William Blake



Not on display

William Blake 1757–1827
Tempera on pine
Support: 902 × 297 mm
frame: 991 × 385 × 43 mm
Purchased 1979

Display caption

Winter was commissioned by the Revd John Johnson. It was painted with a companion work, Evening, for a fireplace surround in Johnson's Norfolk rectory. It illustrates lines from The Task, a poem by Johnson's cousin William Cowper: 'O Winter! ruler of the inverted year, | Thy scattered hair with sleet like ashes filled... '. Blake shows the figure holding 'A leafless branch' referring to Winter's 'sceptre'. This 'Winter' is appropriately unthreatening but in his own writing Blake occasionally personifies Winter as a threat to Man, as in his poem The Four Zoas: 'winter spread his wide black wings across from pole to pole'.

Gallery label, October 2001

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Catalogue entry

T02387 Winter c.1820–5

T 02387 / B 808
Tempera on pine 902×297 (35 1/2×11 11/16) Purchased (Grant-in-Aid) 1979

PROVENANCE Rev. John Johnson; Canon Cowper Johnson; Bertram Vaughan-Johnson; his widow; the Rev. B. Talbot Vaughan Johnson; the Vaughan Johnson Trust, sold Sotheby's 18 July 1979 (58, repr. in colour) £30,000 bt Agnew's for the Tate Gallery
EXHIBITED Carfax 1906 (19); Tate Gallery 1913 (55); BFAC 1927 (51, pl.38); on loan to Tate Gallery 1933–4; The Lyrical Trend in English Painting, Roland, Browse and Delbanco, March–April 1946 (17, repr. on cover); Paris, Antwerp (repr. pl.23), Zurich and Tate Gallery (repr.) 1947 (33); Port Sunlight 1950 (27); Arts Council 1951 (3, pl.2); Cambridge 1957; on loan to Tate Gallery 1972–9; Tate Gallery 1978 (308, repr.)
LITERATURE Robertson in Gilchrist 1907, p.492 no.4; Wright 1929, 1, p.131; Butlin 1981, p.551 no.809, pl.1049

The panels of ‘Winter’ and the companion ‘Evening’ (now in an American private collection; Butlin 1981, no.809, pl.1050) were painted for the Rev. Johnson for the sides of the fireplace in his rectory at Yaxham, Norfolk. They illustrate the lines by Johnson's cousin William Cowper from The Task, Book IV, lines 120–9 and 243–6 respectively. The lines describing Winter read:

O Winter! ruler of the inverted year,
Thy scattered hair with sleet like ashes filled,
Thy breath congealed upon thy lips, thy cheeks
Fringed with a beard made white with other snows
Than those of age, thy forehead wrapt in clouds.
A leafless branch thy sceptre, and thy throne
A slïding car, indebted to no wheels,
But urged by storms along its slippery way;
I love thee, all unlovely as thou seemest,
And dreaded as thou art.

A third picture, of ‘Olney Bridge’, apparently ran along the top of the same fireplace (Butlin no.810). According to family tradition it was last seen in a damaged condition in 1905 and was subsequently thrown away.

Although Johnson had got to know Blake through William Hayley and had had his miniature portrait painted by him in 1802 (Butlin no.347, pl.455) ‘Winter’ and ‘Evening’ are stylistically, and in their technique, characteristic of Blake's late works. It has been suggested that they were painted following Johnson's rebuilding of Yaxham Rectory in 1820–1, which seems much more likely than that they were painted in the early years of the century.

That the fireplace was not yet set up, or had already been dismantled, in 1834, is suggested by a shopping-list of wines dated ‘March 6 1834’ on the back of ‘Evening’. Both panels were framed for some time with part of their surfaces covered by mounts, under which the blues remained considerably stronger than elsewhere, suggesting that the pictures have faded and that the paint is closer to watercolour than to Blake's earlier form of tempera, which tends to have darkened with time. It is likely that originally there was considerably more of the gold of which only traces remain on the two pictures.

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

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