A New Blake for Amherst

This focused exhibition celebrates a recent gift to Amherst from Dr. Henry deForest Webster, Class of 1948: The Raising of Jairus’s Daughter (ca.1799-1800), a rare tempera painting by the British Romantic painter, poet, and printmaker, William Blake (1757-1827).

The Artist
Blake ranks among the greatest poets ever to write in English, and among the most brilliant artists of the European Romantic era. Inspired by the sinuous, tautly-outlined forms of medieval and Renaissance art, and by the poetic meter and spiritual truths he found in the Bible and in the works of Milton and Shakespeare, Blake developed strikingly original works of art and literature. Unwilling to compromise his sense of artistic integrity, Blake remained misunderstood, underappreciated, and poor throughout his life. Only the loyal support of a small group of friends made possible his unparalleled achievement.

The Commission
In a letter dated August 26, 1799, Blake informed his friend George Cumberland of a new painting commission: “As to Myself about whom you are so kindly Interested, I live by a Miracle. I am Painting small Pictures from the Bible… I think I foresee better Things than I have ever seen. My Work pleases my employer & I have an order for Fifty small Pictures at One Guinea each…” The commission would launch a period of breathtaking productivity and rare financial security for Blake. The Raising of Jairus’s Daughter belongs to that transformative project.

The Patron(s)
Blake’s “employer” has traditionally been identified as Thomas Butts (1757–1845), Joint Chief Clerk of the Commissary General of Musters—the government official responsible for ascertaining the validity of military payroll, enlistment, and death records. Memorably dubbed a “white-collar Maecenas” by Bentley (in 1959), Butts would devote as much as one-sixth of his income to Blake over the course of a decade. By paying Blake in advance to paint subjects largely of his own choosing, often according to his own schedule, Butts sponsored a series of masterpieces—and saved one of Britain’s greatest artists from penury. The prosperous civil servant, who patronized no artists other than Blake, would come to amass, in addition to the fifty tempera paintings mentioned in Blake’s 1799 letter, more than 100 watercolors, impressions of most of Blake’s large color prints, and copies of many of his illuminated books.

Butts’s role in the history of art has never been contested. Yet his motives have, until recently, remained opaque. Archival discoveries by Viscomi (published in 1995 and 1996) and Johnson (published in 2010) offer clues to his interest in Blake’s Bible subjects and to his taste in art.  A Church of England worshipper—and not a Swedenborgian, as early Blake biographers had supposed—Butts’s mother was a devout Methodist and personal acquaintance of John Wesley. Butts’s first cousin and close friend, Thomas Hardwick (1752-1829) was an architect in a neo-Palladian style known for his sensitive church restorations and skilled watercolor designs.

New research has also cast light on Butts’s wife, Elizabeth Mary Cooper Butts (1753-1826). Four years older than her husband, and raised in a family of artisans—her father and brothers were successful carvers, gilders, and upholsterers—‘Betsy’ was a skilled needlewoman and entrepreneur, who ran a boarding school for girls at the Buttses’ London residence. Some of Blake’s paintings may have decorated its classrooms, where Bentley (2003) has speculated that Blake may also have taught. Considering Elizabeth Butts’s possible role as Blake’s employer at the school and the pedagogical role that his paintings may have played there, as well as her professional autonomy and interest in the applied arts, it seems possible that she, rather than her husband, may have been Blake’s unnamed patron.   

In the absence of conclusive evidence, however, it might be simplest to consider the 1799 commission more broadly: as given by the Buttses to the Blakes. Both Thomas and Elizabeth Butts acted as ‘consumers’ of Blake’s work by viewing it, and both William and his wife, Catherine Boucher Blake (1762-1831), participated in its production. (Catherine Blake routinely acted as a studio assistant to her husband.) The two couples were of similar ages, and lived in the same neighborhood; although unequal in income, they seem to have regarded one another as friends. Indeed, glimpses of a warm mutual regard flicker across the extant correspondence, which documents regular social visits and the exchange of gifts, jokes, and poems. Catherine painted a watercolor for Betsy; William and Thomas exchanged poems; and Blake wrote only to him about his poetry.

