William Blake

The Bard, from Gray


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William Blake 1757–1827
Tempera and gold on canvas
Support: 600 × 441 mm
frame: 775 × 623 × 70 mm
Purchased 1920

Display caption

Blake saw the Bards as his forerunners; they sang of loss, the future, and nationhood.

This tempera has greatly altered since it was painted. Blake used a very thin, white, preparatory layer of chalk and glue. This was impregnated with more glue during a conservation ‘lining’ treatment more appropriate to an oil painting. This reduced the effect of transparent colours over a white background, and displaced some details painted in shell gold. Blake’s paint medium has also darkened greatly. The opaque red vermilion used for the line of blood, glazed over with madder lake, has survived better than blue areas.

Gallery label, September 2004

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Catalogue entry

N03551 The Bard, from Gray 1809(?)

N 03551 / B 655
Tempera heightened with gold on canvas 600×441 (23 5/8×17 3/8)
Signed ‘WBlake [with traces of a date]’ b.c. Purchased (Clarke Fund) 1920
PROVENANCE Samuel Palmer, given between 1873 and 1876 to George Richmond, given 1887 to his son William Blake Richmond, by whom sold to the Tate Gallery
EXHIBITED Blake's exhibition 1809 (4); Old Masters RA 1873 (196): BFAC 1876 (45); Century of British Art Grosvenor Gallery 1887–8 (232); Carfax 1904 (35); Carfax 1906 (23); Century of Art Grafton Galleries 1911 (57); Tate Gallery (54) and Manchester (49) 1913–14; Tate Gallery 1947 (45); Tate Gallery 1978 (207, repr.)
LITERATURE Blake Descriptive Catalogue 1809, pp.35–8 (reprinted in Keynes Writings 1957, pp.576–7); Rossetti 1863, p.202 no.6, and 1880, p.221 no.100; Robertson in Gilchrist 1907, p.416 under no.6; F.I. McCarthy, ‘The Bard of Thomas Gray, Its Composition and its use by Painters’, The National Library of Wales Journal, XIV, 1965, p.111, pl.11; Bentley Blake Records 1969, pp.178–9; Erdman 1969, pp.47–9, 453; Tayler in Blake Newsletter, X, 1976–7, p.81; Butlin 1981, pp.476–7, pl.885

A label on the back ‘contributed by Saml Palmer’ gives the information ‘Signed “W. Blake 1809”’; only the signature is now legible. Another inscription on the back records the gift by George Richmond of the picture to his son William Blake Richmond on 11 May 1887. The picture was restored at the Tate Gallery in 1977.

There are two sketches for the composition in the Philadelphia Museum of Art (Butlin 1981, no.656, recto and verso, pls.886 and 887). Blake had previously exhibited a watercolour of the same subject, now lost, at the Royal Academy in 1785 (Butlin no.160) and had also painted a series of 116 watercolour illustrations to Gray's poems, including 14 to ‘The Bard’, c.1797–8 (Butlin nos.335 53–66, the whole series repr. Geoffrey Keynes, William Blake Water-colour Designs for the Poems of Thomas Gray, 1971 and Blake Trust colour facsimile 1972, and Irene Tayler Blake's Illustrations to the Poems of Gray 1971). William Rossetti, in his 1863 list, mistakenly associated the tempera in the Tate Gallery with the watercolour exhibited in 1785; he corrected this in his 1888 list.

Gray's poem recounts how Edward I, who on invading Wales condemned all the bards to death, was confronted by a lone survivor who prophesied the doom of the king and the successors of his blood. The surviving bard stands on a rock above the river Conway, accompanied by the ghosts of his fellows. In his Descriptive Catalogue Blake defends his ‘mode of representing spirits with real bodies’ by citing the example of Greek statues of the gods, ‘all of them representations of spiritual existences’; moreover the Prophets and Apostles ‘described what they saw in Vision as real and existing men whom they saw with their imaginative and immortal organs ... He who does not imagine in stronger and better lineaments, and in stronger and better light than his perishing mortal eye can see does not imagine at all’.

Blake goes on to describe the rest of this much darkened picture: ‘King Edward and his Queen Elenor are prostrated, with their horses, at the foot of a rock on which the Bard stands; prostrated by the terrors of his harp on the margin of the river Conway, whose waves bear up a corse of a slaughtered bard at the foot of the rock. The armies of Edward are seen winding away among the mountains.... Mortimer and Gloucester lie spell bound behind their king’. He adds, somewhat confusingly, ‘The execution of this picture is also in Water Colours, or Fresco’.

The picture is a proclamation of the enduring power of art against the force of arms. Blake chose a similar subject for the next picture in his exhibition, the lost ‘Ancient Britons’ (Butlin no.657).

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

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