Lot 285
  • 285

William Blake

400,000 - 600,000 USD
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  • William Blake
  • The Gambols of Ghosts according with their Affections previous to the Final Judgement
  • Pen and black and gray inks and watercolor over traces of pencil, on the original wash-line mount;
    traces of pencil inscription on the mount below, largely erased, the last two words may read variously D..l... or virtuously D..l.. and inscribed on the verso on the mount upper left: Not 


Robert Cromek;
By inheritance to his widow;
Thomas Sivright,
his sale, Edinburgh, C.B. Tait, 10 February 1836, lot 1835 (part of lot);
possibly John Stannard (1795-1881);
by family descent until with Caladonia Books, Glasgow, by 2001;
sale, New York, Sotheby's, 2 May 2006, lot 12


G.E. Bentley, Blake Records, New Haven and London, 2001, pp. 482-83, note 58; 
M. Butlin, 'Newly Risen from the Grave: Nineteen Unknown Watercolors by William Blake', Blake, An Illustrated Quarterly, vol. 35, no. 3, Winter 2002, p. 71 and reproduced p. 69


Support The wove paper that supports this watercolour is fully laid down on to a thin card mount, which may be contemporary with the artist. The primary support is partially detached on the upper and lower left corners from the mount. There are no damages and the paper shows no discolouration, only slight surface dirt in places. The condition is very good. The mount is a laminate of three sheets of cream wove paper. It is a little soiled from handling otherwise its condition is also good. Medium The watercolour medium is strong and harmonious in tonality and in a good condition. There are some very small surface losses at the edges, in places. Any unevenness of application of the watercolour medium is the artist's. Condition report carried out by Jane McAusland - Conservator and Restorer of Art on Paper
In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective qualified opinion.

Catalogue Note

This powerful image is one of nineteen watercolors by William Blake that were rediscovered in 2001 in a small bookshop in Glasgow and that subsequently appeared at auction at Sotheby's, New York on 2 May 2006.  These designs, which had been preserved in a leather portfolio, were linked to a commission that Blake received in 1805 from Robert Cromek, asking him to provide illustrations for a new edition of Robert Blair's epic, 767-line poem, The Grave. Despite being largely unknown today, The Grave, which was first published in 1743, had gone through 47 editions by 1798.  Cromek wanted to produce a grander version than had ever been printed before: a deluxe edition, in imperial quarto with large illustrations.

Much confusion remains over the exact number of designs Blake created for Cromek's project, but current scholarship suggests that he completed twenty-two or twenty-three watercolors, of which twelve were then engraved by Louis Schiavonetti. The Grave was finally published in July 1808 and had more than 500 advance subscribers, including many of the most prominent artists of the day.  

The Gambols of Ghosts is one of the freest and most dynamic compositions from the entire group and was singled out by John Flaxman in a letter discussing the commission.1 The design, which was never engraved for publication, illustrates an early passage of the poem in which Blair evokes images of the graveyard:

Well do I know thee by thy trusty yew,
Cheerless, unsocial plant! That loves to dwell
'Midst sculls and coffins, epitaphs and worms,
Where light-heel'd ghosts and visionary shades,
Beneath the wan cold moon (as fame reports)
Embodied thick, perform their mystic rounds.

The composition is suitably frenetic and complicated to embody the movements of 'light-heel'd ghosts' and goes far beyond Blair's brief description.  Blake creates two moving circles of figures perpendicular to each other - one, which goes around the tree, is made up of dancing or running ghosts, the other, which starts at the ground and circles up and over the tree, begins with ghosts emerging from the ground and ends with one flying through the church door.  Cutting through the second circle is a procession of saved souls slowly entering the church.  The effect is of constant movement and turmoil that makes it difficult to distinguish the saved and damned at first glance. 

Blake's palette adds to the eeriness of the scene.  The overall color scheme is gray and blue with only a few touches of red, as on the angry figure of the male ghost emerging from the ground at the left.  Even 'the wan cold moon' is gray with only the slightest touch of yellow, and the highlights on the figures are truly ghostly. 

There is a preparatory drawing for the design in the Yale Center for British Art, New Haven and a further, less finished drawing, in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, which may shed some light on Blake’s imagery.2   The Washington drawing is described as A Resurrection Scene, but the dominant compositional element is an arc of figures rising into the sky, which gives much the same feeling as the present watercolor. Specific motifs like the church, the moon and the ghosts emerging from the ground are also repeated.  It seems possible that The Gambols of Ghosts is itself a kind of resurrection but without a judging Christ or any of the associated hierarchical elements – a concept that surely would have appealed to Blake.

1.  Flaxman wrote to William Hayley, a patron and friend of Blake, on 18 October 1805 discussing Cromek's original commission.  See G.E. Bentley, Blake Records, second edition, New Haven and London 2004, p. 206.
2.  M. Butlin, The Paintings and Drawings of William Blake, New Haven and London 1981, pp. 464-464, no. 636, reproduced pl. 863 and p. 450, no. 600, reproduced pl. 840.