William Blake



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William Blake 1757–1827
Colour print, ink and watercolour on paper
Support: 543 × 725 mm
image: 445 × 619 mm
frame: 662 × 830 × 50 mm
Presented by W. Graham Robertson 1939

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In the prospectus for his book, Varley announced his intention to include an engraving of Blake’s Nebuchadnezzar. This was never completed but, as with Ghost of a Flea, Varley may have been interested in the transformation of man into beast. The Bible describes how King Nebuchadnezzar was driven mad and forced to live like a wild animal as punishment for excessive pride. The association between moral corruption and bestial appearance is also suggested by Lavater, who traces a scale of perfection from the head of a frog to the face of Apollo (see the nearby panel).

Gallery label, March 2011

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Catalogue entry

N05059 Nebuchadnezzar 1795/c. 1805

N 05059 / B 301
Colour print finished in ink and watercolour, irregular 446×620 (17 5/8×24 3/8) on paper approx. 545×725 (21 1/2×28 1/2)

Signed ‘1795 WB inv [in monogram]’ b.r. and inscribed ‘Nebuchadnezzar’ below design Watermarked ‘JWHATMAN/1804’
Presented by W. Graham Robertson 1939
PROVENANCE Thomas Butts; Thomas Butts jun.; Capt. F.J. Butts; his widow, sold through Carfax April 1906 to W. Graham Robertson
EXHIBITED Carfax 1906 (33); Tate Gallery 1913 (17); on loan to Tate Gallery 1923–7; BFAC 1927 (11, pl.11); Wartime Acquisitions National Gallery 1942 (10); Paris, Antwerp (pl.7), Zurich and Tate Gallery (repr.) 1947 (12); Romantic Movement Arts Council 1959 (611); Tate Gallery 1978 (91, repr.)
LITERATURE Gilchrist 1863, 1, p.88; Rossetti 1863, p.202 no.13, and 1880, p.202 no.15; Robertson in Gilchrist 1907, pp.408–9, repr. facing p.90; Russell Engravings 1912, p.20; Figgis 1925, at pl.77, repr. in colour; Blunt in Warburg Journal, VI, 1943, pp.203–4, pl.60a; Keynes Faber Gallery 1946, pp.4–5, 8, colour pl.3; Grigson in Architectural Review, CVIII, 1950, p.218; Preston 1952, pp.37–8 no.4, pl.4; Digby 1957, p.102; Keynes Bible 1957, p.26 no.84a repr.; Blunt 1959, pp.51, 60, pl.31c; Preston in Apollo, LXXXIV, 1966, pp.384–6, pl.6; Keynes Letters 1968, p.118; Bentley Blake Records 1969, p.573; Erdman 1969, pp.193–4; Kostelanetz in Rosenfeld 1969, pp.125–6; Mellor 1974, pp.97, 155; Bindman 1977, pp.98–100; Klonsky 1977, p.63, repr. in colour; Bindman Graphic Works 1978, no.332, repr.; Paley 1978, pp.11, 37, 178; La Belle in Blake, XIV, 1980–1, p.76, pl.9; Butlin 1981, pp.164–5 no.301, colour pl.393; Butlin in Blake, XVII, 1983–4, p.159; Warner 1984, p.44, pl.19; Boime 1987, pp.326–30, pl.4.28 in colour; Also repr: Mizue, no.882, 1978, 9, p.9.

Listed in Blake's account with Thomas Butts of 3 March 1806, apparently as having been delivered on 7 September 1805. There are two other versions, in the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (Butlin 1981, nos.302 and 303, pls.406 and 407). In 1981, before the discovery of the 1804 watermark, I suggested that the Tate copy of the print was probably the first of the known pulls of this design. The variations between the three copies, and the general nature of the two other prints, suggests that this view is still the most likely one, and that none of the known copies of the design can therefore have been executed before 1804. There is however a possibility, though an unlikely one, that there was, uniquely, a fourth copy of this design belonging c. 1880 to Arthur Burgess (see Butlin no.304).
This is an illustration to Daniel, iv, 31–3. Blake had already used this composition on a smaller scale on p.24 of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, c.1790–3 (repr. Erdman Illuminated Blake 1974, p.121). There are two pencil sketches on pages 44 and 48 of Blake's Notebook (Butlin nos.201 44 and 48, repr. Erdman and Moore 1973). An untraced sepia drawing was in the William Bell Scott sale at Sotheby's on 21 April 1885 (181); see Butlin no.305.

The figure of Nebuchadnezzar also appears, in a modified form, in one of the watercolour illustrations to Young's Night Thoughts, 1796–7 (Night VII, page 27; Butlin no.330 299, repr. David V. Erdman, ed., William Blake's Designs for Edward Young's Night Thoughts, 1980). The pose of the figure is probably based on Dürer's engraving of ‘The Penance of St John Chrysostomus’. Blake greatly admired Dürer's prints and there is also an iconographic connection: St John Chrysostomus deliberately based his penance on Nebuchadnezzar's bestial madness (see Edgar Wind, ‘The Saint as Monster’ in Journal of the Warburg Institute, 1, 1937–8, p.183, the Dürer repr.; also repr. Preston 1966, p.8).

Geoffrey Grigson has demonstrated the influence of John Hamilton Mortimer's engraving of ‘Nebuchadnezzar Recovering his Reason’ of c. 1778 (repr. Grigson loc. cit., Erdman 1969, pl.7a, and Blunt op. cit., pl.31b). Erdman associates Nebuchadnezzar with Blake's own character Urizen; thus Blake is seen to be representing

‘Reason losing his reason’. This work and ‘Newton’ (N05058) seem to have been designed as a pair and may therefore represent two aspects of the rational will. On the other hand, as Blunt has suggested, Nebuchadnezzar may be seen as slave to the senses, with Newton as slave to Reason. This is supported by the text accompanying the earlier version of the design in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, which illustrates the last ‘Memorable Fancy’ in which Blake, speaking through a Devil, asserts that the greatest men should be especially loved and honoured and demonstrates how Christ transcended and broke the Ten Commandments; the design is captioned ‘One Law for the Lion and Ox is Oppression’, the sense being that in this instance Man, in the person of Nebuchadnezzar, is being subjected to the Law of the Beast, in other words to the senses alone. What appear to be massive twisted roots behind the figure, with some foliage, were perhaps suggested by the great tree of Nebuchadnezzar's dream in Daniel, iv, 10–16, and in particular by ‘the stump of his roots’ which were to remain when the rest had been hewn down; in addition these forms give a feeling of oppressive materialism to the design.

Boime points out that, whereas in the illustration to The Marriage of Heaven and Hell Nebuchadnezzar is shown wearing a crown, an allusion to the recent downfall of the French Monarchy which is also alluded to in ‘The Song of Liberty’ that begins on the next page of the book, the colour prints omit this detail. Presumably this was to make the meaning of the composition more general, less topical.

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

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