A Woman Enthroned, Two Figures on Each Side

3. A Woman Enthroned, Two Figures on Each Side. Pen and ink on laid paper, leaf 17.8 x 26.0 cm. Butlin #99, dated to c. 1775-80. Essick collection. A watermark, a large and decorative “W” within a circle, appears in the middle of the leaf. This is similar to several examples of Whatman countermarks illustrated, and said to have been used “till about 1760,” in Thomas Balston, James Whatman Father and Son (London: Methuen, 1957) 158.

The central figure may be a queen, gesturing to 2 men on the left. The scene would appear to be set outdoors with a tree behind the seated woman, its downward-curving branches forming a canopy behind or above her. The small, enclosed shapes on the center right and left margins may be plants; the verticals behind the backs of both pairs of standing figures hint at more tree trunks. Perhaps the 2 horizontal lines upper right, immediately above the figures’ heads and with diagonals extending down and to the right, may be the horizon (lower line) and a cloud band (upper line) with beams of light from a rising or setting sun. The horizontal line top right may be another cloud.

The ovoid form below the seated figure’s left hand may be a shield. If so, she might be Britannia, often represented with a shield, or Boadicea, the 1st century A.D. warrior queen of the Iceni in East Anglia. John Flaxman’s proposed monumental statue of Britannia, engraved by Blake for his friend’s Letter to the Committee for Raising the Naval Pillar (1799), includes a large round shield between the woman’s lowered left hand and the pedestal below. Most accounts of Boadicea, beginning with the Annals of Tacitus, feature how she rallied her people against the Romans and rode a chariot into battle. One notable exception is Boadicea, a play by Richard Glover first performed and published in 1753 and popular enough to be included by John Bell in his British Theatre series in 1791. The drama begins with a Roman ambassador addressing “the Icenian queen” and proffering “friendship.” Boadicea interrupts him to announce her anger and desire for “revenge.” Dumnorix, one of Boadicea’s allies, speaks next; he too rejects the ambassador’s offer. Blake’s drawing would be a fitting illustration of this scene, with the queen raising an accusatory hand toward the Romans on the left and Dumnorix and a companion standing on the right. Even the plants on the margins match Boadicea’s rhetoric when she promises to reduce Roman “bulwarks” to the level “of the meanest shrub.” A setting sun is an appropriate background emblem both for the queen’s threat to destroy her enemies and for her own impending defeat. If, however, the man far left is bearded (and thus unlikely to be a Roman) and if any one of the standing figures is female, then the composition does not fit Glover’s opening scene.

Blake included “Boadicea inspiring the Britons against the Romans” in a list of English history subjects he wrote in his Notebook before 1793 (E 672); this might be the subject of a drawing usually titled Frolic (Butlin #211, dated to c. 1793). Blake mentions both Britannia and Boadicea several times in Jerusalem and the latter is the subject of one of his Visionary Heads datable to c. 1819-20 (Butlin #717, now in a private San Francisco collection). If this pen and ink sketch indeed pictures an event in English history, it may be a precursor to Blake’s watercolors of c. 1779 on that subject (Butlin #51-53, 57, 60, 62, 64, 65, 67) and to “The History of England, a small book of Engravings” he lists in his advertisement To the Public of 1793 (E 693).

As Butlin astutely observes, this drawing is on “the borderline between William and Robert Blake; the profiles of the two figures on the left, drawn as straight vertical lines with horizontal lines to suggest eyes and mouths, are close to works attributed to Robert. However, the rest of the drawing is looser and the figures less rigid than is usual for Robert.” The triangular shape suggesting the head of the figure farthest right is also typical of Robert’s work, following the first step in manuals on how to draw. It seems unlikely, however, that both brothers worked on the drawing; the composition appears to have been executed rapidly with the same pen and ink by the same hand. If the basic design is by William, this may be one of the earliest extant drawings of his own invention and datable to the lower end of Butlin’s date range. An early date might explain the similarities between this drawing and Robert’s work. When giving Robert drawing lessons in the mid-1780s (BR[2] 33), William may have guided his younger brother along the same steps that he had followed in his youth. Procession of Monks, Met by Three Women (Butlin #100, dated to c. 1775-80) shows similar stylistic features typical of Robert’s work but is probably another very early pen and ink drawing by William.