William Blake

The Spiritual Form of Nelson Guiding Leviathan


Not on display

William Blake 1757–1827
Tempera on canvas
Support: 762 × 625 mm
frame: 912 × 785 × 75 mm
Purchased 1914

Display caption

Blake showed this painting in his 1809 exhibition. It was exhibited alongside The Spiritual Form of Pitt Guiding Behemoth. He provided a long commentary on his ‘spiritual forms’ of both Pitt and Nelson. The recently-deceased Prime Minster William Pitt and naval hero Admiral Nelson had both led Britain in the war against France. Blake shows these national figures guiding biblical monsters bringing chaos and destruction to the world. The symbolism used is complex. In the picture of Nelson ‘The Nations of the Earth’ are shown as contorted figures enveloped by the serpent. A figure of colour in chains lies collapsed at the bottom. He appears to be freed of the serpent’s coils, perhaps suggesting that such destruction could also lead to new freedoms and spiritual rebirth.

This work is cracked and damaged because Blake used a thin canvas and chalk-based ground. The ground layer has darkened due to the conservation treatment of ‘glue’ lining; this is only suitable for oil paintings. Layers of glue in some of Blake’s paints have also darkened. The orange tonality comes from remnants of a discoloured varnish. The contraction of the glue-rich layers and the movement of the thin canvas has created stress, causing cracking.

Gallery label, October 2019

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Catalogue entry

N03006 The Spiritual Form of Nelson Guiding Leviathan c.1805–9

N 03006 / B 649
Tempera on canvas 762×625 (30×24 5/8) Purchased (National Loan Exhibitions Fund) 1914
PROVENANCE Thomas Butts; Thomas Butts jun., sold Foster's 29 June 1853 (70) £ 1.2.0 bt Robinson; T.W. Jackson by 1876, by whose executors sold to the Tate Gallery
EXHIBITED Blake's exhibition 1809 (1); Associated Painters in Water-Colours 1812 (280); BFAC 1876 (126); Carfax 1906 (24); Tate Gallery (65) and Manchester (44) 1913–14; Tate Gallery 1947 (44); Tate Gallery 1978 (205, repr.)
LITERATURE Blake Descriptive Catalogue 1809, pp.1–7 (reprinted in Keynes Writings 1957, pp.564–6); Rossetti 1863, p.211 no.79, and 1880, p.221 no.94; M.A., ‘William Blake's “Nelson”’, Burlington Magazine, XXVI, 1914–15, pp.139–40, repr. p.138; Binyon 1922, pp.20–1, pl.52; Damon 1924, p.95; Wright 1929, 1, pp.110–11, pl.34; Edgar Wind, ‘The Revolution in History Painting’, Warburg Journal, VI, 1943, p.202, pl.59a; Schorer 1946, pp.174–5, 478 n., pl.3; Bronowski 1947, p.80; Frye 1947, pp.139–40; Blunt :959, pp.37, 78, 97–103, pl. 46d; Damon 1965, pp.39, 239–40; Beer 1968, pp.189–90; Raine 1968, 1, p.359; Erdman 1969, pp.449–53, 463 n.4, pl.8; Grant in Rosenfeld 1969, pp.479–80 n.41; Paley 1970, pp.171–99; Macmillan in Blake Newsletter, V, 1971–2, pp.204–5; John E. Grant, review of Paley 1970 in English Language Notes, IX, 1972, pp.212–16; Lindberg Job 1973, pp.19 no. xvii, 300–2 no.15F, 304–11, pl.54, a reconstruction repr. pl.56a; Wittreich 1975, pp.68–9; Tayler in Blake Newsletter, X, 1976–7, pp.80–1; Bindman 1977, pp.155, 160–1, 163–4, pl.121; Erdman 1977, pp.521–2; Paley 1978, pp.53, 66, 178–9, pl.47; Paley in Essick and Pearce 1978, p.176; Butlin 1981, pp.472–3 no.649, pl.876; Warner 1984, pp.196 n.1, 197 n.16; Baine 1986, p.132, pl.59; Boime 1987, pp.345–9, pl.4.40. Also repr: Studio, CVII, 1957, p.97 in colour

The picture was restored by W.G. Littlejohn and W. Graham Robertson c.1906 but was subsequently badly damaged when the Thames flooded the lower ground floor of the Tate Gallery in 1928. Only about half of Blake's original paint remains.

In Blake's Descriptive Catalogue, the title continues ‘... in whose wreathings are infolded the Nations of the Earth’. Lord Nelson died in 1805 and Blake may have been in part inspired (if only to contradiction rather than emulation) by Flaxman's monument in St Paul's, begun in 1808 though not completed until 1811 (repr. Margaret Whinney, Sculpture in Britain 1530 to 1830, 1964, pls. 147–8), and by Benjamin West's ‘Apotheosis of Nelson’, exhibited at his house in 1806 (National Maritime Museum, Greenwich; repr. Blake Newsletter, V, 1971–2, p.205, and Bindman 1977, pl.122). Blake had indeed, in his advertisement for his exhibition, called the ‘Nelson’ and the companion ‘Spiritual From of Pitt’, ‘grand Apotheoses of NELSON and PITT’ (Keynes Writings 1957, p.560). For a further discussion of the significance of this work see under N01110.

The sale of works from Samuel Palmer's collection at Christie's on 20 March 1882 included as lot 110 a ‘Spiritual Form of Nelson guiding Leviathan’ but there is no other record of this version and the title was almost certainly a mistake for the lost ‘Spiritual Form of Napoleon’ (Butlin 1981, no.652) which, together with ‘The Spiritual Form of Pitt’, did belong to Palmer. This identification is strengthened by the fact that the entry in the sale catalogue gives a reference to p.254 no.266 of Rossetti's 1880 list which in fact applies to ‘The Spiritual Form of Napoleon’.

There is a preliminary sketch for ‘The Spiritual Form of Nelson’ in the British Museum (Butlin no.650, pl.875). The disposition of the figures and the serpent is much as in the painting though the exact poses, where they are clearly visible, were slightly modified. In the drawing itself Nelson's head was originally bent further over to the right but was altered by Blake to a position close to that in the painting.

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


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