William Blake

An Allegory of the Bible. Verso: The Shins of an Écorché Male Figure

c.1780–5, ?c.1780

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Not on display

William Blake 1757–1827
Graphite, ink and watercolour on paper. Verso: graphite on paper
Support: 615 × 349 mm
frame: 980 × 610 × 30 mm
Bequeathed by Miss Rachel M. Dyer 1969

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The title of this work is not Blake’s, but its theme seems to be the revelation of knowledge.

Unusually, the foreground and background were both painted initially with a single base colour. The figures and the screen behind those in the background were applied straight onto the white paper. The screen and the lower half of the sky behind it were originally painted a deep rose, with a red lake pigment that is probably brazilwood.  This has lost so much colour, except at the edges, that it gives the unintended effect of  a flat brown base tone to the whole screen.

Gallery label, September 2004

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Catalogue entry

T01128 An Allegory of the Bible c. 1780–85 (recto)
Part Drawing of a Nude Male Figure (?): Two Shins c. 1780–85 (verso)

T 01128 / B 127
Recto: pen and watercolour over pencil, irregular, 615×349 (24 1/4×13 3/4); this includes a strip of paper tapering from 10 (4) to 9 (3 5/8) overlapping the main sheet of paper by 1.5 ( 1/2) added at the top; Verso: pencil.
Bequcathed by Miss Rachel M. Dyer to the National Portrait Gallery and transferred to the Tate Gallery 1969
PROVENANCE ...; Alexander Macmillan by 1876; by descent to his granddaughter Miss Rachel M. Dyer
LITERATURE Rossetti 1880, p.251 no.239 as ‘The Pilgrimage of Christiana’; Essick in Paley and Phillips 1973, p.58; Bindman 1977, p.31, pl.23; Butlin 1981, pp.48–9 no.127, pl.147

Although finished in colour this work is close to the large group of pen and wash drawings that can be dated to the early and mid 1780s, e.g. N05198 and N05200. The decoration of the parapet at the top of the steps resembles that in the background of ‘Joseph Ordering Simeon to be Bound’, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1785 (Butlin 1981, no.156, colour pl.184), and the treatment of hair and the patterned dress of one of the figures look forward to such works as ‘Age Teaching Youth’, N05183, and Blake's illustrations to his poem Tiriel of c. 1789 (Butlin no.198, the series repr. Bentley Tiriel 1967). On the other hand ‘An Allegory of the Bible’ is considerably less accomplished than those works of the mid and late 1780s and was presumably painted earlier.

William Rossetti's title, ‘The Pilgrimage of Christiana’, presumably refers to the second part of John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress, the first of which was later illustrated by Blake in a series of watercolours left unfinished at his death (Butlin no.829, pls.1093–1120). It is, however, impossible to relate this composition to any part of Bunyan's text, hence the more general title adopted here. The book, from which rays of light shine forth, is not however necessarily the Bible. A source yet to be fully explored for the subject of this and other similar early works is Swedenborg.

The drawing on the back of the strip of paper added at the top, upside down as compared with the main composition, has been cut at both top and bottom, at the ankles and the knees. This infers that it is a fragment from a complete figure. On the recto of the added sheet of paper there are pencil lines underneath the watercolour which continue over the otherwise bare paper which was concealed when the larger sheet of paper was stuck over the edge. This suggests that these pencil lines have nothing to do with the final composition, but what they represent is unclear. In the main composition there is a pentimento round the lower half of the figure descending the steps. The relative strength of colour in the areas at one time covered by an old mount suggests that the main part of the design has faded, particularly the pinks. The drawing was restored at the Tate Gallery in 1988.

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

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