William Blake

The River of Life


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William Blake 1757–1827
Ink and watercolour on paper
Image: 305 × 336 mm
support: 442 × 432 mm
Bequeathed by W. Graham Robertson 1949

Display caption

This work illustrates lines from the Book of Revelation. The River of Life flows from the throne of God to the Tree of Life.

It is also a rare example of how Blake presented his watercolours: he drew the washline border between ruled ink lines.
The yellow tone of the paper is the result of over-exposure to light. This caused some of the original blue paint (indigo perhaps) to fade; the fuzzy band of Prussian blue on the lower edge, and spots of the same colour in the river, were added later by someone trying to ‘correct’ this fading.

Gallery label, September 2004

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Catalogue entry

N05887 The River of Life c.1805

N 05887 / B 525
Pen and watercolour 305×336 (12×13 1/4)
Signed ‘WB inv’ in monogram b.l. and inscr. ‘Rev: cxxii v 1 & 2’ b.r.
Bequeathed by W. Graham Robertson 1949
PROVENANCE Thomas Butts; Thomas Butts jun.; Capt. F.J. Butts; his widow, sold April 1906 through Carfax to W. Graham Robertson
EXHIBITED BFAC 1876 (94); Carfax 1904 (21); Carfax 1906 (48); Century of Art Grafton Galleries 1911 (127); Tate Gallery (36), Manchester (35), Nottingham (24) and Edinburgh (31) 1913–14; British Empire Exhibition Palace of Arts, Wembley 1924 (N.8, repr. Illustrated Souvenir p.59); BFAC 1927 (33, colour pl. 1); British Art RA 1934 (787; 706); Whitechapel 1934 (54); Two Centuries of English Art Amsterdam 1936 (187); British Painting Paris 1938 (161); Paris, Antwerp, Zurich and Tate Gallery 1947 (23); Bournemouth, Southampton and Brighton 1949 (40)
LITERATURE Rossetti 1863, p.237 no.215, and 1880, pp.251–2 no.245; Joseph Wicksteed Blake's River of Life: Its Poetic Undertones n.d. [1949]; Preston 1952, pp.70–1 no.18, pl.18; Roe 1953, p.185 n.; Keynes Bible 1957, p.50 no.170 repr.; Blunt 1959, pp.72–3, pl.38b; Raine 1968, 1, p.98, pl.40; Roe in Rosenfeld 1969, p.453 n.53; Tolley in Blake Newsletter, VI, 1972–3, p.30; Bindman 1977, pp.143, 165; Klonsky 1977, p.106, repr. in colour; Butlin 1981, pp.371–2, colour pl.586; Warner 1984, pp.147–9, pl.85

This is an illustration to Revelation, xxii, 1–2. In the text only the River of Life proceeding from the Throne of God is mentioned, together with the Tree of Life with its twelve different fruits. The figures were added by Blake. Wicksteed identifies these figures as Christ leading two children through the Stream of Time towards the Divine Sun. To the right the Bride (the New Jerusalem) hovers in a stooping position in order to scoop up water from the River of Life. The river runs between and divides the two banks of Innocence on the left and Experience; each side has its own musician, clad in white and pink respectively. Seen above the figure of Christ is St John the Divine, haloed by the divine sun which is surrounded by figures symbolising eternal marriage.

William Rossetti, in an annotation to his lists in his own copy of Gilchrist's Life now in the Houghton Library, equates this watercolour with the ‘finished picture from the Melamorphoses [of Ovid], after Giulio Romano’, which Samuel Palmer, in a letter to Alexander Gilchrist of 23 August 1855 (Gilchrist 1863, 1, p.301), said hung in Blake's room. This is clearly a mistake, particularly as the watercolour shares a common provenance with the other biblical watercolours painted for Thomas Butts, and William Rossetti did not include this insertion in the 1880 edition of his lists.

A strip of blue along the bottom edge, which was formerly covered by an old mount, indicates that much colour has been lost by fading over the rest of the watercolour.

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

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