William Blake

Lamech and his Two Wives


Not on display

William Blake 1757–1827
Colour print, ink and watercolour on paper
Support: 431 × 608 mm
Presented by W. Graham Robertson 1939

Display caption

Lamech was Cain’s great-great-great grandson. He is asking for protection from the possible consequences of the murders he has committed.

Blake’s image was printed onto smooth white paper. The light pencil crosses are framing marks of unknown date; they could be Blake’s. The inscription near the lower edge appears to be in Blake’s hand, perhaps written at the time of production. The writing at lower right, intended to be hidden by any frame, has been added by several curators. Blake’s hand-finishing extended beyond the colour printing at each corner, and has been extended by others, for neat framing within a window mount.

Gallery label, September 2004

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Catalogue entry

N05061 Lamech and his Two Wives 1795

N 05061 / B 297
Colour print finished in ink and watercolour 431×608 (17×23 15/16), the corners cut across approx. 55 (2 1/4) from each corner, on paper approx. 545×755 (21 1/2×29 3/4)
Signed ‘WB inv [in monogram] 1795’ b.l. and inscribed ‘Lamech and his two Wives’ below design
Presented by W. Graham Robertson 1939
PROVENANCE Thomas Butts; Thomas Butts jun.; Capt. F. J. Butts, offered Sotheby's 24 June 1903 (1) £156 bought in Stephens; his widow, sold through Carfax April 1906 to W. Graham Robertson
EXHIBITED BFAC 1876 (171); Carfax 1904 (1); Carfax 1906 (35); Wartime Acquisitions National Gallery 1942 (12); Tate Gallery 1947 (53); Tate Gallery 1978 (93, repr.)
LITERATURE Rossetti 1863, p.203 no.19, and 1880, p.209 no.21; Robertson in Gilchrist 1907, p.410, repr. facing p.366; Preston 1952, pp.32–3 no.2, pl.2; Keynes Bible 1957, p.6 no.17a repr.; Blunt 1959, p.59; Damon 1965, pp.4–5, 223, 458; Hagstrum in Hilles and Bloom 1965, p.329 n.30; Keynes Letters 1968, p.117; Bentley Blake Records 1969, p.572; Kostelanetz in Rosenfeld 1969, p.128; Mellor 1974, pp.160–1; Bindman 1977, p.99; Bindman Graphic Works 1978, no.330, repr.; Paley 1978, p.37; Essick Printmaker 1980, pp.134–5, pl.130; La Belle in Blake, XIV, 1980–1, p.77, pl.12; Butlin 1981, pp.162–3 no.297, colour pl.391; Warner 1984, p.68

Listed in Blake's account with Thomas Butts of 3 March 1806 as ‘Lamech’; it had apparently been delivered on 5 July 1805. There is a second copy of this print, almost certainly the second pull, in the collection of Robert N. Essick (Butlin 1981, no.298, pl.387). The format of the Tate Gallery's print, with the corners cut across diagonally, is also found in the version of ‘Naomi entreating Ruth and Orpah to Return to the Land of Moab’ in the Victoria and Albert Museum (Butlin no.299, colour pl.392). The colouring and manner of printing of these two works is also similar and suggests that they were both pulled in 1795.
The format and manner of treatment also suggests that the two works were designed by Blake as pendants, but it is difficult to see any connection in subject beyond the fact that each deals with a family relationship: Lamech with his two wives, and Naomi with her two Moabite daughters-in-law. David Bindman groups these two designs with two other Old Testament subjects (N05063 and N05059) as representing consequences of Jehovah's moral law.

The obscure subject of this print is from Genesis, iv, 23–4. Lamech, Cain's great-great-great-grandson, tells his wives that he has slain a man: ‘If Cain shall be avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy and seven fold’. There was a tradition, partly derived from the text in Genesis, iv, 15 and 13, and spelt out in full in the Apocrypha, that Lamech did in fact accidently kill Cain (see Denis Grivot and George Zarnecki, Gislebertus, sculptor of Autun, 1961, p.70, quoting Byzantine and Romanesque prototypes). Bindman suggests that the reason Blake chose Lamech rather than Cain himself to epitomise murder and vengeance was that Lamech was father by his two wives of Jubal, representing music, and Tubalcain, ‘an instructor of every artifice in brass and iron’; the two wives would thus represent the state of the arts in the Fallen World.

Janet Warner, demonstrating that one of Blake's sources for his visual language of gesture was the English pantomime, likens the gesture of Lamech's hands passionately applied to his forehead to the standard motif of indignation described by the dancing master John Weaver in his History of the Mimes and Pantomimes of 1728. This gesture is also found in Blake's ‘Body of Abel found by Adam and Eve’, N05888.

This similarity is presumably the reason for David Erdman's mistaken relating of the Emblem drawing N05059 on p.49 of Blake's sketchbook to the figure of Cain in Blake's depictions of this subject rather than directly to the figure of Lamech in the colour print, to which it is much closer though, as one would expect, in reverse (Butlin no.201 49, repr. Erdman and Moore 1973).

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

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