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The Sea of Time and Space (Vision of the Circle of the Life of Man)

William Blake (London 1757 - London 1827)

Category

Art / Drawings and watercolours

Date

1821 (signed and dated)

Materials

Pen and ink, watercolour and gouache on gesso ground on stiff paper

Measurements

478 (h) x 574 (w) x 27 (d) mm

Place of origin

London

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Collection

Arlington Court, Devon (Accredited Museum)

On show at

Arlington Court and The National Trust Carriage Museum, Devon, South West, National Trust

NT 985730

Caption

This stormy scene, complete with nymphs and Naiads, a horse-drawn chariot and classical temple might depict Ithaca - the legendary home of Odysseus. This picture may have been purchased by John Chichester of Arlington directly from William Blake. At some point it was lost but was later rediscovered in a pile of 'junk … in a dusty heap on top of a wardrobe in the housemaid’s pantry' after Arlington had been left to the National Trust by Miss Rosalie Chichester in 1949.

Summary

Pen and black ink, watercolour and gouache on gesso ground on stiff paper, The Sea of Time and Space (Vision of the Circle of the Life of Man) by William Blake (London 1757 - London 1827), signed and dated, bottom left: W. Blake/ Inventor, 1821. This mainly monochrome imaginary scene with a multiple number of figures also uses a mixture of scale and perspective. It takes place besides a stormy sea, on the left. A grassy cliff face drops below behind the main figures, in the centre, to a classical temple. On the right a stone staircase extends upwards through a grove of trees. A male figure, dressed in red, is sitting, and almost kneeling, on a rock on top of the cliff beside the seashore. His hands are extended towards the waves to the left whilst he looks outwards with his head turned toward the viewer. A female figure, veiled from head to toe, is standing beside him in the centre with her left arm raised. To her left, in amongst the trees are seven females in long classical brown dresses spinning thread between them. Below in the foreground and in the water are four more figures with the yarn and spindle. On the right is a sleeping figure draped across an urn. On the upper right is another group of female figures holding water vessels on their heads. To their right extending across the sky to the left is another staircase emerging from the cloudy heavens with a figure in his horse-drawn chariot also attended by females. Below the chariot, and in the sea, in the left background, is a female, possibly a sea-nymph or Nereid, riding on her hippocampi (horses of the sea).

Full description

The title is a quotation from Blake's Prophetic Book Vala or the Four Zoas. The man has been variously described as Christ, Blake himself, Isaiah, or Odysseus. The female has been described as Blake's goddess of nature, Vala, or Athena or even Calypso. It seems as if the scene is of Ithaca, complete with a Greek temple, grove, nymphs and Naiads, described in Homer's Odyssey, Book XIII. On the right are the three Fates, Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos, who spin, measure, and cut the thread of life and determine the destiny of man. They are usually portrayed as old cronies but Blake's are young beautiful women with extra attendants. Apollo (representing Fire) sleeps beside his carriage with attendants on a cloud in the sky. It is likely that the female figure cleaving through the water on four horses is Venus (representing Water) with a cloud framing her in a similar fashion to her usual garland. It appears to be an expression of a rejection of the nature-bound religion of the classical world and is absent of Blake's usual Christian symbolism.

Provenance

Possibly bought by Colonel John Chichester of Arlington direct from the artist. At some later stage the drawing was lost. It was rediscovered in 1949 in a pile of “junk … in a dusty heap on top of a wardrobe in the housemaid’s pantry”, after Arlington had been left to the National Trust by Miss Rosalie Chichester (see James Lees-Milne, Midway on the Waves, 1985) in 1949. Whitehead relying on an account given to him fifty-six years later by Herbert Newman, a former retainer of Rosalie Chichester and later an employee of the National Trust, concluded that it might instead have been found in a bedroom in the – subsequently demolished – new north wing added by her father, which she had turned into her ‘Photographic Room’. Whitehead adopts, as a possible alternative provenance, J. E. M. Latham’s suggestion that the picture was purchased or commissioned by Sophia Catherine Ford, who married Colonel John Chichester, as his third wife, in 1822, or by her mother, Mary, Lady Ford, widow of Sir Francis Ford. John Linnell recorded in his diary entry for 8 May 1820 that he and Blake went to call on Lady Mary at her London house to see ‘her Pictures’; bequeathed to the National Trust with Arlington Court by Miss Rosalie Chichester (1865 – 1949)

Credit line

Arlington Court, The Chichester Collection (National Trust)

Marks and inscriptions

Verso: James Linnel framer/ 3 Streatham Street Bloomsbury/ One Door from Charlotte Street

Makers and roles

William Blake (London 1757 - London 1827), artist James Linnell (1759-1836), framer

Exhibition history

Whatever the Weather, Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Exeter, 2015 - 2016

References

Keynes 1949 Geoffrey Keynes, 'A newly-discovered William Blake, Country Life, CVI, 1949, p. 1427 Keynes 1954, Geoffrey Keynes, ‘Blake’s vision of the Circle of the Life of Man’, in Studies in Art and Literature for Belle da Costa Greene, ed. Dorothy Miner, Princeton, 1954, pp.202–208 Wingfield Digby 1957 G. Wingfield Digby, Symbol and Image in William Blake, 1957, pp.54-82 Raine 1957, Kathleen Raine, ‘The Sea of Space and Time’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 20, 1957, pp.318–37 , (the title is a quotation from a letter from Blake to Butts, 10.1.1802 [c.f. Nonsuch Blake, p.855] Raine 1957 Review of Wingfield Digby’s book, reply from the author, and letter from K. Raine, in Times Literary Supplement, 27 December 1957, 24 & 31 January 1958 Raine 1959, K. Raine, Review, Philological Quarterly, XXXVIII, April 1959 Roe 1960 A.S. Roe, review of K. Raine’s article, Art Bulletin, XLII, 1960, pp.79–81 Keynes 1958, Geoffrey Keynes, Review Apollo, March 1958, p.94 Raine 1968, K. Raine, Blake and Tradition, 1968, I, pp.75–98 & figs. 23, 26 & 30; Keynes 1971 Geoffrey Keynes, 'The ArlingtonCourt Picture', Blake Studies: Essays on his Life and Work, second edition, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1971 Bindman 1977 David Bindman, Blake as an Artist, Oxford & New York 1977 , pp. 207ff. & pl.167 Damrosch 1980 L. Damrosch Jr., Symbol and Truth in Blake’s Myth, Princeton, 1980, p.119 Butlin 1981 Martin Butlin, The Paintings and Drawings of William Blake, New Haven & London, 1981, cat. no. 803 Heppner, 1996 Christopher Heppner, Reading Blake’s Designs, Cambridge, 1996, pp.235–77 Whitehead, 2007: Angus Whitehead, “The Arlington Court Picture: A surviving example of William Blake’s framing practice.” British Art Journal 8.1 2007: pp.30-33, art. cit., pp.30 and 32-33, nn.6 & 8 National Trust (Great Britain), Arlington Court., 1978, p. 9 National Trust (Great Britain), Arlington Court., 1985, p. 13 Simmons and Warner 1973 Robert Simmons and Janet Warner, 'Blake's Arlington Court Picture: The Moment of Truth,' in The Visionary Hand: Essays for the Study of William Blake's Art and Aesthetics, (ed.) Robert N. Essick, 1973

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