- William Blake 1757–1827
- Tempera on canvas
- Support: 762 × 625 mm
frame: 912 × 785 × 75 mm
- Purchased 1914
The Spiritual Form of Nelson Guiding Leviathan c.1805–9 is a tempera painting by William Blake. Admiral Nelson (1758–1805), leader of the British Navy during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, appears as a youthful figure with outstretched arms at the centre; a Black man with chained wrists lies fallen at his feet and numerous bodies writhe around Nelson, ensnared by the spiked coils of the Leviathan, a serpentine monster described in the Book of Job in the Bible’s Old Testament. Nelson stands astride the beast, holding its reins in his left hand. The painting is of modest proportions, despite Blake’s ambitions to paint historical subjects on a much larger scale. The colours of the blue of the sky behind Nelson, the fiery spikes along the Leviathan’s body, and the flesh-tones of the figures would originally have been much brighter but have now significantly dulled due to ageing and damage.
This painting was shown as the first artwork in Blake’s 1809 ‘one man show’ exhibition in Broad Street, London, displayed alongside a companion piece entitled The Spiritual form of Pitt Guiding Behemoth c.1805 (Tate N01110). In the Descriptive Catalogue, written to accompany the 1809 exhibition, Blake explains that he has depicted Nelson commanding the biblical serpent Leviathan as it crushes ‘the Nations of the Earth’ in its ‘wreathings’. The imperialistic overtones of this painting are undeniable. Nelson had led the British Royal Navy to victory over the French at the Battle of the Nile (1798) and over the French and Spanish at Trafalgar (1805), where he was fatally wounded. These victories substantially removed the threat of rival maritime powers and secured Britain’s naval supremacy, which would prove foundational to the consolidation and expansion of the British Empire during the following century. The title, drawn from the listing in the Descriptive Catalogue, indicates that Blake intended the depiction of Nelson not to be true to life but rather a ‘spiritual form’; hence his portrayal as a nude, youthful figure wearing a halo. The painting bears some relation to a cult of hero-worship for Nelson, as expressed in the extravagant state funeral held in his honour in 1806, as well as in artistic homages by artists like John Flaxman and Benjamin West.
It has been suggested (for example, by Brown 2020, p.100) that the inclusion of the Black man at Nelson’s feet was intended as a type for an enslaved African person, alluding to the role of the Royal Navy in enforcing the suppression of the transatlantic slave trade following its abolition in British Parliament through the Slave Trade Act of 1807. However, since this Act post-dated Nelson’s lifetime, during which the slave trade was fully operational (and Nelson was by no means an abolitionist), arguably Blake instead intends to highlight the inclusion of enslaved people within Nelson’s apparently omnipotent sway. Anti-slavery and anti-empire sentiments have often been identified in Blake’s wider body of work, for instance by the literary critic David Erdman (see David Erdman, Blake: Prophet Against Empire, New York 1992). Here, however, it is difficult to see how the Black figure could have been intended as part of a wider critique of the Empire. Blake’s representation adheres to commonplace tropes from the period, whereby Black people were stereotypically shown in positions of subjugation, dehumanisation, and marginality. The man is depicted without any distinguishing characteristics or specific identity, his presence presumably intended chiefly to signify to a white British audience the institution of slavery as a whole. The figure’s slumped, dehumanised form recalls the images of violence towards enslaved people which Blake had made for the soldier and author John Gabriel Stedman’s Narrative of a Five Years Expedition against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam (1796). Stedman’s Narrative condemned the violent treatment of enslaved people, but certainly did not advance an argument for the abolition of slavery itself.
Throughout the Descriptive Catalogue entries for Nelson and Pitt, Blake employs uncharacteristically patriotic rhetoric. One reason for this is Blake’s ambition to contend with his contemporaries as a history painter in the manner, for instance, of Benjamin West, who drew subjects from contemporary or recent historical events. Hence Blake announced his wish to ‘hav[e] a national commission to execute these two Pictures on a scale that is suitable to the grandeur of the nation’ on a scale of ‘one hundred feet in height’. Some scholars account for the apparently patriotic tone of Nelson with reference to its apocalyptic imagery. Art historian Paul Barlow, for instance, connects Blake’s visions of apocalypse to those of popular millenarian movements from his day, arguing that in Nelson and Pitt Blake may have been advancing a vision of the British Empire as a driver of necessary destruction, clearing the way for subsequent regeneration. This would be consistent with millenarian interpretations of violent contemporaneous events as manifestations of an unfolding Apocalypse, as foretold in the Book of Revelation in the Christian Bible.
The work is painted in tempera, a medium much favoured by Blake which uses a water-based glue or gum binder to ‘temper’ the pigments, making them dry quickly and retain both the clear linearity of watercolour and the layered density of oil painting. Technical analysis has also shown that Blake applied gold leaf between paint layers, which would have added to the brilliance of the painting in its original state. In its present state, the ground layer has darkened due to the conservation treatment of ‘glue’ lining; which 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. In the Descriptive Catalogue, Blake explained that he executed the works in ‘fresco’, for which he used his own experimental formula involving tempera, gum, glue, and chalks, rather than the classical fresco medium used by Italian Renaissance masters, which involved painting with water-based paint directly onto wet plaster. Blake also declared his hopes (ultimately in vain) to establish his ‘fresco’ technique as a serious competitor of oil painting, which was viewed as the pre-eminent medium for serious painting in the period. 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. Now, the work is cracked and damaged because Blake used a thin canvas and chalk-based ground. The contraction of the glue-rich layers and the movement of the thin canvas has created stress, causing cracking.
Paul Barlow, ‘The Aryan Blake: Hinduism, Art and Revelation in Blake’s Pitt and Nelson Paintings’, Visual Culture in Britain, vol.12, no.3, November 2011, pp.277–92.
Alison Smith, David Blayney Brown and Carol Jacobi (eds), Artist and Empire: Facing Britain’s Imperial Past, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 2015, pp.100–1.
Amy Concannon and Martin Myrone, William Blake, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 2019, no.123.
Caroline Anjali Ritchie
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N03006 The Spiritual Form of Nelson Guiding Leviathan
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.
Martin Butlin, William Blake 1757-1827, Tate Gallery Collections, V, London 1990
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