Catalogue entry

T01900 THE BARD 1778

Inscribed ‘B. West 1778’ b.r.
Oil on panel, 11 9/16×9 (29.4×22.8)
Purchased from the Sabin Galleries Ltd. (Grant-in-Aid) 1974

Thomas Gray's poem The Bard, published in 1757, was based on the now discredited tradition that Edward I ordered the massacre of the Welsh bards; Gray describes how the sole surviving bard stood on Snowdon and cursed King Edward before throwing himself into the Conway river beneath. It is one of the earliest literary treatments of passionate and heroic action in a wild natural setting which link the cult of the sublime with the Romantic movement. As such, it inspired many artists, including William Hodges, Paul Sandby, Thomas Jones, de Loutherbourg, Blake, Fuseli, Turner, and John Martin (see F. I. McCarthy ‘The Bard of Thomas Gray, its composition and its use by painters’ in The National Library of Wales Journal, XIV, 1965, pp.105–113).

Benjamin West's principal treatment of the theme was ‘The Bard’ exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1809 (119) and then at the British Institution in 1811 (29), where its measurements were given as 9 ft. 7 in.×7 ft. 8 in. (including frame). A picture of ‘The Bard’ was shown at West's Gallery in 1821 (59); ‘The Bard’, described as measuring 8 ft.×6 ft., was lot 43 in the West sale of 22 May, 1829 and was sold to Ward for 170 guineas. ‘The Bard’ exhibited at the Royal Academy was lot 42 in the Raphael West sale on 16 July, 1831. A painting signed and dated 1809, and almost certainly that exhibited at the Royal Academy, is in a private collection (exhibited as no.74 in American Artists in Europe, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, 1976) and is very similar in composition to T01900, although more elaborate and detailed. A large picture does not appear in John Galt's list of West's paintings (in The Life, Studies, and Works of Benjamin West, 1820, II), but Galt does note ‘The sketch of the Bard. From Gray’ (p.231) and ‘Do. [? a drawing] of the Bard. From Gray’ (p.234), one of which may be T01900. There are three drawings for the subject of ‘The Bard’ in the Pierpont Morgan Library (Ruth S. Kramer Drawings by Benjamin West, Pierpont Morgan Library 1975, pp.50–51).

When West exhibited his large version of ‘The Bard’ at the Royal Academy in 1809, he appended the following lines from Gray to the title in the catalogue:

‘On a rock whose haughty brow
Frowns o'er old Conway's foaming flood,
Robed in the sable garb of woe,

With haggard eyes the Poet stood;
(Loose his beard, and hoary hair
Stream'd, like a meteor, to the troubled air)
And with a Master's hand, and Prophet's fire,
Struck the deep sorrows of his lyre.’

Clearly T01900 also illustrates this passage, and West closely follows Gray's description of the bard, particularly the image of the flowing hair and beard. F.I. McCarthy notes that Gray's image of the bard was inspired partly by Parmigianino's ‘Moses breaking the tables of the law’, but mainly by Raphael's ‘Vision of Ezekiel’. Like Gray, but unlike the other artists who dealt with the subject, West in T01900 echoes Raphael's figure, particularly the head and the upraised hand. Only T01900, and an engraved illustration by Fuseli (G. Schiff, Johann Heinrich Füssli, 1973, cat. Nos. 1037, 1313), show the bard as an immense figure dominating the picture area. In this, and in the pose and composition, Thomas Uwins' design for the frontispiece for the 1821 edition of Mason's The Works of Thomas Gray also resembles T01900.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1974-6: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1978