William Blake

The Penance of Jane Shore in St Paul’s Church


Not on display

William Blake 1757–1827
Ink, watercolour and gouache on paper
Support: 245 × 295 mm
Presented by the executors of W. Graham Robertson through the Art Fund 1949

Display caption

Jane Shore was a mistress of King Edward IV. After his death in 1483 she was accused of being a harlot and condemned to do public penance in St Paul’s Cathedral. The ‘golden glow’ of this watercolour comes from a very thick, now-yellowed glue layer that was almost certainly applied as a varnish by Blake. He varnished his temperas in a similar way. Once it had yellowed someone else added a picture varnish on top. This also went yellow but has since been removed. The subtle colouring of Blake’s painting is suppressed by the glue varnish.

Gallery label, September 2004

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Catalogue entry

N05898 The Penance of Jane Shore in St Paul's Church c. 1793

N 05898 / B 69
Pen and watercolour, sized, 245×295 (9 1/2×11 1/2)

Presented by the Executors of W. Graham Robertson through the National Art-Collections Fund 1949
PROVENANCE Mrs Blake; Frederick Tatham, sold Sotheby's 29 April 1862 (in 171 with another work) £1.7.0 bt H. Toovey; C.J. Toovey; Henry Cunliffe, sold Sotheby's 11 May 1895 (101) £1.1.0 bt Joseph Grego; E. Parsons, sold July 1908 to W. Graham Robertson, offered at Christie's 22 July 1949 (59) £273 bt his executors
EXHIBITED ? Blake's exhibition 1809 (16); Tate Gallery 1913 (62); on loan to Tate Gallery from 1923; Tate Gallery 1947 (79); Bournemouth, Southampton and Brighton 1949 (13); Whitworth 1969 (39, repr.); Tate Gallery 1978 (17, repr.)
LITERATURE Blake Descriptive Catalogue 1809, pp.65–6 (reprinted in Keynes Writings 1957, pp.585–6); Gilchrist 1863, 1, p.31; Rossetti 1863, p.201 no.1, and 1880, p.207 no.1; Russell Engravings 1912, p.66; Blunt in Warburg Journal, VI, 1943, p.194, pl.54b; Preston 1952, pp.74–6 no.20, pl.20; Blunt 1959, pp.4–9, pl.4a; Erdman 1969, p.47; Bindman in Paley and Phillips 1973, pp.33–4; Mellor 1974, pp.106–7, pl.28; Bindman 1977, pp.24–5, 156–7, 247 n.26; Paley 1978, pp.19, 177, pl.1; Butlin in Blake, XIII, 1979–80, p.17, repr.: Butlin 1981, p.24 no.69, pl.61

On the reverse Henry Cunliffe, one of the earlier owners of this watercolour, has written, ‘Jane Shore doing Penance by William Blake. Obit 28 Aug. 1828 [sic] For a Biography of this most remarkable man see Cunningham's Lives of British Painters Purchased Sotheby in Lot. No.171, 28 Ap. 1862, H.C.’ Blake in fact died on 12 August 1827; the year 1828, but not the mistaken date of the month, derives from Allan Cunningham's Lives of the Most Eminent British Painters, Sculptors and Architects, both the first and second editions of which were published in 1830 (for a reprint see Bentley 1969, pp.476–507).

This is a later, more accomplished version of the small watercolour that forms part of the series of illustrations to English history executed c.1779 and which is now on loan to the Tate Gallery (Butlin 1981, no.69, pl.59). This has only two bystanders on the right and five fully defined figures in the main group; only some five further heads are suggested behind. There is also a pencil drawing of the main figures, without any architectural setting, that seems to have been drawn between the two watercolours; though much closer to the Tate Gallery version, it retains the somewhat looser grouping of the figures of the earlier watercolour (Keynes Collection, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge; Butlin 1981, no.68, pl.60).
‘The Penance of Jane Shore’ appears in a list of titles of subjects from English history written c.1793 in Blake's Notebook. Interestingly enough the drawing from the Keynes Collection is almost the same size as the large historical engraving of the same year, ‘Edward & Elenor’, published on 18 August 1793 (12 1/8×18 1/2in; see Essick 1983, pp.14–16 no.iv). This suggests a date, supported by style and technique, for the Tate Gallery watercolour.

However, both Gilchrist and Rossetti assume that it was the watercolour now in the Tate Gallery that was shown by Blake in his exhibition of 1809 with the note ‘This Drawing was done above Thirty Years ago, and proves to the Author, and he thinks will prove to any discerning eye, that the productions of our youth and of our maturer age are equal in all essential points’. It is however the smaller, earlier version of this composition that would seem to date from c. 1779, but it is of so tentative a character that it seems unlikely that Blake could have presumed to show it with such pride in 1809. Blake's attitude to dates was somewhat cavalier; it was the idea rather than the material execution that really mattered to him, and in his catalogue he could well have been referring to his original conception as of ‘above Thirty Years ago’. A parallel example is the engraving of ‘Joseph of Arimathea among the Rocks of Albion’ of which the second state, probably executed well into the nineteenth century, is inscribed ‘Engraved by W. Blake 1773’, the presumed date of the first much less accomplished state which is not dated (see Essick Separate Plates 1983, pp.3–9 no.i). For other examples of Blake's cavalier approach to dating see under N05200 and also the large colour prints, N05055, N05063, N05061, N05059, N05058, N05062, N05056, N05055, N05060, N05057, N05055, N05875 in this catalogue.

Jane Shore (d.1527?) was a mistress of Edward IV and was noted for her beauty and goodness of nature. On Edward's death in 1483 she was attacked by the Protector, the future Richard III, who imprisoned her in the Tower, seized her goods, and, to complete her ruin, accused her of harlotry. She was condemned in the Ecclesiastical Court to do public penance in St Paul's Church and was brought there in a white sheet, with a wax taper in her hand; there ‘...she behaved with so much modesty and decency, that such as respected her beauty more than her fault, never were in greater admiration of her, than now’ - so wrote Rapin de Thoyras in his History of England, probably Blake's chief source for his early historical paintings (translated N. Tindal, third ed., 1743, 1, p.635). Blake probably chose the subject as a protest against orthodox sexual morality. Another instance is ‘The Ordeal of Queen Emma’ (Butlin 1981, no.51, colour pl.177), who in the legend illustrated by Blake was accused of adultery by her son Edward the Confessor. Erdman has suggested that there is also an anti-monarchist element in many of the early historical paintings, but this has been denied by Anthony Blunt (review of Erdman (1954 ed.) in Burlington Magazine, XCIX, 1957, p.101).

Treatment at the Tate Gallery in 1972 showed that the varnish covering the watercolour was considerably later and it was removed, leaving a much more translucent layer of size below. Finishing in size to give greater depth to the colours was quite common among watercolourists at the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth, and Blake may have added it for his exhibition in 1809. Gilchrist writes that ‘One extrinsic circumstance materially detracts from the appearance of this and other watercolour drawings from his hand of the period 1778–9 : viz. that they were all eventually, in prosecution of a hobby of Blake's, varnished - of which process, applied to a watercolour drawing, nothing can exceed the disenchanting, not to say destructive effect’; it is not clear whether what he saw was mainly the size or whether the watercolour had already been varnished by this time.

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

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