William Blake

Lear and Cordelia in Prison


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In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

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William Blake 1757–1827
Ink and watercolour on paper
Support: 123 × 175 mm
Bequeathed by Miss Alice G.E. Carthew 1940

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Blake became a student in the Royal Academy Schools in October 1779. There he seems to have met the Academy’s President, Sir Joshua Reynolds. One of Blake’s friends later said that when the young Blake showed Reynolds his designs, Reynolds recommended that Blake work with ‘less extravagance and more simplicity, and to correct his drawing.’
This watercolour, showing a scene from Shakespeare’s play King Lear, hints at what Reynolds meant. But the drawing of Niobe, hung above, shows Blake could draw carefully. He was always equally careful in his experiments with different paint mediums.

Gallery label, September 2004

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Catalogue entry

N05189 Lear and Cordelia in Prison c.1779

N 05189 / B 53

Pen and watercolour 123×175 (4 15/16×6 7/8) on paper 132×182 (5 3/16×7 3/16)

Bequeathed by Miss Alice G.E. Carthew 1940
PROVENANCE Mrs Blake, sold c.1828–9 to Mrs Samuel Smith and Miss Julia Smith; by descent to Miss Thena Clough, sold Sotheby's 5–6 March 1934, 2nd day (337, repr.) £30 bt Miss Carthew
EXHIBITED BFAC 1876 (in 223); Shakespeare in Art, Arts Council, April–May 1964 (32)
LITERATURE Blunt 1959, p.10, pl.8a; Merchant in Apollo, LXXIX, 1964, p.359, pl.2 (reprinted in Essick 1973, pp.236–7, pl.64); Bentley Blake Records 1969, p.367; Bindman in Paley and Phillipps 1973, pp.34, 41–2, pl.9; Butlin 1981, pp.17–18 no.53, pl.45

On the matt below the drawing is written ‘Lear and Cordelia (early manner)’ and, on the back, presumably by Mrs Samuel Smith or Miss Julia Smith, ‘Bought of Mrs Blake the first or second year after her husband's death. Price for this and “The Grave” was about £8.8.’ A further inscription on the back of the matt reads ‘Exhibited at Burlington Fine Arts Club 1876 No.223 lent by Miss Julia Smith. It is described as 2 drawings in one frame. The other drawing was offered to me with this by their owner a connection of Miss Smith but I did not care for it’. The other drawing is of ‘A Female Figure Crouching in a Cave’ (possibly later used for plate 16 of The Gates of Paradise), now in the collection of Anthony E. Wolf (Butlin 1981, no.134, pl.150).

This watercolour is similar in style and dimensions to, and probably forms part of, a series of small watercolours of historical subjects that also includes the first version of ‘The Penance of Jane Shore’ (see no.14). The subject was therefore almost certainly chosen to illustrate an incident from early English history rather than Shakespeare's play, in which this scene does not appear. David Bindman has suggested that, although the incident does occur in Nahum Tate's adaptation of King Lear of 1681 (as a stage direction for the third scene of Act V, ‘Scene, A Prison. Lear asleep, with his head on Cordelia's lap’), a more likely source is Milton's History of Britain, 1670, in which Lear appears as the last in line from the Trojan Brutus, in legend the great-grandson of Æneas and the first king of England; Trojan Brutus's landing in England is the subject of another of this series of watercolours, now in Princeton University Library (Butlin no.51, pl.47).

Blake, in his Descriptive Catalogue of 1809, describes what seems to be the first version of ‘The Penance of Jane Shore’ as having been ‘done above Thirty Years ago’, and another watercolour from this series, ‘The Death of Earl Goodwin’ now in the British Museum (Butlin no.60, colour pl.178) was almost certainly exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1780 (315). Blake later planned to publish ‘The History of England, a small book of Engravings, Price 3s.’, as he announced in his Prospectus to the Public of 10 October 1793. No copy of this is known but a list of subjects in Blake's Notebook seems to refer to its contents. The most accurate transcription of this list is in Erdman and Moore 1973, at N116; see also Keynes Writings 1957, pp.208–9. A number of these subjects are the same as those of the early series of watercolours and Blake seems to have painted at about this time larger, more accomplished versions of some of them; in view of the fact that these reworkings are close in size to the separate engraving of ‘Edward & Elenor’ also announced in the 1793 Prospectus it may be that when Blake came to look again at his early watercolours he was led, rather than to use them for ‘a small book of Engravings’, to rework them on a larger scale with an eye to further separate larger prints. N05898 below is an example of one of these larger reworkings. (For the two series of illustrations to English history and related drawings see Butlin 1981, nos.51–70 and the introductory text on p.16.)

What may have been a sketch for this composition is the indian ink drawing, said to measure 11 1/4×15 1/4in, sold at Puttick's on 21 July 1937 (432) and untraced since. The subject also appears as one of the seven small watercolours, oval in format, now in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (Butlin no.844, pl.84, where dated c.1780, but Essick 1982–3 dates them rather later, say c.1783).

Blunt, who also dates this work slightly later than the other historical watercolours of c.1779, sees the figure of Cordelia as a reflection of a drawing by or after Daniele da Volterra.

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

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