In this watercolor, Blake depicts a joyous family reunion. The parents are embracing, as are two pairs of siblings, while a young son flanks them to the right, his hands raised in a gesture of triumphant joy. The engraving of this subject appears opposite page 9 in The Grave, but unlike most of the other illustrations, it does not carry any reference to specific lines of the poem. The text does not describe this specific event, but commentators have suggested that this composition was inspired by a few lines in Blair’s description of the reunion of body and soul after the Last Judgment:
...Nor shall the conscious soul
Mistake it's partner; but, amidst the crowd
Singling it's other half, into it's arms
Shall rush, with all th’Impatience of a man
That’s new-come home… (p. 32)
Blake captures this sense of almost overwhelming happiness in the gestures of the parents and children alike. The adults hold each other tightly and the husband's hand rests on his wife’s buttocks, clasping the folds of her dress, a gesture with more of the physical than the heavenly about it. This combination of the physical and sexual with the heavenly, to which Blair's text refers, is emphasized by Blake. He even repeats the embracing couple among the figures of the saved in various depictions of the Last Judgment. In A Family in Heaven he makes his views evident by the presence of the angels, who hover above the family, their hands joined in a prayerful gesture, the tips of their long wings touching, the line of their bodies mimicking a gothic arch.
A similar pair of angels appear in Christ in the Sepulchre, Guarded by Angels (fig. 5), one of the illustrations to the Bible that Blake made for Thomas Butts and now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. In the London drawing, the angels are tilted further forward, their gesture more specifically prayerful as the protectors of the body of the not-yet-risen Christ. In A Family in Heaven the mood is joyous, the moment having shifted from death to resurrection, but the two drawings are clearly related in terms of their larger themes as well as this important motif. In Christ in the Sepulchre, the angels’ architectural function is even clearer, since the subject is a tomb. Whether the angels are recollections of Blake’s early studies at Westminster Abbey (see lot 13) is an interesting question.1
A pencil sketch in the British Museum (Butlin 623, pl. 866) has been suggested as a preliminary design for this illustration, but if so, it is far removed from the finished work. The composition is horizontal, with the embracing parents on their knees and their two children, also embracing, interposed between them. The Meeting of a Family in Heaven is both more physical and more heavenly.
1 See Butlin, vol. I, p. 362, cat. no. 500 and Joseph Burke, ‘The Eidetic and the Borrowed Image: An Interpretation of Blake’s Theory and Practice of Art,’ in The Visionary Hand. Essays for the Study of Willam Blake’s Art and Aesthetics, Robert N. Essick, ed., Los Angeles 1973, pp.274-77.
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