visual image of the trumpeter and the awakening skeleton in an illustration for Young’s Night Thoughts, published in 1799.  In Night the Second, Page 5 (fig. 10) the general aspects of the composition are similar to The Title-page, but the trumpeting angel is awkwardly positioned; his face is invisible and his right knee juts out toward the viewer, obscuring part of his torso.

Blake revised the design for the title-page of The Four Zoas (Butlin 337 1, pl. 430), a manuscript he never published, dateable to c.1797.  There he draws the angel from the back, but in essentially the same pose as in Night Thoughts.  The link to the more graceful composition of The Title-page is a drawing in the Yale Center for British Art, An Angel with a Trumpet (fig. 11).  Here we see the fully refined figure, the body gracefully arced and the legs extended, the head in profile so the delicate features are visible.  The only real difference is that the angel in the Yale drawing faces in the same direction as his arched legs, while in the present work Blake once again revises the composition so that the figure turns his chin away from the curve, achieving a perfect balance of dynamism and elegance.  This graceful form and careful depiction of the musculature show Blake at his most classical and reveal his debt to sixteenth century Italian prints.  

The inscription, which cites Schiavonetti as the engraver and is dated 1806, suggests that this design was made after most of the others had been finished, for as late as November 1805, Cromek had wanted Blake himself to engrave the images.  However, it is also possible that Blake made the composition earlier and added the inscription only at a later date. In November 1805 Cromek’s first prospectus for the publication lists ‘A Characteristic Frontispiece’ among the completed designs.  That description, however, is so general that it could apply to other known works as well, including The Resurrection of the Dead in the British Museum (fig. 7) or A Spirit Rising from the Tomb in the Huntington Library (fig. 8).   The inscription on the title-page, whenever it was added, is in Blake's own hand, and it must have been devastating for him to acknowledge Schiavonetti as the engraver for the project.

We are extremely grateful to Robert N. Essick for his assistance in cataloguing this and the following eighteen lots.

William Blake

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