William Blake

Age Teaching Youth


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
William Blake 1757–1827
Ink and watercolour on paper
Support: 108 × 80 mm
Bequeathed by Miss Alice G.E. Carthew 1940

Display caption

The image of a seated adult with children
or youths reading occurs in a number
of Blake's works from the 1780s, including
the title page to Songs of Innocence.


It has been suggested that the leaf and tendril motif on the dress of the youth
in the foreground (who seems to be drawing) identifies him as representative of a mind limited to nature and its imitation. The old man might represent the law, which
is contradicted by the girl who, gesturing heavenwards towards the infinite, might represent imagination.

Gallery label, September 2004

Does this text contain inaccurate information or language that you feel we should improve or change? We would like to hear from you.

Catalogue entry

N05183 Age Teaching Youth c.1785–90

N 05183 / B 91
Pen and watercolour 108×80 (4 1/2×3 1/8)
Bequeathed by Miss Alice G.E. Carthew 1940
PROVENANCE ?Mrs Blake;? Frederick Tatham, ?sold Sotheby's 29 April 1862 (? in 185, 2 items ‘in colours’) 15/- bt Harvey; Harvey by 1863; George A. Smith, sold Christie's 16 July 1880 (102) 14/- bt J. Pearson: ? U.S. collection by 1905; Miss Carthew
EXHIBITED BFAC 1876 (183);? Exhibition of the Works of William Blake, Grolier Club, New York, January–February 1905 (95 as ‘An old man seated teaching a young girl; a youth in gaily coloured raiment seated, in foreground, reading’); Tate Gallery 1978 (39, repr.)
LITERATURE Rossctti 1863, p.237 no.219, and 1880, p.252 no.249; Binyon 1922, p.22, pl.3; Essick in Paley and Phillips 1973, p.58; Bindman 1977, p.48; Butlin 1981, pp.35–6 no.91, colour pl.179

This small watercolour is close in style and handling to a number of delicate pen and wash drawings of the 1780s, some in colour, others in monochrome. The works in colour include ‘A Man and a Woman Kneeling and Warming Themselves at a Fire’ in the British Museum, ‘An Enthroned Old Man Offering Two Children to Heaven’ in the Fogg Art Museum and ‘An Old Man and a Woman in Contemplative Adoration’ in a private collection (Butlin 1981, nos.87, 88 and 90, pls.95, 97 and 99). The monochrome works include ‘A Girl and a Bearded Man Embracing’ and ‘An Old Man Appearing on a Cloud to a Young Nude Couple’, both in the British Museum (Butlin nos.85 and 86, pls.91 and 92). Some of these compositions are based on a group of eight rapid pen sketches on the back of the two last-mentioned British Museum drawings, which were originally on a single piece of paper (Butlin 1981, pls.93 and 94). Michael Tolley has suggested that the series of compositions, which seem to concern two protagonists, one male, one female, set out a story of murder, exile and redemption (Michael J. Tolley, ‘Some Blake Puzzles-Old and New’ in Blake Studies, III, 1971, pp.107–28). ‘Age Teaching Youth’ is not however based on one of these composition sketches and Michael Tolley did not include it in his discussion; but the theme may be connected.

In style this whole group of drawings seems to date from the later 1780s, preceding the series of pen and wash illustrations to Tiriel of c. 1789 (Butlin no.198, the series repr. Bentley Tiriel 1967); the boy's decorated garment in ‘Age Teaching Youth’ is particularly close to the similar costume in ‘Har Blessing Tiriel’ (Butlin no.1984). In its somewhat Stothard-like mood and delicacy it also anticipates the illustrations to Songs of Innocence, issued by Blake in 1789. In particular the apparently innocent scene of children reading accompanied by an adult is close to that on the title page. Essick however, linking this work more closely to Tiriel, sees the old man as representing the repression and false wisdom later embodied by Blake in his character Urizen; the boy absorbed in the book wears a dress representing Nature uninspired, but the girl points to Heaven as if to contradict the codified knowledge of the books.

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

You might like

In the shop