Bentley 2001, pp. 482-83, note 58;
Butlin 2002, p. 72-73 and reproduced p. 73.
1 Butlin 2002, p. 73.
2 See also Butlin 2002, p. 72.
The discovery of this watercolor alone would have been an important event, much less finding it with its eighteen companions. Blake has described a huge winged female seated at the entrance to a cavern on a pedestal or altar flanked by flames. Huddled down behind her are two robed female figures, their heads bent over their knees and their faces hidden by their hair. They are seated at the foot of a staircase or ramp leading deeper into the cave, but the huge figure blocks our view of what is beyond. As the setting, the figure's attributes and the inscription on the mount make clear, she represents the Grave. She holds two bunches of poppies in her outstretched hands, flowers symbolic of sleep and, by extension, death. Her wings are those of a moth, a creature of the night. The patterning is suggestive of the Emperor moth, which have a similar eye-shaped design and rounded compartments, but Blake carries the design well beyond what one would see in nature. The hunched figures flanking the pedestal in their heavy robes, continue the theme of sleep and death.
It has been suggested that The Grave Personified was the 'characteristic frontispiece' mentioned in Cromek's first prospectus for the publication.1 Its horizontal format, however, may indicate otherwise.
The Grave Personified has a companion piece of roughly the same dimensions, A Destroying Deity: A Winged Figure Grasping Thunderbolts, in the Philadelphia Museum of Art (fig. 12).2 In the latter, Blake depicts an equally large male figure seated on a similar pedestal at the entrance to a cavern, though the space is more difficult to read. There are no figures beside the altar, as in The Grave Personified, but some can be seen roughly indicated in the middle distance. The imposing figure with his bat wings and lightening bolts, replacing the moth wings and poppies, is probably the personification of death itself. In Death Pursuing the Soul Through the Avenues of Life (fig. 9), a design mentioned in Cromek's first prospectus for the publication, but in the end never engraved, Blake portrays Death in a similar fashion. He is a powerful bearded figure with the same bat wings and carries a flaming torch rather than lightening bolts. Both The Grave Personified and A Destroying Deity are clearly related to A Second Alternative Design for a Title-Page to Blair’s Grave in the Huntington Library and Art Gallery, San Marino (fig. 8), which shows a pedestal flanked by two female figures, one with bat wings and the other with moth wings.
The inscription Not on the verso of the mount is found on three other drawings from this group (lots 12, 17 and 19). It may have been added in Cromek's shop and signaled that the design was not to be engraved; or it may be from the hand of a later owner indicating that the design was not engraved. The rough sketch on the back is equally puzzling, for it describes a figure in a posture similar to the representation of the Grave, as well as many other figures that populate Blake's art.
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