William Blake



Not on display

William Blake 1757–1827
Colour print, ink and watercolour on paper
Support: 425 × 539 mm
Presented by W. Graham Robertson 1939

Display caption

This image is taken from Macbeth: ‘pity, like a naked newborn babe / Striding the blast, or heaven’s cherubim horsed / Upon the sightless couriers of the air’. Blake draws on popularly-held associations between a fair complexion and moral purity. These connections are also made by Lavater, who writes that ‘the grey is the tenderest of horses, and, we may here add, that people with light hair, if not effeminate, are yet, it is well known, of tender formation and constitution’. Blake’s interest in the characters of different horses can also be seen in his Chaucer’s Canterbury Pilgrims, hanging nearby.

Gallery label, March 2011

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Catalogue entry

N05062 Pity c.1795

N 05062 / B 310
Colour print finished in ink and watercolour, irregular 425×539 (16 3/8×21 1/16) on paper approx. 545×775 (21 15/16×30 13/16)
Signed ‘Blake’ incised b.r.
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 (28); Cambridge 1910; Tate Gallery 1913 (48); on loan to Tate Gallery 1920–7; BFAC 1927 (46, pl.34); British Art RA 1934 (786; 704, pl.165); Whitechapel 1934 (46); Two Centuries of English Art Amsterdam 1936 (188, repr.); British Painting Paris 1938 (159); Wartime Acquisitions National Gallery 1942 (14); Paris, Antwerp (pl.21), Zurich (repr.) and Tate Gallery 1947 (31); Tate Gallery 1978 (95, repr.); The Painterly Print, Metropolitan Museum, New York, and Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, October 1980–March 1981 (17, repr.); New Haven and Toronto 1982–3 (52, repr.)
LITERATURE Rossetti 1863, p.237 under no.218; Robertson in Gilchrist 1907, p.407, repr. facing p.188; Blunt in Warburg Journal, VI, 1943, pp.201, 207–8, 212, pl.57b; Keynes Faber Gallery 1946, p.5, 10, colour pl.4; Grigson in Architectural Review, CVIII, 1950, p.218; Preston 1952, pp.44–6 no.7, pl.7; Blunt 1959, pp.39, 60–1, pl.28a; Merchant in Apollo, LXXIX, 1964, p.322, pl.9 (reprinted in Essick 1973, pp.244–6, pl.69); Damon 1965, p.370; Hagstrum in Hilles and Bloom 1965, p.311, 316, 318–20, 329 n.40; Kostelanetz in Rosenfeld 1969, p.129, pl.4; Mellor 1974, pp.161–3, pl.45; Bindman 1977, pp.98–9, 106; Klonsky 1977, p.61, repr. in colour; Bindman Graphic Works 1978, no.326, repr.; Paley 1978, p.38; Essick Printmaker 1980, p.134, pl.126; Sue Welsh Reed, catalogue entries on three versions of ‘Pity’ in exh. cat. The Painterly Print, 1980, pp.84–9; La Belle in Blake, XIV, 1980–1; Butlin 1981, pp.168–9 no.310, colour pl.395; Heppner in Bulletin of Research in the Humanities, LXXXIV, 1981, pp.337–54, repr. p.349; Butlin in Blake, XV, 1981–2, p.102; Bindman in Blake, XVI, 1982–3, p.162

There are two other full-size versions of this design, one in the Metropolitan Museum, New York, and one at the Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection, New Haven (Butlin 1981, nos.311 and 312, pls.410 and 411). None of the prints are dated, nor do they bear dated watermarks, but all seem to date from the initial phase of Blake's work on his large colour prints, c.1795. The sequence of the three pulls seems to have been Tate Gallery, Metropolitan Museum and Yale Center.

There is also a smaller colour print of the same composition, measuring 7 7/8×10 3/4 in, in the British Museum (Butlin no.313, pl.412) which seems to have been a try-out not just for this composition but for the technique of the series of large colour prints as a whole.

