William Blake

The Body of Abel Found by Adam and Eve


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Not on display

William Blake 1757–1827
Ink, tempera and gold on mahogany
Support: 325 × 433 mm
frame: 367 × 473 × 44 mm
Bequeathed by W. Graham Robertson 1949

Display caption

This work shows Adam and Eve discovering their dead son. His brother Cain, the murderer, flees the scene. Despite his evil deed, Cain, appears as an ideal male figure. Here, Blake’s approach is in line with that of Lavater, who argued that someone’s appearance is often ‘better than his actions’. However Lavater also suggested that in performing an evil act the person could become disfigured, perhaps explaining Cain’s contorted body.

Rather than follow Lavater here, Blake’s use of the body to invoke self-loathing, fear and, in the case of Eve, despair may be closer to pathognomy - a way of reading emotions about which Lavater remained sceptical.

Gallery label, March 2011

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Catalogue entry

N05888 The Body of Abel Found by Adam and Eve c.1826

N 05888 / B 806
Pen and tempera, in places over gold, on mahogany 325×433 (12 13/16×17 1/16)
Signed ‘fresco W. BLAKE... [damaged- ?‘fecit’ missing]’ incised b.r. Bequeathed by W. Graham Robertson 1949
PROVENANCE. ?Thomas Butts; ?Thomas Butts jun.; ?his daughter Mrs Graham Foster Piggot; ?Capt. F.J. Butts by 1863;...; ? Rev. Thomas Buchanan, Archdeacon of Wiltshire; ?B.F.C. Costeloc by 1890; Mr Fitzmaurice of the Close, Salisbury; Carfax, sold January 1906 to W. Graham Robertson
EXHIBITED ?Whitechapel Fine Art Exhibition St Jude's School-House, March–April 1890 (81, as ‘The Death of Abel’); Carfax 1906 (17); Bournemouth, Southampton and Brighton 1949 (4); Tate Gallery 1978 (312, repr.)
LITERATURE ?Rossetti 1863, p.221 no.102, and 1880, p.221 no.102; Robertson in Gilchrist 1907, p.492 no.9, repr. facing p.248; Preston 1952, pp.72–3 no.19, pl.19; Wicksteed Jerusalem 1953, p.65; Keynes Bible 1957, p.2 no.15a, repr.; H.M. Margoliouth, ‘William Blake, Historical Painter’, Studio, CLIII, 1957, pp.98–100, repr.; Blunt 1959, pp.40–1, pl.57c; Taylor and Grant in Blake Studies, 1, 1968–9, pp.68–71, 200, repr. p.69; Keynes Blake Studies, 1971, pp.145–6, 217; Todd 1971, pp.124–5, repr.; Lindberg Job 1973, p.228; Schiff Fiissli 1973, 1, pp.289, 605; Geoffrey Keynes William Blake's Laocoön, a last Testament, with Related Works, 1976, pp.40–5, 61–2, pl.11; Bindman 1977, p.252 n.14; Klonsky 1977, p.108, repr. in colour; Leslie Tannenbaum, ‘Blake and the Iconography of Cain’, Essick and Pearce 1978, pp.23–4, pl.42; Butlin 1981, pp.550–1 no.806, colour pl.971; Warner 1984, p.68

This work and ‘Satan Smiting Job with Sore Boils’ (N03340) are similar in size, technique, support and form of signature to the version of ‘Count Ugolino in Prison’ formerly in the collection of Sir Geoffrey Keynes and now in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge (Butlin 1981 no.805, colour pl.970); this last work is painted in tempera on panel, 327×430 (12 7/8×16 15/16) and is signed ‘W. BLAKE fec.’ incised b.r. In comparison with Blake's earlier temperas (see T04134, N03007, N05893, N05894, N01164) the technique consists of a much thinner paint film, akin to watercolour, on a gesso ground laid on panel. These late temperas have survived in a much better condition than the earlier examples and they also seem to show an advance on ‘Winter’ (T02387). Both examples, in the Tate Gallery were cleaned 1977–8.

