attributed to John Linnell

The Man who Built the Pyramids (after William Blake)


Not on display

Attributed to John Linnell 1792–1882
Graphite on paper
Support: 298 × 214 mm
Bequeathed by Miss Alice G.E. Carthew 1940

Display caption

Linnell made a number of replicas of Blake's 'Visionary Heads'. Apparently he intended to engrave them for Varley's projected four-part 'Treatise on Zodiacal Physiognomy'. In fact only one part of the treatise was ever published, in 1828. However the inscription on this drawing, '15 Degrees of Cancer ascending', may well indicate that it was intended as one of the engraved plates in that work. As well as the main figure, the sheet contains a drawing of the architect's mouth open instead of shut (as in 'The Head of a Ghost of a Flea'), a sketch of the 'Egyptian' interior in which Blake saw him in his vision, and an architect's portfolio inscribed with hieroglyphics.

Gallery label, September 2004

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Catalogue entry

N05185 The Man who Built the Pyramids

N 05185 / B 752
Pencil, framing line 287×197 (11 5/16×7 3/4), on paper 298×214 (11 3/4×8 7/16)
Inscribed by John Linnell ‘Octr 18.1819. 15 Degrees of Cancer ascending’ b.r. and ‘The Man who built the Pyramids drawn by William Blake’ below design, and, on back, ‘JL’
Bequeathed by Miss Alice G.E. Carthew 1940
PROVENANCE John Linnell, sold Christie's 15 March 1918 (in 164 with nos.63, 66 and 67) £54.12.0 bought Miss Carthew
EXHIBITED BFAC 1927 (60); Paris and Vienna 1937 (15); Wartime Acquisitions, 2nd Exhibition CEMA tour 1944–5 (5)
LITERATURE Gilchrist 1863, 1, p.252, repr.; Rossetti 1863, p.243 list 2 no.32, and 1880, p.259 list 2 no. 31; Keynes Drawings 1927, no.41 repr.; Bentley Blake Records 1969, p.259; Butlin 1969, pp.14–15, 29–30, pl.4; Roe in Rosenfeld 1969, pp.175, 194; Keynes Drawings 1970, no.62 repr.; Wilson 1971, p.68 n.; Klonsky 1977, p.123, repr.; Mellor in Essick and Pearce 1978, pp.69–71, pl.79; Butlin 1981, pp.525–6 no.752, pl.979

The inscription on N05185, N05187 and N05186 were formerly attributed to John Varley but are similar to those on Linnell's drawings of Blake in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge (repr. Keynes Portraiture 1977, pls.29–33) and Blake's drawing of Linnell in the Lessing J. Rosenwald collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington (Butlin 1981, no.688, repr. pl.905). Linnell's monogram on the reverse may only be a mark of ownership but could well be a signature implying authorship of the drawing.

This drawing appears to be a replica of a missing page from the Small Blake-Varley Sketchbook, page 103 of which (Butlin no.692 103, repr. Butlin 1969) contains a number of drawings and colour notes mainly if not wholly related to this composition, both to the main figure and to such details as the portfolio shown in the lower left-hand corner and the ‘Egyptian’ interior above this. The facing page 102 is missing but, by analogy with other drawings of details in the sketchbook which face the complete compositions to which they refer (see, for instance, T01334 verso), can be assumed to have contained Blake's original drawing of the whole composition. Although both Linnell and Varley probably made replicas or copies of Blake's Visionary Heads, and Blake himself may have done so as well, the relatively high degree of precision and finish, coupled with a certain feeling of deadness, point to Linnell as the artist.

As well as the main figure the sheet contains a drawing of his mouth open instead of shut (as in ‘The Head of the Ghost of a Flea’, N05184), ‘the Place where Blake saw this Personage’ (as Rossetti described it in his title) and the architect's portfolio. This last, it appears from the annotated drawing in the sketchbook, was ‘Black’ surrounding ‘White Satinwood’, contained ‘8 tablets’ and was tied with ‘Blue Catgut’. The architect had a ‘Blue Ribbon’ round his hair, a ‘Black Shiny face’, and a ‘gold cord’ on which hung a ‘gold’ key. The reference to ‘15 Degrees of Cancer ascending’ reflects Varley's interest in Zodiacal physiognomy; Roe suggests that the pseudo-hieroglyphics on the portfolio repeat this inscription.

For Blake ‘The Man who Built the Pyramids’ would have represented materialistic oppression. In Jerusalem he wrote, ‘& souls are bak'd In bricks to build the pyramids of Heber & Terah’ (plate 45 (31); Keynes Writings 1957, p.657).

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

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