Autumn issue of ‘Blake: An Illustrated Quarterly’ now online

“And I only am escaped alone to tell thee”: the autumn issue of Blake: An Illustrated Quarterly is now online.

http://blake.lib.rochester.edu/blakeojs/index.php/blake

Blake Illustrated Quarterly

It is dedicated to two articles on Blake’s Illustrations of the Book of Job. Mei-Ying Sung describes in detail for the first time the set of pre-publication Job proofs at the Beinecke Library at Yale, and Sibylle Erle talks about Alfred Tennyson’s copy of Job: how and when he acquired it and how he used it.

For past issues, see http://bq.blakearchive.org/

Image of the Month: William Blake, Sealing the Stone and Setting a Watch (c.1800-1803).

Blake Sealing the Stone

William Blake, Sealing the Stone and Setting a Watch (c.1800-1803). Watercolor, with pen, in gray ink, black ink and graphite on moderately thick, slightly textured, wove paper. Yale Center for British Art, Yale Art Gallery Collection, Everett V. Meeks, B.A. 1901 Fund.

In an ‘Image of the Month’ in February, I wrote about Blake’s watercolour Mary Magdalen at the Sepulchre (c.1805). In this post, I’m jumping back a bit to another of Blake’s watercolour illustrations to the Bible, Sealing the Stone and Setting a Watch (c.1800-03), which depicts a moment slightly earlier in the biblical narrative, and was probably also produced several years earlier (the exact dates of these works are not known, but they have been assigned dates based on stylistic features).

The text illustrated is Matthew 27:66 which describes the sealing of Jesus’ tomb on the day after his death and burial. The chief priests and Pharisees had heard Jesus say that he would rise again on the third day, and they feared that the disciples would try to take away the body to fabricate a resurrection. They therefore asked Pilate to secure the tomb, so he sent a watch and instructed them make the tomb as sure as they could (27:62-65).

In Blake’s illustration, the task is being undertaken very diligently. At the centre of the design is a young man balancing on a ladder, holding a palette of cement and a knife. He is turning to his right, directed by a priest standing below who appears to be pointing out a gap in the cement for the young man to seal. There are two more priests to the left of the ladder, and five soldiers are standing guard.

This is a relatively unusual subject, which is perhaps unsurprising; illustrators of the New Testament have tended to focus on the acts of Jesus and his disciples, not on those of Jesus enemies. We cannot be certain whether the subject was chosen by Blake or by his patron, Thomas Butts; either way, its inclusion in the series of biblical illustrations emphasises that the tomb was firmly shut. Thus, when Blake added The Angels Hovering over the body of Christ in the Sepulchre (c.1805, V&A) to the series, he was giving the viewer privileged access to a scene inside the firmly-sealed tomb, and then in The Angel Rolling Away the Stone from the Sepulchre (c.1805, V&A) and The Resurrection (c.1805, Fogg Art Museum), Blake depicts Christ bursting that seal.

As a stand-alone design the subject may not have obvious appeal, but in a series of illustrations to the narrative of Jesus’ death and resurrection, Sealing the Stone and Setting a Watch plays a key role.

Naomi Billingsley (Manchester)

Image of the Month: William Blake, ‘Mary Magdalen at the Sepulchre’ (c.1805).

William Blake, 'Mary Magdalen at the Sepulchre' (c.1805). Watercolor with pen and ink on paper. 17 1/4 x 12 1/4 inches (43.8 x 31.1 cm). Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.  http://collections.britishart.yale.edu/vufind/Record/1670856

William Blake, ‘Mary Magdalen at the Sepulchre’ (c.1805). Watercolor with pen and ink on paper. 17 1/4 x 12 1/4 inches (43.8 x 31.1 cm). Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.
http://collections.britishart.yale.edu/vufind/Record/1670856

February’s ‘Image of the Month’ comes from Naomi Billingsley, PhD Candidate in Religions and Theology, University of Manchester, and recipient of a Bibliographical Society Studentship to assist with attendance at the third RIN symposium, ‘Literary Galleries’.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is one of approximately eighty watercolour illustrations to the Bible produced by William Blake for his loyal patron Thomas Butts (a civil servant) between 1800 and about 1805 (several designs were added after this date but the majority were completed in this five-year period).[1] It is not clear how these designs originally functioned as illustrations: they may have extra-illustrated a large Bible or they might have been kept in their own portfolio or volume as a Bible in pictures.[2]

The design is from c.1805 and depicts Mary Magdalene at the tomb (or sepulchre) of Jesus; it is probably an illustration to John 20, because in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, there are others with Mary when she goes to the tomb, and it is John that mentions Mary seeing ‘two angels in white sitting, the one at the head, and the other at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain’, which Blake has included in the design (v. 12). However, Blake has compressed several moments in the narrative together in a single frame: in John’s account Mary stays ‘without’ the tomb and stoops to look inside (v. 11); she then turns around and sees Jesus but mistakes him for a gardener (v. 14). Although Blake has placed Mary on the threshold of the tomb, she is at the bottom of a flight of steps leading down to it, and so she is not stooping; Jesus stands at the top of the steps above her.

Blake has probably chosen this arrangement for compositional reasons: the design’s symmetry is characteristic of Blake’s ‘gothic’ style in this period. Indeed, this watercolour is one of six similarly symmetrical and near-monochrome designs of the death and resurrection of Christ which seem to form a sub-group within the series of biblical watercolours (The Crucifixion and the following designs – not including #499 or #503 – viewable via the Blake Archive).

Blake’s use of composition may also make a theological point. Jesus and Mary are directly aligned in the central vertical portion of the design; their arm gestures are almost identical and there is eye contact between them (see the Blake Archive’s image enlargement). This may be an expression of Blake’s idea that every person is an embodiment of Jesus – as articulated, for example, in his statement to Henry Crabb Robinson that Jesus ‘Is the only God… And so am I and so are you’[3] and his aphorism ‘The Eternal Body of Man is The Imagination. that is God himself | ישע Jesus | The Divine Body | we are his Members’.[4] So we might read Mary Magdalene here as a member of Jesus’ Divine Body, making the design not only ‘mere’ illustration but also a vehicle for Blake’s own ideas.

Any readers in the New Haven (Connecticut, USA) area will be able to see this work in the exhibition ‘The Critique of Reason: Romantic Art, 1760-1860’ between 6 March and 26 July at the Yale University Art Gallery this year.

[1] Cf. Martin Butlin, The Paintings and Drawings of William Blake (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981): nos. 433-526.

[2] David Bindman, Blake as an Artist (Oxford: Phaidon, 1977): 144.

[3] William Blake to Henry Crabb Robinson, December 1825, in G. E. Bentley, Jr. Blake Records (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2nd Ed. 2004): 421.

[4] William Blake, ‘The Laocoön’, in David V. Erdman (ed.), The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake (New York: Doubleday, 1988): 273 and available via the Blake Archive.