William Blake

Lower Half of a Woman Playing a Harp. Verso: Seraphim and Other Drawings

c.1785, c.?1807

In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
William Blake 1757–1827
Graphite on paper. Verso: graphite on paper
Support: 268 × 450 mm
Presented by Mrs John Richmond 1922

Catalogue entry

A00044 Lower Half of a Woman Playing a Harp c.1785 (recto)
Seraphim and Other Drawings c.1807(?) (verso)

A 00044 / B 77
Pencil 268× 450 (10 9/16×17 3/4): the verso is upright in format
Inscribed on verso by Frederick Tatham ‘William Blake vouched by Frederick Tatham’ b.r.
Presented by Mrs John Richmond 1922
PROVENANCE Mrs Blake; Frederick Tatham; his brother-in-law George Richmond, sold Christie's 29 April 1897 (in 147, with 22 other items, see no.2) £2.10.0 bt Dr Richard Sisley; his daughter, Mrs John Richmond
LITERATURE Butlin 1981, p.29 no.77, pls.68 and 70

The sketch on the recto is the bottom half of a drawing the rest of which is on a sheet in the Rosenbach Museum, Philadelphia (Butlin 1981, no.76 verso, pl.67; in Butlin 1981 the recti and versi of these two drawings are transposed). Although slightly smaller, 11 1/4×16 9/16 in, the Rosenbach sheet shows the upper half of the seated girl playing the harp, which connects, allowing for a small loss in between, with the seated figure with harp, seen from the waist down, on the Tate Gallery sheet. On the left of the Tate Gallery drawing there are two partly erased sketches of hands which seem to be alternative ideas for the girl's right hand plucking the harp strings in the Rosenbach drawing.

The drawings on the backs of the sheets in the Tate Gallery and the Rosenbach Museum are not connected with each other and must have been done after the drawing of the woman playing the harp had been cut in two. In earlier editions of this catalogue and in Butlin 1981 the drawing on the back of the Rosenbach sheet was dated c.1780 but this seems to be an error. It is related to the small reliefetching of ‘Joseph of Arimathea Preaching to the Inhabitants of Britain’ at present known only in two colour-printed versions of c.1795 (Butlin 1981, nos.262 6 and 286, pl.366 and colour pl.340). Although the underlying relief-etching may have been executed a few years earlier there is nothing stylistically about the drawing to prevent it from having been executed in the first half of the 1790s.

Similarly the sketches on the back of the Tate Gallery sheet seem to have been executed considerably later than 1780. The seraphim, if such they are, appear in a tight group in the lower right-hand corner. The drawing at the top of the sheet is perhaps related to that in Blake's Notebook called by Keynes ‘The Trinity’ (Butlin no.201 104, repr. Keynes 1970, no.15, and Erdman and Moore Notebook 1973); through this it is related to the figures of God the Father embracing the Son in ‘Christ offers to Redeem Man’ from the illustrations of 1807 and 1808 to Paradise Lost (Butlin nos.529 3 and 536 3, colour pls.634 and 647). In the Tate Gallery drawing the ascending figure seems to be accompanied by two smaller figures, perhaps angels. The drawing in the lower right-hand corner could also be related to the two Paradise Lost series, showing some resemblance to the seated manacled figure seen full-face in ‘Satan Calling up his Legions’ (Butlin nos.529 1 and 536 1, colour pls.632 and 645). The rough sketch in the centre of the sheet is unidentifiable. Some of the Miltonic drawing in Blake's Notebook were subsequently covered by drafts for Songs of Experience, first issued by Blake in 1794, and presumably precede this date. However, it seems more likely that the Miltonic drawings on the Tate Gallery sheet are more directly related to the Paradise Lost series of 1807 and 1808, hence the tentative dating given above.

The degree of accomplishment shown in the upper part of the drawing of the woman playing the harp on the recti of the two sheets has always made a dating of as early as c. 1780 difficult to accept. The drawing, not being typical of Blake in its subject, is difficult to date. It is tempting to see it as a life study made in preparation for the several drawings of people playing harps in the illustrations to Gray's Poems of c.1797–8 (Butlin no.335) and in particular for what one can see of the decorative head-piece of the harp in the watercolour of ‘The Welch Bard’ accompanying the title page to The Bard (Butlin no.335 53, repr. Geoffrey Keynes, William Blake's Water-colour Designs for the Poems of Thomas Gray, 1971, Irene Taylor, Blake's Illustrations to the Poems of Gray, 1971, and Geoffrey Keynes, William Blake's Water-Colour Designs for the Poems of Thomas Gray, Blake Trust facsimile in colour, 1972). Even more likely, the drawing could have been done in preparation for the lost watercolour of ‘The Bard’ exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1785 (Butlin no.160; see also no.60). The upper part of the drawing shows a strong Neo-Classical crispness and sense of line which suggests that date. However, it bears no relationship to the recently rediscovered drawing for ‘The Bard’ noted under no.6.

This work was formerly inventoried as no.3694 xvi.

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

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