Catalogue entry

N05198 The Good Farmer, Probably the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares, c. 1780–85 (recto)
Rough Sketch of Two or Three Figures in a Landscape c. 1780–85 (verso)

N 05198 / B 123
Recto: pen and wash; Verso: pencil; on paper 267×375 (10 1/2×14 3/4)
Inscribed on verso, not by Blake, ‘Sketch/by Blake R.A.’ b.c. and ‘No.9./4.11.0’ b.r.
Bequeathed by Miss Alice G.E. Carthew 1940
PROVENANCE ...; Miss Carthew by 1918 (letter in Tate Gallery files)
LITERATURE Keynes Bible 1957, p.34 no.118, recto repr.; Butlin 1981, p.47 no.123, recto pl.141, verso pl.166; David Bindman, review of Butlin 1981 in Burlington Magazine, CXXV, 1983, p.371

Inscribed on the back, not by Blake, are the words ‘Sketch by Blake R.A. [?]’; the last letters are unclear and Blake never was a Royal Academician although he did exhibit there.

The drawing on the recto is typical of Blake's rather crude pen and wash drawings of the early 1780s. It is one of a series of drawings in which Blake worked out the composition of a subject showing a cornfield with a Christ-like figure as chief protagonist with other figures beseeching his aid or raising their arms imploringly to heaven; most if not all show a scene of destruction in the distance (Butlin 1981, nos.120–5, pls. 135–142). The Tate Gallery drawing seems to have been executed after the two drawings on one sheet belonging to Robert N. Essick (Butlin no.122) and before that belonging to the Humanities Research Center, University of Texas, Austin (Butlin no.124).

The subject of this series of drawings has been much debated. One of them (Butlin no.121) has been tentatively identified as an illustration to Ruth, ii, 1–17, but the figure of a woman gleaning that suggested this identification disappears between the recto and the verso of the next drawing in the series (Butlin no.122). William Rossetti gives two alternative interpretations for the more elaborate drawing that seems to conclude the series (Butlin no.124), firstly as ‘The Parable of the Sower’ (Matthew, xii, 18–23) with, behind, ‘an angel in the sky ... sowing the seed’, and secondly as ‘“Christ as the Good Farmer”, distributing His produce to the poor; ... a group in the background shows a hard-hearted farmer whose goods are being destroyed by lightning’ (1863, p.267 list 2 no.76, and 1880, p.265 list 2 no.100). According to Irene Langridge (William Blake, a Study of His Life and Art Work, 1904, pp.185–6), D.G. Rossetti and Frederic Shields suggested that the drawings illustrate I Samuel, xii, 16–19, in which Samuel calls upon the Lord to strike the harvest with thunder and rain as a judgement on the people for wanting a king. Michael Tolley has suggested (in correspondence) a more general title, ‘Pray ye therefore the Lord of the Harvest’ (Matthew, ix, 38), while accepting that there is a link with I Samuel, xii, 16–19.

Most recently David Bindman has suggested that the drawings illustrate the Parable of the wheat and the tares (Matthew, xiii, 24–30) in which the good farmer allows both the wheat and the tares to ripen so that at the harvest they can be separated and the wheat gathered and the tares burnt. In Christ's explanation of this Parable ‘The field is the world; the good seed are the children of the kingdom; but the tares are the children of the wicked ones; the enemy that sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the world and the reapers are the angels. As therefore the tares are gathered and burned in the fire, so shall it be in the end of this world’ (Matthew, xiii, 37–43). This apocalyptic theme has parallels in some of Blake's other designs of the mid 1780s, and reflects his links with other Millenarians (for Blake and Millenarianism see Morton D. Paley, ‘William Blake, the Prince of the Hebrews, and the Woman Clothed with the Sun’, in Paley and Phillips 1973, pp.260–93, Bindman 1977, pp.31–3, and Bindman 1982, pp.16–20, 74–6).

In style this group of drawings seems to date from the earlier 1780s, preceding the fully accomplished neo-classicism of the watercolour illustrations to the story of Joseph exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1785 (Butlin nos.155–7, colour pls.183–5). The drawing of ‘St. John the Evangelist before a Vision of Christ’ on the back of the first drawing in the series, one of the two in the British Museum (Butlin no.120 recto, the verso repr. pl.144) was engraved early in 1782 but was not necessarily done at the same time as the drawing on the recto.

The drawing on the back seems to show three figures seated in animated conversation in a landscape, but no specific subject can be suggested. In the top right-hand corner, to be seen with the paper turned at a right-angle, is what seems to be a separate sketch of three stooping figures, perhaps connected with the drawing on the recto.

Before restoration this drawing bore green and brown stains matching those to be found on a number of Blake's early drawings including two further ones from the ‘Good Farmer’ series, suggesting that they were all together in Blake's studio (the drawings are Butlin 1981, nos.94, 104A, 123, 124, 139A and 186).

Published in:
Martin Butlin, William Blake 1757-1827, Tate Gallery Collections, V, London 1990