AN EXTRAORDINARY 1819 WILLIAM BLAKE PENCIL DRAWING FROM HIS FAMOUS "VISIONARY HEADS" SERIES: "YOU CAN SEE WHAT I DO IF YOU CHOOSE. WORK UP IMAGINATION TO THE STATE OF VISION, AND THE THING IS DONE"
BLAKE, William. Pencil drawing of Wat Tyler, with inscription in the hand of John Varley: "Wat Tyler By Wm Blake, from his Spectre, as in the act of striking the Tax Gatherer on the head, drawn Octr 30, 1819, 1h AM." (London, October 30, 1819). Drawing measures 8-1/16 by 9-7/8 inches (20.5 by 25.1 cm). Framed, entire piece measures 18 by 21 inches.
An extraordinary original pencil drawing by William Blake from his famous "Visionary Heads" series, depicting Wat Tyler, leader of the 1381 Peasants' Revolt. The drawing is inscribed by John Varley, Blake's close friend and companion, identifying the subject and date of composition, October 30, 1819, at 1 a.m. This is one of the earliest of Blake's dated "Visionary Heads" drawings.
During the final years of his life, Blake gathered around him a circle of friends and disciples which included John Varley, a landscape painter and astrologer. Varley was Blake's constant companion from their meeting in 1819 until the poet's death in 1827. It was for Varley that Blake undertook one of his most unusual series of drawings, the "Visionary Heads." Varley, "who gave a very materialistic interpretation to Blake's visionary power, would sit by [Blake] far into the night and say 'Draw me Moses' or 'Julius Caesar,' straining his own eyes in the hope of seeing what Blake saw, who would answer 'There he is,' and draw with alacrity, looking up from time to time as if he had a flesh-and-blood sitter before him, sometimes suddenly leaving off and remarking, 'I can't go on, it is gone,' or 'it has moved, the mouth is gone.' Thus were produced the famous 'Visionary Heads,' or 'Spiritual Portraits'—some forty or fifty slight pencil sketches, all original, many full of character and power… The original drawings all passed into the hands of Mr. Linnell [Blake's friend and patron during his last years]. Blake was wont to say to his friends respecting these 'visions,' 'You can see what I do if you choose. Work up imagination to the state of vision, and the thing is done'" (DNB II, 645). Of the series, the "Ghost of a Flea" is perhaps the most famous, and Varley's account of its creation is illustrative of the process by which the sketches were produced: "I felt convinced by [Blake's] mode of proceeding, that he had a real image before him, for he left off, and began on another part of the paper, to make a separate drawing of the mouth of the Flea, which the spirit having opened, he was prevented from proceeding with the first sketch, till he had closed it. During the time occupied in completing the drawing, the Flea told him that all fleas were inhabited by the souls of such men, as were by nature blood-thirsty to excess" (Butlin 503). Most of the drawings were done in 1819 and 1820 at Varley's house in the evenings, but at least one was done in Blake's front room at Fountain Court.
Varley and Linnell made replicas and counterproofs of this and other "Visionary Heads," but this is presumed to be Blake's original Wat Tyler drawing, "heavily gone over in the process of making the replica" (Butlin 737). It is one of the earliest dated "Visionary Heads," one of only five dated October 1819 (the earliest is October 14th, this is October 30th). This portrait of Wat Tyler is "powerful and expressive… Tyler is clear-eyed and focused, his mouth in articulate anger, his brows elegant, his neck strong, his hair curling like flames" (Linebaugh, p. 178). "At these singular nocturnal sittings Blake thus executed for Varley, in the latter's presence, some forty or fifty slight pencil sketches, of small size, of historical, nay, fabulous and even typical personages, summoned from the vast deep of time, and 'seen in vision by Mr. Blake.' Varley, who accepted all Blake said of them, added in writing the names, and in a few instances the day and hour they were seen [as with Wat Tyler]… Remarkable performances these slight pencil drawings are, intrinsically, as well as for the circumstances of their production: truly original and often sublime. All are marked by a decisive, portrait-like character, and are in fact, evidently, literal portraits of what Blake's imaginative eye beheld" (Gilchrist I, 301).
Wat Tyler was the most famous leader of the 1381 Peasants' Revolt against Richard II's poll tax, England's first great popular rebellion. "Tyler is popularly supposed to have given the signal for the rising by killing a collector of the poll tax who indecently assaulted his daughter" (Oxford DNB Online). Tyler and his rebels entered London, and on June 15, 1381, the mayor summoned Tyler to speak with the king. Tyler "dismounted, and halfbending, shook the king's hand heartily, saying 'Brother, be of good comfort and joyful…' Tyler then outlined his demands: no law except the 'law of Winchester'; no outlawry;… the abolition of villeinage and serfdom. Richard said that he would grant all he could fairly grant… Exactly what happened next is uncertain. It seems as if there was a deliberate attempt to pick a fight with Tyler." Tyler was attacked and publicly executed, and the king revoked his promises and suppressed the revolt. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries Tyler became a popular subject for such artists and writers as Thomas Paine, Edmund Burke, and poet Robert Southey. Both defenders and opponents of radicalism during the French Revolution claimed Tyler as an exemplar. Gilchrist I, 252. Rossetti, 244. Blake Collection of George C. Smith, 1927 No. 47. Bentley Blake Records, 264. Butlin, The Paintings and Drawings of William Blake 737. Provenance: From the collection of John Linnell, sold Christie's 15 March 1918; Parsons, offered in catalogue June 1918; George C. Smith Jr., sold Parke-Bernet's 2 November 1938; Rosenbach; Morris Wolf; his son Edwin Wolf 2nd; sold Christie's July 1993; private collection. Exhibited at the Fogg Museum in 1930 and at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1939.
Seven mounting tags on recto, at one time matted with some light browning and spotting along edges, else fine. Handsomely framed. A rare and wonderful piece; Blake drawings rarely appear on the market, and this item, relatively large and in exceptionally fine condition, is quite extraordinary.