William Blake

Epitome of James Hervey’s ‘Meditations among the Tombs’


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
William Blake 1757–1827
Ink, watercolour and gold paint on paper
Support: 431 × 292 mm
Presented by George Thomas Saul 1878

Display caption

James Hervey (1714-58) was a writer of devotional texts. His popular Meditations Among the Tombs was published in 1746 and it was often reprinted. The subject of the book is death, and the author dwells particularly on the grief caused by early death, and on the eventual re-uniting of the parted in heaven. Hervey, his back to the viewer, is seen in the foreground of the picture. At the foot of the stair which winds heavenward to God, sits a widow with the bodies of her husband and children. Inscriptions beside the other figures help to explain the narrative.The design of this complex arrangement is similar to that of the celebrated painting of the Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel in Rome by Michelango, an artist Blake admired.

Gallery label, August 2004

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Catalogue entry

N02231 Epitome of James Hervey's Meditations among the Tombs c.1820–5

N 02231 / B 770
Pen and watercolour 431×292 (16 15/16×11 1/2)

Signed ‘WBlake inv & [?] ...’ b.l. with traces of at least two further characters and the possibility that more were lost when the lower edge of the drawing was trimmed; for other inscriptions see text below
Given by G.T. Saul to the National Gallery 1878; transferred to the Tate Gallery 1909
PROVENANCE Thomas Butts; Thomas Butts jun., sold Foster's 29 June 1853 (135, as ‘One from Hervey's Meditations’) £2.10.0 bt Money; G.T. Saul
EXHIBITED BFAC 1876 (69); Tate Gallery (58), Manchester (54), Nottingham (35) and Edinburgh (27) 1913–14; Opening Exhibition Graves Art Gallery, Sheffield 1934 (633); British Painting Hamburg, Oslo, Stockholm and Copenhagen 1945–50 (4); English Water-Colours Norwich 1955 (29); Masters of British Painting New York, St Louis and San Francisco 1956–7 (7, repr. p.55); Tate Gallery 1978 (314, repr. in colour)
LITERATURE Rossetti 1863, p.255 list 3 no.19, and 1880, p.245 no.229; Robertson in Gilchrist 1907, p.494 no.17; Figgis 1925, at pl.89, repr.; Blunt in Warburg Journal, VI, 1943, p.201; Damon 1965, pp.3, 65, 126, 183–5, 409, pl.11; Tolley in Blake Newsletter, VI, 1972–3, p.30; Mellor 1974, pp.243–6, pl.64; Bindman 1977, pp.118, 120–1, 169–70, 242 n.20, pl.98; Mitchell 1978, pp.64–6, 69, 73; Paley 1978, p.181, pl.88; Butlin in Blake, XIII, 1979–80, p.21; Butlin 1981, p.536 no.770, colour pl.967. Also repr: Blake Studies, VI, no.2, 1975, insert in colour; Mizue, no.882, 1978, 9, p.37 in colour

James Hervey (1714–58) was a Calvinist and a popular devotional writer. His Meditations among the Tombs was first published in 1746 but reappeared frequently in new editions well into the nineteenth century. Blake knew it as early as 1784–5, when he mentioned it together with Edward Young's Night Thoughts in An Island in the Moon (Keynes Writings 1957, p.52), but the watercolour is considerably later. Stylistically it follows, probably by a number of years, his various paintings of the ‘Last Judgment’ and similar subjects of 1806–8 (see, for example, Butlin 1981 nos.639 and 642, pls.868 and 870); in its smooth finish and dark glowing colouring it resembles Blake's reworkings for Linnell and Lawrence of ‘The Wise and Foolish Virgins’ in the 1820s (see N05196). Like Blake's other complex compositions of many figures both the general composition and certain individual motifs are derived from Michelangelo's ‘Last Judgment’ in the Sistine Chapel, a work known to Blake through engravings and greatly admired by him.

Hervey appears in Jerusalem, c.1804–15, as one of the guards of ‘the Four-fold Gate Towards Beulah ... with all the gentle Souls Who guide the great Wine-press of Love’ (plate 72; Keynes Writings 1957, p.712). His book consists mainly of reflections on mortality and the Resurrection and particularly on the pathos of the separations caused by early deaths. The ecclesiastical setting of Blake's watercolour and the identification of the resurrected figures are largely based on Hervey's text, but the central vision and the presence of Hervey himself between two angels were introduced by Blake.

Practically every figure is identified by an inscription (Damon gives a key facing pl.11 but this is not completely accurate). In the foreground ‘Hervey’ is seen from behind between an ‘Angel of Providence’ and a ‘Guardian Angel’, standing before an altar which bears the Eucharistic bread and wine. Above he sees a sequence of incidents from the Old Testament arranged on a spiral staircase. At the top of this vision appears God the Father with a scroll; then ‘Adam’, ‘Eve’ and the ‘Serpent’; ‘Cain’ and ‘Abel’ as children; ‘Enoch’; ‘Noah’ with his Ark; the ‘Mother of Leah & Rachel’ and the ‘Mother of Rebecca’; ‘Abraham believed God’, with Isaac; ‘Aaron’; ‘David’; and ‘Solomon’. The sequence culminates in the Transfiguration group, ‘Jesus’ flanked by ‘Moses’ and ‘Elias’, directly over the altar.

Above God the Father is the source of the fire that fills much of the upper part of the picture, with the inscription ‘God out of Christ is a Consuming Fire’, a variant of Hebrews, xii, 29, quoted by Calvinists to prove the existence of Hell. In the two upper corners appear ‘MERCY’ and ‘WRATH’.

On the left of the picture a number of figures rise towards Mercy, assisted by ‘Ministering Angels’. Starting at the bottom, where there is a font labelled ‘Baptism’, they are accompanied by the words ‘Old Age’, ‘Babe’, ‘Wife’, ‘Husband’, ‘Infancy’, ‘Where is your Father’ and ‘These died for Love’.

On the right two ‘Angel[s] of Death’, two ‘Protecting Angel[s]’ and a group of ‘Recording Angels’ escort the resurrected ‘Virgin’, ‘Widow’, ‘Father’, ‘Mother’, ‘The Lost Child’, ‘Sophronia Died in Childbed’, ‘Orphan’, ‘She died on the Wedding Day’ and ‘orphans’.

As Mellor points out, Blake's representation of God the Father now represents righteous anger, dispensing Wrath but tempered by Mercy, and in this respect can be distinguished from representations in earlier works by Blake when He was seen as the embodiment of negative religion. He appears above Christ, who stands between Moses, representing the Law, and Elias, representing Divine Vision. On the staircase that links them the Old Testament figures demonstrate ways in which we can, and cannot, achieve salvation.

There are two possible sketches for this composition on a sheet in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. (Lessing J. Rosenwald Collection) (Butlin no.771, pls.997 and 998). The recto shows an ascending spiral of figures, as in the centre of the Tate Gallery's watercolour. On the back there is a drawing of a seated figure shown full-face which could well be a sketch for God the Father enthroned above the spiral, though the figure here is younger and more Christ-like than in the watercolour, with only a short beard clinging to his chin; his hands are held open by his knees as if to display the Stigmata, and there is an open book rather than a scroll across his knees. The style of both drawings supports a dating in the 1820s.

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

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