The ‘Ugolino’ panel seems to be the work mentioned in Blake's letter to John Linnell of 25 April 1827: ‘as to Ugolino & c I never supposed that I should sell them[;] my wife alone is answerable for their having Existed in any finished state-I am too much attachd to Dante to think much of anything else’ (Keynes Writings 1957, p.879; Keynes Letters 1968, p.164). The reference to Dante is to the series of illustrations begun in 1824 but left incomplete at Blake's death in August 1827 (see N03351-N03363; N03364- N03349; N03364, A00047, A00005-A00011; T01950-T01956) and of the several other versions of the composition of ‘Ugolino’ that closest to the panel is the pencil drawing from this series (British Museum; Butlin no.812 68, repr. Roe 1963, pl.64). There are further reasons for dating ‘Satan Smiting Job with Sore Boils’ to 1825 or later, so the probable date for all three panels is c.1826.

This painting in tempera of ‘The Body of Abel Found by Adam and Eve’ is a later version of the watercolour shown in Blake's exhibition of 1809 as ‘The Body of Abel found by Adam and Eve; Cain, who was about to bury it, fleeing from the face of his Parents’; this was one of four watercolours in the exhibition that ‘the Artist wishes were in Fresco, on an enlarged scale to ornament the altars of churches, and to make England like Italy, respected by respectable men of other countries on account of Art’ (Blake Descriptive Catalogue 1809, pp.60–1, Keynes Writings 1957, p.584); for what seems to be this watercolour, a work from the Linnell collection now in the Fogg Museum, see Butlin 1981 no.664, repr. in colour pl.596. There is a drawing related to this watercolour in the British Museum (Butlin no.665 recto, repr. pl.882). A small replica of the watercolour in Indian ink, with squaring lines apparently made in preparation for an engraving, was formerly in the collection of Sir Geoffrey Keynes; this may be the drawing sold by Mrs Blake through Haviland Burke to Dr John Jebb, Bishop of Limerick, in 1830 or alternatively a copy done by John Linnell on 12 September 1821 and finished two days later (for these two works see Butlin no.666, the Keynes drawing repr. pl.884). Blake treated the subject again as one of the illustrations to his manuscript copy of Genesis now in the Henry E. Huntington Library and Art Gallery, San Marino (Butlin no.828 10, pl.1091).

The history of this panel is uncertain. Rossetti lists a painting of this subject as in the collection of Captain Butts but relates it to the 1809 exhibition, the work shown at which seems to have been the watercolour that later belonged to John Linnell. Preston quotes a note of W. Graham Robertson that the panel passed to Captain Butt's sister together with sixteen further works which perished in an attic, apart from this solitary exception which seems to have been previously acquired by her brother. In addition Graham Robertson wrote on a label on the back of the picture that it came from a Mr Fitzmaurice of the Close, Salisbury, but told Ruthven Todd, in a letter of 18 May 1942, that Robert Ross of Carfax said it came from a house in the Close but would not say whose. Ruthven Todd has suggested that the picture at one time belonged to Archdeacon Thomas Buchanan, canon of Salisbury and husband of Laura, a daughter of George Richmond, Blake's friend and owner of the companion picture N03340. The Salisbury association may therefore reflect a Richmond provenance rather than a Butts one. To add to the complications a work entitled ‘The Death of Abel’ was lent by B.F.C. Costelloe to an exhibition at Whitechapel in 1890. This could also be the tempera or the missing Jebb drawing, if it is missing, referred to above.

The incident shown in this picture is not in the Bible but appears in Blake's The Ghost of Abel of 1822. In this short dramatic piece the Ghost of Abel, seconded by Satan, cries for vengeance while Jehovah, supported by angels, upholds the ‘Covenant of the Forgiveness of Sin’ (Keynes Writings 1957, pp.779–81). William Vaughan has pointed out that the inclusion of Adam and Eve in the scene must derive from Solomon Gessner's Death of Abel, first published in an English translation in 1761 and again with illustrations by Henry Richter in 1795 and Stothard in 1797. Twelve depictions of this subject were exhibited in London between 1790 and 1830, some with actual references to Gessner, and five indeed between 1819 and 1826, the date of Blake's tempera (see William Vaughan, German Romanticism and English Art, 1979, pp.107–9, 259).

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

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