N05893 Christ Blessing the Little Children 1799
N 05893 / B 419
Tempera on canvas, relined 260×375 (10 1/4×14 3/4) cut down from approx. 270×390 (10 5/8×15 1/4)
Signed ‘WB [? ‘inv’, as monogram] 1799’ b.l. Presented by the Executors of W. Graham Robertson through the National Art-Collections Fund 1949
PROVENANCE Thomas Butts; Thomas Butts jun., sold Foster's 29 June 1853 (? 71, as ‘Christ and Little Children’) 10/- bt Sir William Stirling-Maxwell, Bt. or (?96, as ‘The Church and Christ’) 10/- with lot 97 (‘The Flight into Egypt’, Butlin no.404) bt Golding; the Rev. Samuel Prince, sold Sotheby's 11–14 December 1865, 1st day (in 281 with Butlin no.404) £12.15.0. bt Hayes; Alfred Aspland by 1876, sold Sotheby's 27 January 1885 (93) £16 bt Gray; J. Annan Bryce, sold 1904 to W. Graham Robertson, offered Christie's 22 July 1949 (27) £399 bt his executors
EXHIBITED BFAC 1876 (139); Carfax 1904 (30); Carfax 1906 (15); Tate Gallery 1913 (24); BFAC 1927 (21, pl. 16); Tate Gallery 1947 (49); Bournemouth, Southampton and Brighton 1949 (33); Arts Council 1951 (25)
LITERATURE Rossetti 1863, p.226 no.142 and ? p.255 list 3 no.14, and 1880, p.208 no.11 and ? p.275 list 3 no.14; anon., ‘Art Sales’, The Times, 3 February 1885, p.13; Preston 1952, pp.57–8 no.11, pl.11; Keynes Bible 1957, p.34 no.120 repr.; Bindman 1977, pp.123, 127–8; Paley 1978, p.55; Butlin 1981, pp.330–1 no.419, colour pl.507
This is almost certainly an illustration to Mark, x, 13–16: Christ takes the little children into his arms and blesses them, after refuting his disciples, who had tried to rebuff them, with the words, ‘Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God’.
There is a problem with the provenance of this painting. Although there was a picture entitled ‘Christ and Little Children’ in the Butts sale at Foster's on 29 June 1853, lot 71, this was bought by Sir William Stirling-Maxwell, Bt., whose collection is not known to have been dispersed until well into the twentieth century. It is possible therefore that the work in the Tate Gallery was lot 96 in the same sale, ‘The Church and Christ’. This was sold to Golding together with the following lot, ‘Flight into Egypt’, which shares the subsequent provenance from Samuel Prince down to W. Graham Robertson (see Butlin 1981, no.404). The names of the owners given by William Rossetti in his 1863 lists are no help in this case. He lists ‘Christ Blessing the Little Children’ merely as ‘From Mr. Butts’ while giving the ‘Flight into Egypt’ to ‘Mr. Strange’, who is otherwise not known to have owned that work; Rossetti subsequently amended this to ‘Aspland’ when he annotated his own copy of Gilchrist's Life, now in the Houghton Library, Harvard University. From this it is clear that Rossetti did not know the Golding or Prince collections though he did, on the basis of Foster's sale of 1853, make a separate entry for ‘Christ and the Church [Mr. Golding, from Mr. Butts.]’ in his list 3 of ‘Works of Unascertained Method’, this list being presumably of works that he had not seen. The subject of ‘Christ Blessing the Little Children’ can indeed by seen as an allegory of the Church and Christ, though there is no concrete evidence to support the identification of this tempera with the title listed by Rossetti. However, there is no evidence to suggest that pictures describable as either ‘Christ Blessing the Little Children’ or ‘The Church and Christ’ were subsequently in the Stirling-Maxwell collection, so the answer may simply be that Sir William resold ‘Christ Blessing the Little Children’ immediately after the 1853 sale and that this is indeed the Tate Gallery picture.
William Rossetti, in his 1863 list, remarked of this picture, ‘The surface cracked’. In his revised list of 1880 he added ‘but repaired’ and dated the work 1790. He had already annotated his own copy of the 1863 edition of Gilchrist's Life to this effect some time before 1876. Since the removal at the Tate Gallery in 1952 of the oil paint that seems to have been added during the restoration reported by Rossetti it has become clear that the last figure of the date, though damaged by the trimming of the edge of the canvas, is definitely a ‘9’. It may also be the early damage to this picture that accounts for the fact that what otherwise looks like Blake's usual monogram lacks the letters ‘inv’, his normal abbreviation for ‘invenit’.
Martin Butlin, William Blake 1757-1827, Tate Gallery Collections, V, London 1990