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    Sale 7609

    Important Old Master & British Pictures Evening Sale

    8 July 2008, London, King Street

  • Lot 22

    William Blake (London 1757-1827)

    The Flight into Egypt

    Price Realised  

    Estimate

    William Blake (London 1757-1827)
    The Flight into Egypt
    signed in monogram and dated 'WB inv 179[9?]' (lower right)
    tempera on canvas
    10 5/8 x 15 in. (27.2 x 38.3 cm.)


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    This illustration of Matthew, II:13-14, is probably the most beautiful of the group of small works painted in a form of tempera by William Blake for his patron Thomas Butts in 1799 and 1800 (three more paintings may have been added to this group in 1802-3; for the whole group, see Butlin, op. cit., pp. 317-35). The first mention of these works occurs in a letter from the artist to George Cumberland of 26 August 1799: 'As to Myself about whom you are so kindly Interested, I live by a Miracle. I am Painting small Pictures from the Bible ... My work pleases my employer, & I have an order for Fifty small pictures at One Guinea each'. Thirty examples are known today and over twenty more Biblical subjects can be more or less fully identified from William Michael Rossetti's list and other early accounts. In addition to compiling the first catalogue of Blake's paintings and drawings, W.M. Rossetti was the brother of the Pre-Raphaelite painter, Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882).

    The medium of these works, which in certain of his later paintings Blake described as 'fresco', seems to have been similar to that used in his earlier colour-printed books and prints. In part it was a conscious rejection of the 'blurring demons' of oil paint. A near-contemporary account was given by J.T. Smith in his Nollekens and his Times of 1828: 'Blake's modes for preparing his ground, and laying them over his panels for painting, mixing his colours, and manner of working, were those which he considered to have been practiced by the earliest fresco-painters, whose productions still remain, in numerous instances, vivid and permanently fresh. His ground was a mixture of whiting and carpenter's glue, which he passed over several times in thin coatings: his colours he ground himself, and also united them with the same sort of glue, but in a much weaker state. He would, in the course of painting a picture, pass a very thin transparent wash of glue-water over the whole of the parts he had worked upon, and then proceed with his finishing [...] Blake preferred mixing his colours with carpenter's glue, to gum, on account of the latter cracking in the sun, and becoming humid in moist weather. The glue-mixture stands the sun, the change of atmosphere has no effect upon it' (vol. II, pp. 489-91; reprinted: G.E. Bentley, Jr., Blake Records, 2nd edition, New Haven and London, 2004, p. 622).

    Sadly, most of this series has suffered as a result of Blake's technique. In the case of The Flight into Egypt, William Michael Rossetti expressed concern about the condition of this picture in 1862; the 'cracking' probably accounts for Rossetti dating the work '1790' in his 1880 lists. The last digit is now impossible to read but, given the begining of the date and the dating on other works in the series '1799' seems the correct reading. Subsequent restoration by Jacob Hell in about 1950 has revealed the quality of the work, which as a night scene must always have been fairly dark. The most up-to-date discussion of Blake's tempera techniques, which greatly improved in his later work, is given in J.H. Townsend, ed., William Blake, The Painter at Work, London, 2003, pp. 110-59.

    The passage in the Gospel according to Saint Matthew speaks of how Joseph, warned by an angel of the imminent Massacre of the Innocents, 'took the young child and his mother by night, and departed into Egypt'. Divine protection is stressed by Blake by the presence of two angels and six cherubim, and the wing of one of the angels provides a most wonderful image of protection, outstretched over the Virgin and Child riding on a donkey; Saint Joseph and another figure, perhaps another angel, walk before them.

    Unlike the slightly later series of watercolours illustrating the Bible done for Thomas Butts between 1800 and 1805, the temperas do not seem to fall into groups or pairs. The most likely companion to The Flight into Egypt, unfortunately lost, is The Repose in Egypt, completed in 1803 (Butlin, op. cit., pp. 326-7, no. 405) and described by William Rossetti (op. cit., 1863, p. 226, no. 136; 1880, p. 238, no. 161) as follows: 'The Holy Family are within a tomb; an angel at its entrance; the donkey outside'. Blake also painted a watercolour of 1806 of The Repose of the Holy Family in Egypt; this is completely different in composition (New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art; Butlin, op. cit., pp. 351-2, no. 472, illustrated pl. 543) (fig. 1). Blake can hardly have known, at least in the original, the various Italian treatments of these subjects by artists ranging from Duccio to Caravaggio.

    Thomas Butts (1757-1845), a clerk in the office of the Commissonary General of Musters, was the most important of Blake's patrons in the middle years of his career, starting in 1799 with this series of tempera paintings and culminating with separate series of watercolour illustrations of The Book of Job and the various poems of John Milton. His patronage seems to have declined in the second decade of the 19th century but he still bought sets of Blake's Job and Dante engravings in the mid-1820s. Of this work's subsequent owners, W. Graham Robertson (1866-1948) also had a large collection of Blake's work (see Preston, op. cit.). He was a writer and painter and did a lot for and in the theatre. After his death it was largely his money that was used to set up the Blake Trust.

    William Rossetti, in annotations to his 1863 lists done before 1876 (M. Butlin, 'William Rossetti's Annotations to Gilchrist's Life of William Blake', Blake Newsletter, vol. II, no. 3, 1968, pp. 39-40.), replaces 'Mr. Strange' as owner by 'Mr. Aspland' (another Blake collector of the mid-19th century) but there is no other evidence of Aspland's ownership.

