By 1799, Blake and his wife must have been living in great poverty. His illustrations to Edward Young’s Night Thoughts, which could have been very lucrative, ceased publication after the first volume, and there is little trace of Blake’s activities or art from their completion in 1797 until 1799. He had met Thomas Butts, who became his new patron by commissioning a series of fifty paintings of biblical scenes, for a guinea per painting. These were completed by the time that Blake moved to Felpham in September 1800.
These were the first paintings for which Blake used glue tempera. This appears to have been key in his quest for what he termed ‘fresco’, although it has little in common with classical fresco technique. As with his illuminated printing methods, he did not document the processes, and certain aspects remain controversial.
His use of glue tempera was not novel – similar methods had been used several centuries earlier, and by some of the great Flemish masters – and a version had been popular at one time in Germany, as tüchlein. However, it had generally been replaced quickly by oil paints, to which Blake had a lifelong aversion.
His technique appears to have consisted of the following:
- Preparation of the support (canvas, copper, or even iron) by roughening, then application of glue size.
- Application of a bright white priming layer of chalk or gypsum with animal glue, containing a little honey (for flexibility) and possibly plant gum.
- Underdrawing using ink or paint.
- Sealing with a layer of animal glue, possibly containing a little honey.
- Application of layers of colour, in the form of water-based paints using mainly plant gums as binder, with some further layers of animal glue.
- Reinforcement of lines using black ink, and enhancement of highlights using impasto chalk-based white paint with animal glue.
- A final ‘varnish’ coat of animal glue.
Unfortunately some of his paintings have later been varnished using conventional varnishes. As these inevitably become dirty over time, conservation professionals have been posed the near-impossible task of removing that varnish without destroying the delicate glue layers underneath.
This method of glue tempera painting is not in itself unsound, but animal glues are sensitive to the atmosphere: when it is damp, they absorb water, and crack when it is drier. They are also prone to take up dust and small particles, which are almost impossible to clean. The tragic result is that many of Blake’s glue tempera paintings are now but shadows of their former selves. When newly completed, they would have been bright, light, and colourful.
I have selected a dozen paintings from this series, and show them in order according to the Bible.
Eve Tempted by the Serpent has retained its colours well, and shows the biblical narrative from Genesis chapter 3 verses 1-5, in the light of Milton’s elaboration in his epic Paradise Lost, in book 9, lines 496-500 and 670-677. Blake’s exuberant serpent is almost calligraphic in its coils, and the tree beside them twists in the same sense, then arches over the top of the painting.
Moses Indignant at the Golden Calf shows a well-known scene from Exodus. While Moses was on Mount Sinai receiving the Ten Commandments, the Israelites made a statue of a golden calf, and started worshipping it. When he returned, with the commandment that they shall have no other gods before Jehovah, Moses broke the tablets in his anger at them. A broken tablet is by Moses’ feet in the foreground, and the golden calf in the left background.
Bathsheba at the Bath is an unusual scene for such a biblical series, despite its popularity more generally in painting (for instance, Rembrandt and other masters). This shows King David, in the upper right, standing on the roof of his palace, watching the beautiful Bathsheba, wife of his general Uriah, bathing. David wanted her, arranging the death of her husband so that he could father a child by her, as told in the second book of Samuel.
The Angel Appearing to Zacharias shows part of the narrative given in the gospel of Luke, chapter 1 verses 5-23, in which John the Baptist’s conception and birth are foretold. Zacharias was a priest, and his wife Elisabeth barren; both were old, as shown. When Zacharias was undertaking his offices, an angel appeared to him, and told him that his wife would becoming pregnant, and bear him a son, who would be John the Baptist.
The Nativity is a unique and quite extraordinary interpretation of this very popular scene in painting. On the left, Joseph supports the Virgin Mary, who appears to have fainted. Jesus has somehow sprung from her womb, and hovers – arms outstretched as if ready for crucifixion – in mid-air. On the right, Mary’s cousin Elisabeth greets the infant, with her own son, John the Baptist, on her lap. Blake makes clear the difference in age between Elisabeth and Mary.
Although that is most unconventional, Blake still includes, at the right, the traditional ox and ass, and a cross or star burns bright through the window at the top.
Adoration of the Kings is a conventional and rather beautiful depiction of the visit of the three kings (wise men, or magi) to the Holy Family, each bearing their gifts. At the left, outside, shepherds are tending to their flocks of sheep beneath a stylised star, and at the right are the ox and ass. Blake’s composition draws the gaze in on the small figure of the infant Christ on Mary’s lap.
The Circumcision had been quite a popular scene before and during the early Renaissance, but had diminished in popularity in more recent times. Blake employs a more formal composition here, which strengthens the effect of ceremonial.
The Christ Child Asleep on the Cross, or Our Lady Adoring the Infant Jesus Asleep on the Cross is a scene which appears unique to Blake, and has no basis in the gospel accounts of the life of Christ, nor in apocryphal sources. It supposes that a naked young Christ has fallen asleep on a crucifix, symbolising his eventual death, with the carpenter’s tools around it. Mary, his mother, then discovers him there, asleep. This curious painting has survived well enough that the detail of the landscape is still clear, with the spires, presumably of Jerusalem, in the distance.
Our Lady with the Infant Jesus Riding on a Lamb with St John is another scene which is not in the gospels, although this started to appear in paintings just before the Renaissance. The young Jesus is seen riding a lamb, symbolic of his later sacrifice, with his mother Mary assisting him, and the older John the Baptist alongside. Details of the flowers, trees, and landscape background are quite well-preserved, and unlike the figures have retained their colours.
Christ Blessing the Little Children refers to the gospel of Mark, chapter 10, where Jesus received chidren who were brought to him, and blessed them. At the left, one of his disciples tries to send the mothers away, to which Jesus responded “Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not.” It is a contrasting reverse of the previous paintings of Christ’s own childhood. Unusually in this series, this painting bears Blake’s monogram and the date of 1799.
The Agony in the Garden is an unusual moment from the extremely popular sequence of the Passion. Although much of it is dark (it is set at night, in the Garden of Gethsemene), Blake’s imagery is as radical as that in his watercolours. The story is a composite from the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and shows the instant just before Christ’s betrayal by Judas and his arrest. An angel appeared from heaven, to strengthen Jesus, and “his sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground.”
Christ’s head is tilted in the extreme to face the angel, who grasps him under the armpits. The angel has descended from a brilliant red burst, at the top of the painting. The disciples are seen asleep among the dark tree-trunks.
The Body of Christ Borne to the Tomb shows the start of the entombment of the body of Jesus following the crucifixion, a popular scene in religious paintings. His body, bearing the wound on the left side of his chest, is being carried down to his tomb, with the three Marys following. The three crosses can be seen on the skyline, in the gap before the Marys, and Jerusalem with its more modern spires forms the background of the left half.
Many of this series of paintings follow tradition and convention, but Blake’s personal vision and imagination keeps breaking through, both in his choice of scenes, and in their depiction. Eve’s calligraphic serpent, the unique nativity, Jesus asleep on a cross and riding a lamb, and an angel swooping down to grasp Christ at his darkest moment – these are vivid and innovative images which must have had great visual impact when new.
What could so easily have been a pleasantly bland series was transformed by the mind and art of a genius.
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Butlin, M (1981) The Paintings and Drawings of William Blake, 2 vols, Yale UP. ISBN 978 0 300 02550 7.
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Townsend, J (ed)(2003) William Blake, the Painter at Work, Tate Publishing. ISBN 978 1 8543 7468 4.
Vaughan, William (1999) William Blake, British Artists, Tate Publishing. ISBN 978 1 84976 190 1.