In composition the smaller colour print lies mid-way between the large printed versions of the composition and two preliminary pencil drawings with the composition reversed which are also in the British Museum (Butlin nos.314 and 315, pls.413 and 414). The earlier of these two drawings (no.314) is upright in composition, suggesting that Blake had not yet fixed a format of the proportions of the composition. The second drawing in the British Museum is however in the oblong format of the later colour prints, as is what may be another sketch for the same composition, much rougher and partly obscured by writing, in Blake's Notebook (Butlin no.201 106, and Erdman and Moore 1973, Caption 2 N106 repr.). On the back of the second, oblong British Museum drawing there is another sketch related at least in part, recently uncovered when the drawing was remounted. At the bottom of the composition the same small child appears leaping upwards, towards however a completely different figure of a nude woman apparently clambering up rocks.

The first, upright British Museum drawing is inscribed by Frederick Tatham with the words ‘Shakespeares Pity/. And Pity like a naked new-born Babe/ &c &c[?]/ F. Tatham -’. Although no title seems to have been inscribed by Blake on the margin of the Tate Gallery print, and no account between Butts and Blake giving the title can be traced, it seems to be universally accepted that Tatham was correct in his identification with the verses from Shakespear's Macbeth, 1, vii:

Besides, this Duncan
Hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been
So clear in his great office, that his virtues
Will plead, like angels, trumpet-tongu'd against
The deep damnation of his taking off;
And Pity, like a naked new-born babe,
Striding the blast, or heav'n's cherubin hors'd
Upon the sightless couriers of the air,
Shall blow the horrid deed in ev'ry eye;
That tears shall drown the wind - I have no spur
To prick the sides of my intent, but only
Vaulting ambition, which o'er leaps itself,
And falls on th'other -.

Blake, rather than illustrating the incident in Shakespeare's play, illustrates his figures of speech, recreating his imagery, as Christopher Heppner says, ‘in the form of a dramatized episode implying a supportive narrative’. This illustration of the figure of speech rather than the dramatic situation had been anticipated by John Hamilton Mortimer (see Grigson, loc. cit.) and Fuseli (see Bindman 1977, p.106). Both of Shakespeare's alternative similes for pity are illustrated, the babe and the female cherubin leaning from the horse's back to snatch it up from the mother lying below. In one sense the design is an amazingly literal illustration of Shakespeare's images, including the ‘sightless couriers of the air’, with the ‘tears’ being shown as rain. However, the mother does not appear in Shakespeare's text but forms part of Blake's new narrative context.

Until recently the design has more usually been seen as negative in content, illustrating pity as a divisive force as in the line ‘For pity divides the soul’ from Urizen of 1794. In this book Pity appears as the first woman, Blake's character Enitharmon, who divides off from Los, a division paralleling the creation of Eve from Adam, and this leads, through her mating with Los, to ‘Man begetting his likeness, On his own divided image’ (Keynes Writings 1957, pp.230–2). However, in part anticipated by A.S. Roe (exh. cat., William Blake: An Annotaled Catalogue, Andrew Dixon White Museum of Art, Cornell University, Ithaca, February–March 1965, p.28 no.32, the Metropolitan Museum version repr.), Christopher Heppner, who has given the fullest and probably the closest analysis of the design up to the present, sees the design as positive in intent, demonstrating the possibilities of salvation through pity in the fallen world typified by the abandoned mother. Certainly the general impression is positive, as opposed to the negative impact of the companion print usually identified as ‘Hecate’ (no.31). Pity, as embodied in the figure of the babe, is one of Blake's typical figures of positive energy, that personified most usually by Orc in his earliest, innocent state.

The farther horseman or cherubin, with arms outstretched, who seems to be male in contrast to the female figure on the nearer horse, is probably based on one of Raphael's representations of God the Father in the Vatican Loggie (e.g. that repr. Blunt 1959, pl.32d). At this period in his life Blake saw God the Father, the God of the Old Testament, as a negative force in contrast to Christ, and Heppner has suggested that the two cherubim are similarly contrasted, the nearer one being Pity, the farther one Wrath. On the other hand the attitude of the farthest figure may merely have been adopted by Blake to stress a sense of continuing movement against which is set the momentarily more static action of the nearer figure snatching up the babe.

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

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