    George Amin Goyder was a successful businessman; Chairman and Chief Executive of the leading newsprint company in the United Kingdom, British International Paper, he was appointed C.B.E. in 1976 for his work as Co-founder and President of the Centre for International Briefing. Goyder had wide ranging interests: his passion for the Arts was as strong as his business acumen and he was also interested in the reform of Church, government and company law. His interest in the Church led to his joining the General Synod of the Church of England (1948-75) and he also wrote a number of publications including The People's Church (1966). Music, collecting old books and theology were among his hobbies and his library of first editions documented the Reformation, the development and concept of Natural Law and the theory of usary.

    His collection of works on paper was also remarkable. By the time of his death, with the help of Agnew's, he had put together a fine collection of 18th and 19th century drawings ranging from Cozens and Gainsborough to Turner and Ruskin. Many of the drawings have been on loan at various museums such as Gainsborough's House and the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, where a number of which are now in the permanent collection. Over the last five years, Christie's has handled a number of watercolours from the Goyder collection (20 November 2003, lots 43-57; 3 June 2004 lots 67-74), including William Blake's magnificent 'Christ the Mediator'; Christ pleading before the Father for St. Mary Magdalene', sold 14 June 2005, lot 10.

    We are grateful to Martin Butlin for his assistance in cataloguing this lot.

    Special Notice

    No VAT will be charged on the hammer price, but VAT at 15% will be added to the buyer's premium which is invoiced on a VAT inclusive basis.


    Provenance

    Thomas Butts, and by descent to
    Thomas Butts, Jun.; sale, Foster's, London, 20 June 1853, lot 97 (10 shillings [with lot 96, The Church and Christ] to Golding).
    (Possibly) J.C. Strange, in 1863.
    The Rev. Samuel Prince; Sotheby's, London, 11-14 December 1865 [= 1st day], lot 281, with Blake's Christ Blessing the Little Children (11 gns. to Hayes).
    Alfred Aspland, by 1876; Sotheby's, London, 27 January 1885, lot 92 (9 gns. to Gray).
    J. Annan Bryce, by whom sold in 1904 to W. Graham Robertson; Christie's, London, 22 July 1949, lot 26 (450 gns. to Agnew's on behalf of George Goyder).


    Pre-Lot Text

    From the Collection of the late George Goyder, C.B.E. (1908-1997)


    Literature

    W.M. Rossetti, 'Annotated Catalogue of Blake's Pictures and Drawings', List I of works in colour in A. Gilchrist, Life of William Blake, London, 1863, II, p. 226, no. 135.
    W.M. Rossetti, 'Annotated Catalogue of Blake's Pictures and Drawings', enlarged, in A. Gilchrist, Life of William Blake, New and Enlarged Edition, London, 1880, p. 208, no. 10, as of 1790.
    R.E. Fry, 'Three Pictures in Tempera by William Blake', in The Burlington Magazine, IV, 1904, pp. 205-6, illustrated, p. 207.
    L. Binyon, The Drawings and Engravings of William Blake, 1922, pl. 13, as of 1790.
    K. Preston, The Blake Collection of W. Graham Robertson, described by the Collector, London, 1952, pp. 146-8, no. 54, pl. 40.
    G. Keynes, William Blake's Illustrations to the Bible (with an Introduction by George Goyder), London, 1957, p. 30, no. 95, illustrated.
    A.S. Roe, 'The Thunder of Egypt', in A.H. Rosenfeld, ed., William Blake: Essays for S. Foster Damon, 1969, p. 182, pl. 19.
    D. Bindman, Blake as an Artist, Oxford, 1977, p. 122.
    M. Butlin, The Paintings and Drawings of William Blake, New Haven and London, 1981, p. 326, no. 404, pl. 504.


    Exhibited

    London, Burlington Fine Arts Club, The Works of William Blake, 1876, no. 136.
    London, Carfax Gallery & Co., Works by William Blake, January 1904, no. 29.
    London, Carfax Gallery & Co., Frescoes, Prints and Drawings by William Blake, June-July 1906, no. 11.
    Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum, loan of works by Blake from the W. Graham Robertson collection, 1910 (no catalogue).
    London, Tate Gallery, Works by William Blake, 1913, no. 22 (catalogue entries by A.G.B. Russell).
    London, Burlington Fine Arts Club, Blake Centenary Exhibition, 1927, no. 17.
    London, Tate Gallery, William Blake (1757-1827), March-September 1947, no. 46.
    Bournemouth, Southampton and Brighton, Original Works by William Blake from the Graham Robertson Collection, April-June 1949, no. 32.
    London, Arts Council Gallery, The Tempera Paintings of William Blake, June-July 1951, no. 20 (catalogue by G. Keynes).
    Manchester, Whitworth Art Gallery, William Blake (1757-1827) Bicentenary Celebration, April-May 1957, no. 2.
    London, Tate Gallery with the Arts Council, The Romantic Movement, July-September 1959, no. 21.
    London, Tate Gallery, William Blake, 8 March-21 May 1978, no. 136, illustrated.
    London, Tate Gallery, on loan, 1995-2008.
    London, Tate Britain, William Blake, November 2000-February 2001, no. 45.