The Subject
Blake took the subjects for the Buttses’ Bible paintings primarily from Genesis, Exodus, and the canonical gospels. The story of the raising of Jairus’s daughter is recounted in Mark 5:21-43, Matthew 9:18-26, and Luke 8:40-56. Jairus, a ‘ruler’ of the synagogue, asked Jesus to heal his daughter who lay dying. As they walked to his house, word arrived that the girl had died, and they were too late:

“As soon as Jesus heard the word that was spoken, he saith unto the ruler of the synagogue, Be not afraid, only believe. And he suffered no man to follow him, save Peter, and James, and John the brother of James. And he cometh to the house of the ruler of the synagogue, and seeth the tumult, and them that wept and wailed greatly. And when he was come in, he saith unto them, Why make ye this ado, and weep? the damsel is not dead, but sleepeth. And they laughed him to scorn. But when he had put them all out, he taketh the father and the mother of the damsel, and them that were with him, and entereth in where the damsel was lying. And he took the damsel by the hand, and said unto her, Talitha cumi; which is, being interpreted, Damsel, I say unto thee, arise. And straightway the damsel arose, and walked; for she was of the age of twelve years. And they were astonished with a great astonishment. And he charged them straitly that no man should know it; and commanded that something should be given her to eat.” (Mark 5: 36-43)

In Blake’s painting of the episode, Peter, James, and John—three apostles first singled out by Jesus on this occasion (as they would be again at the Transfiguration and in the Garden of Gethsemane)—stand at the left and witness the miracle. Christ extends one arm over the waking girl, and raises her gently with the other, as her parents lean towards her in joyous amazement. Expressive gestures punctuate the scene: Christ’s long left hand extended above the girl; his right hand clasping hers at the center of the composition; and her mother’s agitated fingers, fluttering with excitement.

The Style
The attenuated figures, characteristic of Blake’s distinctive style, reflect the artist’s aspiration to reclaim what he perceived to be the spiritual integrity of ‘Gothic’ art. In an era that valued the classical forms of ancient Greece and Rome above all others, Blake embraced the elongated forms, clear contours, and hierarchical compositions of medieval and Renaissance art as the one true model of beauty, imagination, spirituality, and artistic integrity.

The Medium
The painting’s materials, likewise, represent a rejection of the modern. Blake executed the painting using an artistic medium of his own invention, which he subsequently called (in the catalogue of his 1809 one-man exhibition) ‘portable fresco’—actually, a variant of tempera in which animal glue is used in place of the egg yolk. Disapproving of the soft, blended effects of oil painting, Blake sought a less sensuous surface that would retain a crisp outline, the ‘bounding line’ that he famously equated with artistic perfection, the artist’s idea, and even moral action.

A recent study by Ormsby, Singer and Dean (published in 2003) has increased our understanding of Blake’s distinctive tempera medium. To make the painting, Blake would have laid a white ground onto the linen canvas; drawn the design; painted over it using watercolor pigments suspended in gum and animal glue binders; reinforced outlines using a pen and black ink; and glazed each layer (thereby protecting and separating it from other layers) with a transparent wash of animal glue. Regrettably, the medium proved unstable, leading to darkening and cracking over time, and inspiring Blake increasingly to use watercolor. Perhaps exacerbated by the well-intentioned efforts of later restorers, more than a dozen of Blake’s temperas from the Bible series have been lost. The Raising of Jairus’s Daughter is one of fewer than thirty works from the 1799 series now known.

The Provenance
The painting descended in the Butts family. It was sold by the patrons’ grandson, Captain Frederick John Butts (1833-1906) in 1903, and acquired by the Brooklyn investment banker and bibliophile William Augustus White (1843-1927), the most important collector of Blake in this country, and a leading collector of books by Shakespeare and from his era. Most of White’s Blake collection descended to his daughter, and was donated to the Library of Congress by Lessing J. Rosenwald. This painting descended to White’s son, whose second wife presented it to her son, Amherst’s generous donor.  

The Frame
The painting is presented here in the nineteenth-century gilt frame in which it descended in the White family. Unlikely to be original, it is nevertheless of a date and style similar to the type of frame that Elizabeth Butts’s relations likely provided to the painting’s first owners. A label on the back of the current frame indicates that it was placed on the painting—or else cleaned or repaired—by George F. Of (1876-1954) at the time his workshop was located in mid-town Manhattan, probably in the 1920s. Of, a second generation framer known for his meticulous craftsmanship, was also an American avant-garde painter and early collector of Matisse.

Of represents only one link in the fascinating chain of this painting’s history. The Mead is honored to join that distinguished lineage, and to be entrusted to share Blake’s incomparable vision with present and future generations of museum visitors and scholars.