William Blake

Los and Orc


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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: 217 × 295 mm
Presented by Mrs Jane Samuel in memory of her husband 1962

Display caption

This watercolour shows two of the characters in Blake’s mythology. Los has chained his son Orc to a rock in a fit of jealousy. He regrets this too late: Orc’s limbs have become rooted in the rock.

The sombre mood is conveyed by the dark colour which Blake chose to dominate the scene. He used a pure brown ochre for the entire background. Orc’s shadow is a grey wash. The light falling on the figures’ flesh is shown with paint mixed from chalk and vermilion. The yellow used in the foreground – glossy, transparent gamboge – has not faded.

Gallery label, August 2004

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Catalogue entry

T00547 Los and Orc c.1792–3

T 00547 / B 255
Pen and watercolour 217×295 (8 1/2×11 5/8) Signed ‘W. Blake’ b.l.
Presented by Mrs Howard Samuel in memory of her husband 1962
John Linnell, sold Christic's 15 March 1918 (159, as ‘A Figure chained to a Rock. A mountainous landscape, with a figure on the left [sic] chained to the ground; before him stands another man with arms raised in wonderment’) £94.10.0 bt Apsley Cherry-Garrard; his widow, sold April 1960 to Quaritch, from whom bought by Howard Samuel in May 1960; his widow, Jane Samuel
Hamburg and Frankfurt 1975 (34, repr.)
Rossetti 1863, p.202 no.11, and 1880, p.208 no.13, as ‘1793.- A Young Man gazing remorsefully upon another bound upon a rock. [Mr Linnell]. Similar to the head-piece of the “America” but without the female figure, and a good deal larger. Darkish tone of colouring’; Martin Butlin, ‘Blake's “Vala, or the Four Zoas” and a new Water-colour in the Tate Gallery’, Burlington Magazine, CVI, 1964, pp.381–2, repr. p.379 fig.30; Raine 1968, 1, pp.346–7; Butlin 1981, p.129 no.255, pl.305; Jean H. Hagstrum, review of Butlin 1981, Modern Philology, LXXIX, 1981–2, p.449; Essick 1982–3, p.32

This watercolour is a version of the engraved design for the ‘Preludium’ to Blake's illuminated book America, which is dated 1793 on the title-page, but may have been begun a year or two earlier (repr. Erdman Illuminated Blake 1974, p.139). In the watercolour the composition is in reverse and lacks the female figure of the engraving, facts which suggest that it was executed first. It is similar in style, though more subdued in colour, to the watercolour of ‘The Good and Evil Angels’ in the Cecil Higgins Museum, Bedford (Butlin 1981, no.257, colour pl.197). The Bedford watercolour can be dated c.1793–4. It is a slightly later development, in the same direction, of the design of plate 4 of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (repr. Erdman 1974, p.101); this book is dated 1790 on one copy but was almost certainly not completed until 1793, plate 4 being one of the later pages (see David V. Erdman, ed., The Poetry and Prose of William Blake, 1965 and subsequent editions, p.723). The watercolour formed the basis for the large colour print of ‘The Good and Evil Angels’ of 1795 (see no.33). ‘Los and Orc’ probably dates from slightly earlier, though in style it follows the Tiriel wash drawings of c.1789 (Butlin no.198, the series repr. Bentley Tiriel 1967).

The design in America accompanies the fourteen-year-old Orc's account of how he has been bound in chains by his father Urthona, but it prefigures rather a passage in one of Blake's slightly later poems, Vala, first drafted 1795–7; here Orc's parents Los (as Urthona is now called) and Enitharmon have come to repent of this deed and lament over their chained son (‘Night the Fifth’, lines 143–72; Keynes Writings 1957, p.309). Vala, later retitled The Four Zoas, was never published by Blake, but in the much emended manuscript in the British Museum (Butlin no.337, the whole repr. G.E. Bentley Jr, Vala or the Four Zoas, 1963, and Cettina Tramontano Magno and David V. Erdman, The Four Zoas by William Blake, 1987) this passage, rewritten c.1802–3, is accompanied on page 62 by another version of the America design in reverse but with all three figures. In Blake's mythology Los represents the ‘Poetic Genius’ and Enitharmon his inspiration; Orc embodies energy and revolt, and his chaining symbolises a restraint of natural passions.

Enitharmon is absent from the Tate Gallery watercolour but the scene shown is presumably the same. It is an indication of the close relationship between Blake's art and his writings that in this case the theme appears first in the visual form, not in his poetry. Some years later Blake returned to the subject again in the relief etching ‘The Chaining of Orc’ of 1802 (Essick Separate Plates 1983, pp.90–92 no.xvii, fig.45). In addition there is a complex stylistic and iconographic link with the watercolour and colour print of ‘The Good and Evil Angels’; see N05057.

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

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