William Blake

The Spiritual Form of Pitt Guiding Behemoth


Not on display

William Blake 1757–1827
Tempera and gold on canvas
Support: 740 × 627 mm
frame: 875 × 753 × 85 mm
Purchased 1882

Display caption

The subject of this picture is the prime minister, William Pitt. Blake showed this work in his exhibition in 1809, describing Pitt as ‘that Angel who, pleased to perform the Almighty’s orders, rides on the whirlwind, directing the storms of war.’

Pitt had led Britain into war against France after the 1789 Revolution. Blake saw him as one ‘ordering the Reaper to reap the Vine of the Earth, and the Plowman to plow up the Cities and Towers’. The words reflect Blake’s apocalyptic vision of war. The huge beast, Behemoth, is under Pitt and at his command.

Gallery label, December 2004

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Catalogue entry

N01110 The Spiritual Form of Pitt Guiding Behemoth 1805(?)

N 01110 / B 651
Tempera heightened with gold on canvas 740×627 (29 1/8×24 3/4)

Signed ‘WBlake 1805 [? - the last digit is obscure]’ b.r.
Purchased by the National Gallery 1882; transferred to the Tate Gallery 1931
PROVENANCE Samuel Palmer; A.H. Palmer, offered Christie's 20 March 1882 (108) £ 100 bt in and sold 1882 to the National Gallery
EXHIBITED Blake's exhibition 1809 (2); Associated Painters in Water-Colours 1812 (279); Old Masters RA 1871 (285, as ‘Rt. Hon. William Pitt’); BFAC 1876 (201); Tate Gallery (64), Manchester (43), Nottingham (30) and Edinburgh (1) 1913–14; Two Centuries of English Art Amsterdam 1936 (2); Tate Gallery 1947 (43); Tate Gallery 1978 (206, repr.)
LITERATURE Blake Descriptive Catalogue 1809, pp.2–7 (reprinted in Keynes Writings 1957, pp.565–6); Rossetti 1880, p.221 no.95; Robertson in Gilchrist 1907, p.493 no.14; Damon 1924, p.95; Blunt in Warburg Journal, VI, 1943, p.206, pl.59b; Schorer 1946, pp.174–5, 478n.; Bronowski 1947, pp.52, 80; Frye 1947, p.139; Blunt 1959, pp.38, 78, 97–103, pl.46c; Damon 1965, pp.39, 239–40; Beer 1968, pp.189–90; Raine 1968, 1, p.359, pl. 116; Taylor in Blake Studies, 1, 1968, pp.72–8, pl.75; Erdman 1969, p.449; Paley 1970, pp.171–99; Macmillan in Blake Newsletter, v, 1971–2, p.204; Lindberg Job 1973, pp.18–19 no.xv, 302–11 no.15G, pl.55, a reconstruction repr. pl.56b; Raymond Lister, The Letters of Samuel Palmer, 1974, 1, pp.475–6 n., 11, pp.896–7; Wittrcich 1975, pp.68–9; Tayler in Blake Newsletter, X, 1976–7, pp.80–1; Bindman 1977, pp.155, 160–1, 163–4; Erdman 1977, pp.521–2; Paley 1978, pp.53, 66, 179, pl.48; Butlin 1981, pp.473–4 no.651, pl.877; Raymond Lister, ‘The National Gallery & Blake's “Spiritual Form of Pitt Guiding Behemoth”’, Blake, XVII, 1983–4, pp.105–6; Baine 1986, p.35; Boime 1987, pp.345–9, pl.4.41. Also repr: Mizue, no.882, 1978, 9, pp.30–31 in colour

An old label on the back of the painting, seemingly inscribed by Samuel Palmer, supplies the date 1805; the date inscribed by Blake on the picture is obscure. The painting was restored by George Richmond in Palmer's studio and again at the Tate Gallery in 1977.

In the catalogue of Blake's exhibition the title continues ‘...; he is that Angel who, pleased to perform the Almighty's orders, rides on the whirlwind, directing the storms of war: He is ordering the Reaper to reap the Vine of the Earth, and the Plowman to plow up the Cities and Towers’.

The painting was exhibited as a companion to ‘The Spiritual Form of Nelson guiding Leviathan’ (N03006) and Blake goes on to explain that these two works ‘are compositions of a mythological cast, similar to those Apotheoses of Persian, Hindoo, and Egyptian Antiquity, which are still preserved on rude monuments, being copies from some stupendous originals now lost or perhaps buried till some happier age ... The Artist wishes it was now the fashion to make such monuments, and then he should not doubt of having a national commission to execute these two Pictures on a scale that is suitable to the grandeur of the nation, who is the parent of his heroes, in high finished fresco, where the colours would be as pure and as permanent as precious stones though the figures were one hundred feet in height’.

In the light of Blake's reference to Eastern Antiquities it is particularly interesting that the form of Pitt's halo is similar to that used in Buddhist art; this was probably known to him through engravings. In more general terms the composition is probably indebted, as Lindberg has suggested, to Frans Floris's ‘Charlemagne as Victory’, engraved in 1552 by Hieronymous Cock (repr. op. cit. pl. 130).

William Pitt (1759–1806) was a near contemporary of Nelson (1758–1805) and Blunt, followed by Lindberg, has shown that this work and ‘The Spiritual Form of Nelson’ are apocalyptic visions of war paralleled in Blake's writings of the same period. In these writings war appears as a perversion of energy (in itself a virtue) and as a prelude to the Last Judgment. The reaper and plowman who accompany Pitt are derived from Amos, ix, 13, and are the angels who, in Revelation, xiv, 14–19, prepare ‘the great winepress of the wrath of God’, introduced by Blake into Millon, written c.1800–10, as the ‘Wine-press of Los ... call'd War on Earth’ (Keynes Writings 1957, p.513). The biblical monsters Leviathan and Behemoth, from Job, xxxvii, 9, 12–13, appear in Jerusalem, c.1804–20, as ‘the War by Sea enormous & the War By Land astounding’ (Keynes Writings 1957, p.738).

Raine and Lindberg also see a secondary meaning in the two paintings as expressions of Blake's belief in the righteousness of the war then being waged against Napoleon, their protagonists being shown as victors as opposed to their apparently tethered and powerless opponent in the lost ‘Spiritual Form of Napoleon’ (Butlin 1981, no.652). They also point to the allusion in Blake's title to Addison's lines on Marlborough:

Pleas'd the Almighty's order to perform
He rides the whirlwind and directs the storm.

Later in his Descriptive Catalogue Blake adapts Nelson's famous message: ‘England expects that every man should do his duty, in the Arts as well as in Arms, or in the Senate’ (Keynes Writings 1957, p.584).
Raymond Lister has published some letters between George Richmond and Sir William Boxall RA, Director of the National Gallery 1865–74. From these it appears that the painting was offered to the National Gallery in 1870 through Richmond at 500 guineas, subsequently reduced by Palmer himself to 300 guineas, though renewed by Richmond at 350 guineas; the Trustees of the National Gallery refused it at this price. The picture was offered to them again in 1874 but nothing came of this and the picture was eventually acquired by the National Gallery in 1882 at the price, £100, at which it had been bought in at Christie's the same year.

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

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