William Blake

The Soul Hovering over the Body Reluctantly Parting with Life


Not on display

William Blake 1757–1827
Graphite on paper
Support: 272 × 456 mm
frame: 470 × 655 × 20 mm
Bequeathed by Sir Hugh Walpole 1941

Display caption

This is a sketch for a design which Blake made for an edition of Robert Blair’s poem The Grave. This was published in 1808. Against Blake's wishes the illustrations to the book, shown in a display case in the centre of the room, were engraved after Blake’s designs by Luigi Schiavonetti.

In the engraving the figure of the hovering soul is the same as in this drawing. However, the print shows the dying man, who has led such a self-indulgent life, lying on his back without the lyre and wreath.

Gallery label, September 2004

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Catalogue entry

N05300 The Soul Hovering over the Body Reluctantly Parting with Life c.1805

N 05300 / B 625
Pencil on paper 272×456 (10 3/4×17 7/8)
Bequeathed by Sir Hugh Walpole 1941
PROVENANCE ? Mrs Blake; ? Frederick Tatham; ?Joseph Hogarth, sold Southgate's 7–23 June 1854, 12th evening (in 5082 with 21 other works) 16/- bt Edsall; ...; Richard Johnson, sold Platt's 25 April 1912 (in 702 with 16 other works) purchaser unknown; sold Sotheby's 28–30 May 1934, 1st day (167) £22 bt Bain for Sir Hugh Walpole
EXHIBITED Tate Gallery 1947 (81); Tate Gallery 1978 (155, repr.)
LITERATURE Robert T. Stothard, ‘Stothard and Blake’, Athenaeum, 19 December 1863, p.838; Keynes Drawings, 11, 1956, no.17 repr.; Keynes Writings 1957, pp.861–2; Keynes Letters 1968, pp.120–3, pl.20; Keynes Drawings 1970, no.40 repr.; Erdman Notebook 1973, p.18 and at N29; G.E. Bentley jun., ‘Blake and Cromek: The Wheat and the Tares’, Journal of Modern Philology, LXXI, 1974, pp.366–9; Helmstadter 1978, p.50 n.23; Butlin 1981, p.461 no.625, pl.861; Robert N. Essick and Morton D. Paley, Robert Blair's The Grave illustrated by William Blake, 1982, p.61 and passim, fig.8

This is a sketch for plate 6 of Robert Blair's The Grave, commissioned by Robert Hartley Cromek in 1805 and published in 1808. Originally it was intended that Blake, as well as providing the designs, should do the more renumerative job of engraving them himself, but the task was eventually entrusted to the more fashionable Luigi Schiavonetti. This book, like Edward Young's Night Thoughts, for a deluxe edition of which Blake had executed no fewer than 537 watercolours c. 1795–7 (Butlin 1981, no.330), was an example of the contemporary taste for ‘graveyard poetry’ and had been first published in 1743.
Schiavonetti's engraving is entitled as above with a quotation from Blair's lines describing the death of a voluptuary:

...How wishfully she looks
On all she's leaving, now no longer her's!

In the engraving the figure of the soul hovering above is the same but the dead voluptuary is shown lying on his back without the lyre and wreath shown in this drawing. An earlier stage in the evolution of the design appears to have been the untraced indian ink drawing listed by William Rossetti as being in the collection of F.T. Palgrave, ‘The Death of a Voluptuary’ (Butlin no.626). The reclining figure has some affinity with that in Emblem 11 on p.29 of Blake's Notebook (Butlin no.201 29, repr.; Erdman and Moore Notebook 1973); Erdman seems however to overstress the closeness of this relationship while unjustifiably questioning Keynes's interpretation and dating.

The commission to illustrate Blair's The Grave is first recorded in a letter of 18 October 1805 from John Flaxman to William Hayley: ‘Mr Cromek has employed Blake to make a set of drawings from Blair's poem of the Grave 20 of which he proposes [to] have engraved by the Designer’. On 27 November 1805 Blake himself wrote to Hayley, repeating much the same information and continuing ‘In consequence of this I produced about twenty Designs which pleased so well that he with the same liberality with which he set me about the drawings has now set me to Engrave them’. However the first version of Cromek's prospectus, dated November 1805, speaks of only ‘fifteen prints from designs invented and to be engraved by William Blake’, adding that ‘The original Drawings, and Specimen of the Stile of Engraving, may be seen at the Proprietor's Mr. Cromek’. What happened next was later described by Thomas Stothard's son Robert: ‘Cromek found, and explained to my father, that he [Blake] had etched one of the subjects, but so indifferently and so carelessly...that he employed Schrovenetti [sic] to engrave them’. This change of plan was reflected in a second version of Cromek's Prospectus also but perhaps incorrectly (the type was only partly reset) dated November 1805, which announced, reducing the number of plates again, ‘twelve very spirited engravings by Louis Schiavonetti, from designs invented by William Blake’ (a copy of Cromek's first prospectus annotated to bring it into line with the second version was sold with the Townley Papers by Lord O'Hagen at Sotheby's on 22–23 July 1985 (550, repr.); the words ‘and to be engraved [by William Blake;]’ have been deleted and a new line has been inserted after ‘William Blake;’ reading ‘and to be engraved by L. Schiavonetti’). Blake was still unaware of this change when he wrote to Hayley on 11 December 1805. Paradoxically these designs of Blake, despite having been engraved by someone else, were to become his best known works for nearly half a century, although contemporary reviews ridiculed his contribution.

In view of the common provenance from the Joseph Hogarth sale shared by a number of drawings later sold from the Richard Johnson collection the history of this work as given above is the most likely, but the position is confused by the number of drawings that have been sold with similar titles.

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

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