Blake’s biblical paintings for Thomas Butts

I shall be making a presentation about my new book,  Divine Images: The Life and Work of William Blake, to the Blake Society this Wednesday (17 February). The following is an extract from the book which references some of the paintings I’ll be discussing on Wednesday.

The starting commission [for Thomas Butts] was a series of fifty-three paintings illustrating the Bible, the majority of which were completed in 1799 although some were painted when the Blakes were in Felpham. For these works, Butts paid more than £400. Of the series, only thirty remain of which seven deal with subjects from the Old Testament, and the remainder from the New Testament. The medium for these paintings was tempera, water-based pigments bound with gum or glue, and they were intended as “cabinet paintings”, smaller pieces that could be hung on the walls of the Butts’ residence. When composing his paintings, Blake applied the pigment in multiple layers, often reinforcing outlines with black ink and glazing the finished work with glue. The editors of the Blake Archive say that Blake may have been trying to create “jewel-like paintings”, as he later described them in his Descriptive Catalogue as “enamels” and “precious stones” (E531). A number of the temperas were also painted on copper, further enhancing their jewel-like nature. Unfortunately, the medium was unstable as the different layers expanded and contracted at different rates – leading to cracking – while the carpenters glue used by Blake frequently dulled and browned over time. 

 

Despite these problems with Blake’s medium, some of the paintings in the series that have survived demonstrate his astonishing imagination when dealing with biblical subjects. Naomi Billingsley is correct to point out that we should be careful of ascribing too clear an understanding of the series as earlier critics, such as David Bindman and Mary Lynn Johnson have done. While the temptation is to treat these as some kind of narrative journey demonstrating Blake’s understanding of the role of Christ, we simply no longer have the complete sequence of paintings and such a story “may not have been intended by Blake in the original scheme.” Rather, over a period of four years, these were biblical subjects that appealed to both Blake and Butts, although the fact that five of the extant paintings are larger than the rest (around 30 by 50 cm rather than 27 x 38 cm) and all illustrate the life of Christ indicate that these were intended as a series.  

 

The paintings as a whole do not need to be seen as explaining a consistent Christology, but there are clear innovations that mark these out as separate to Blake’s contemporaries. In his depiction of The Nativity, for example, Jesus springs from Mary in an entirely unrealistic but wholly inspirational fashion, a glowing ideal who leaps towards the outstretched hands of Mary’s sister, Elizabeth. Likewise, as Billingsley demonstrates with comparisons to contemporary art works such as J. M. W. Turner’s Holy Family (1803), Blake’s images renounce any form of naturalism: they are intended to inspire the viewer to consider the nature of Christ rather than to seek out the historical Jesus. Two very striking images are from Old Testament subjects. The first, Eve Tempted by the Serpent, is another image painted on copper, and while it also uses tempera with glue or gum binder as well as pen and ink outlines, the use of gold highlights make this image shine. This would be a technique that Blake would use several times – most notably with the coloured copy of Jerusalem the Emanation of the Giant Albion – to make his art works shine in a literal act of illumination. Blake’s study of the subject is also unique – and one that he would return to several times throughout his career. Eve, naked, stands full-frontal to the viewer with no shame or modesty, befitting entirely her status before the fall: she is an example of the human form divine that will be lost when mankind seeks to cover up its glorious nakedness. Adam is asleep next to her – the last time that man will sleep in such an innocent state – and the serpent coils alongside her body, for all the world appearing more like a wingless dragon than the typical snake of Christian art. The scene is dark and foreboding, prefiguring the collapse of the world that will take place, yet because Blake is deliberately capturing Eve in her innocence, the overall effect is startling: as she reaches up for the apple, which we cannot see, she seems fully confident. It would be tempting to see her as revelling in the act of taking the forbidden fruit, but I think this is to misinterpret the scene: Eve does not yet know sin – the expression on her face is calm and peaceful, more like representations of the Buddha than the accusatory depictions of the fallen woman who “Brought Death into the World, and all our woe / With loss of Eden” (Paradise Lost, I.1-2). We are presented with mankind at the final moment before the Fall, and this picture for me inspires incredible sadness at what will be lost. 

 

Another image in the series continues ththeme of the fall in an even more disturbing way: Abraham and Isaac shows the two figures standing between an altar prepared with wood to burn a sacrifice and a thicket where a ram is caught, illustrating Genesis 22.13: “And Abraham lifted up his eyes, and looked, and behold behind him a ram caught in a thicket by his horns: and Abraham went and took the ram, and offered him up for a burnt offering in the stead of his son.” Blake, however, has done something very disturbing in his rendition of this line – as Billingsley observes, the clothed Abraham is a passive figure looking up towards heaven in sorrow for the act he is about to commit, while it is Isaac, naked and dynamic, who sees the ram that will substitute for him in an act of sacrifice. Abraham in his long robe with arms outstretched, a curved knife held in one hand, is reminiscent of Blake’s depictions of the druids, and his pose makes him similar to Urizen in America a Prophecy. Rather than passive, he may even be seen to be impassive, implacable in the face of the demands of human sacrifice. Isaac, by contrast, is innocent and unafraid: as Billingsley correctly points out, it is his childlike perception that sees more clearly the way to reconcile god and man as opposed to the false religion followed by his father.

The talk will take place at 8pm (UK time) on Zoom. It is free and all are welcome, but the Blake Society asks for visitors to register in advance via this link.

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