Catalogue entry

N05056 Hecate (?) c.1795

N 05056 / B 316
Colour print finished in ink and watercolour 439×581 (17 9/16×22 5/8) on paper approx. 545×770 (21 5/8×30 1/4)
Signed ‘Blake’ incised b.l. Watermarked ‘1794/J WHATMAN’
Presented by W. Graham Robertson 1939
PROVENANCE Thomas Butts; Thomas Butts jun.; Capt. F.J. Butts; his widow, sold through Carfax April 1906 to W. Graham Robertson
EXHIBITED BFAC 1876 (204); Carfax 1904 (22); Carfax 1906 (31); Cambridge 1910; Tate Gallery (67) and Manchester (51) 1913–14; on loan to Tate Gallery 1920–7; BFAC 1927 (56, pl.42); British Art RA 1934 (776, repr. in 1st ed. pl.87; 703); Whitechapel 1938 (49); Wartime Acquisitions National Gallery 1942 (9); Paris, Antwerp (pl.26), Zurich (repr.) and Tate Gallery 1947 (37); Tate Gallery 1978 (99, repr.); New Haven and Toronto 1982–3 (55, repr.)
LITERATURE Rossetti 1863, p.238 no.228, and 1880, p.253 no.257; Robertson in Gilchrist 1907, p.410, repr.; Cook and Wedderburn Works of Ruskin, XXXVI, 1909, pp.32–3; Percival 1938, p.70, repr.; Collins Baker in Huntington Library Quarterly, IV, 1940–1, p.360 (reprinted in Essick 1973, pp.118–19, pl.68); Preston 1952, pp.47–9 no.8, pl.8; Roe 1953, p.67; Blunt 1959, pp.59–60, pl.26a; Merchant in Apollo, LXXIX, 1964, p.322, pl.8 (reprinted in Essick 1973, pp.243–4, pl.68); Damon 1965, p.370; Hagstrum in Hilles and Bloom 1965, pp.320, 329 nn.30 and 34, pl.6; Raine 1968, 11, pp.7–8, pl.125; Kostelanetz in Rosenfeld 1969, pp.126–7; Mellor 1974, pp.157–8, pl.42; Bindman 1977, pp.98, 100; Klonsky 1977, p.60, repr. in colour; Bindman Graphic Works 1978, no.334, repr.; Paley 1978, pp.38, 178, pl.26; La Belle in Blake, XIV, 1980–1, pp.77–80, pl.15; Butlin 1981, p.171 no.316, colour pl.396; Heppner in Bulletin of Research in the Humanities, LXXXIV, 1981, pp.337–8, 355–65, repr. p.362; Butlin in Blake, XV, 1981–2, p.102; Bindman in Blake, XVI, 1982–3, p.225; Hilton 1983, p.162, detail repr. pl.40; Warner 1984, p.120. Also repr: Mizue, no.882, 1978, 9, p.11 in colour

Two other copies of this print are known, in the National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh, and in the Huntington Library and Art Gallery, San Marino (Butlin 1981, nos.317 and 318, pls.415 and 416). None of these is dated, though the Tate Gallery copy is watermarked 1794, and in this case, as in that of ‘Pity’, it seems possible to accept, partly for stylistic reasons, that all three copies were executed c.1795, the Tate copy being the first pull, that in Edinburgh the second, and that at San Marino the last. A pencil sketch in reverse was formerly in the collection of Ian L. Phillips (Butlin no.319, pl.419).

This work seems to have been designed as a companion to ‘Pity’. In the case of the copies in the Tate Gallery the form of signature and the general colouring are similar. The two designs probably represent aspects of the feminine role in the Fallen World.

Until recently the traditional title, ‘Hecate’, has been generally accepted; the only difference of opinion seems to have been over whether the title referred to Puck's closing speech in A Midsummer Night's Dream or to the figure in Macbeth. However; as Christopher Heppner had pointed out, the title ‘Hecate’ was not used until William Rossetti's lists in Gilchrists's Life of William Blake, 1863. No title is inscribed on the mount unlike others of the colour prints that belonged to Thomas Butts, nor does it figure in any surviving account between Blake and Butts. In fact the first title to be applied to his design, in a reference by John Ruskin in a letter of c.1843 to the copy in the Huntington Library, was ‘The Owls’. In all traditional representations of Hecate the three heads of what is a single figure face outwards; here the seated female figure partly obscures totally distinct younger figures, a girl on the left and a boy on the right. One's instinctive reaction, as Heppner points out, is that this is a depiction of shame, and in this the design would be on a par to that representing pity. To some extent this identification is supported visually by comparison with the frontispiece to Visions of the Daughters of Albion (no.21) which definitely represents shame, with figures seated in somewhat similar poses at the mouth of a cave. However, it is difficult to be precise about this identification. Jean Hagstrum saw the scene as representing jealousy while his pupil Warren Jones, in an unpublished dissertation reported by Heppner, sees it as representing institutional religion. Heppner himself is reluctant to go beyond identifying the main figure as that of a witch though not specifically Hecate; the strange creature hovering in the air above would be her familiar, while the owl and toad shown on the left are also to be associated with witchcraft.

Heppner suggests further that, just as Blake illustrated pity in the companion print as a sort of narrative, so this composition should also be seen as a point in time, with the ass on the left standing for a means of travel. The fact that it is derived from an engraving of ‘The Rest on the Flight into Egypt’ in Alexander Browne's Ars Pictoria, 1675 (repr. Collins Baker 1940–1, p.361; 1973, pl.43), and reappears in Blake's watercolour of the same subject of 1806 in the Metropolitan Museum (Butlin no.472, colour pl.543), seems to have no iconographic significance; it also appears in the illustration showing the Good Samaritan in Young's Night Thoughts (Night 11, p.35; Butlin no.330 68, repr. Erdman Night Thoughts 1980).

Shame is quite often associated with pride in Blake's writings as in ‘Shame is Prides cloke’ (The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, 1790–93, plate 7; Keynes Writings 1957, p.151) and ‘The Sexes sprung from Shame & Pride’ (‘To Tirzah’ added c.1805 or later to Songs of Experience; Keynes 1957, p.220). It is also yet another devisive element: ‘Shame divides Families. Shame hath divided Albion in sunder!’ (Jerusalem, c.1804–15; Keynes 1957, p.643).

Blake's composition may have influenced Fuseli's ‘The Witch and the Mandrake’, both the oil exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1812 and the engraving of probably about the same date (repr. Gert Schiff, Johann Heinrich Füssli, 1973, 11, p.489 no.1497 and p.499 no.1510), though, as Fuseli had already exhibited a lost work called ‘The Mandrake; a Charm’ in 1785, the influence may have been the other way round.


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