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Vol. 45 no. 2: Fall 2011

Attribution and Reproduction: Death Pursuing the Soul through the Avenues of Life

  • Robert N. Essick
11 October 2011
04 Sep. 2022


A splendid publication by the William Blake Trust features reproductions of Blake’s nineteen watercolors illustrating Robert Blair’s The Grave, rediscovered in 2001, and texts by Martin Butlin and Morton D. Paley. These drawings, plus Prone on the Lonely Grave—She Drops, which was once part of the group, were executed by Blake in the fall of 1805 on commission from Robert Hartley Cromek, whose edition of the poem with Blake’s illustrations, engraved by Louis Schiavonetti, appeared in 1808. Butlin’s contributions to the volume extend to a consideration of related drawings, including Death Pursuing the Soul through the Avenues of Life. He states that this work “stands out from the finished watercolours in that it is a monochrome drawing, finished in sepia washes over pencil on card in a rather heavy manner uncharacteristic of Blake’s own hand; although the invention seems to be by the artist [Blake], the work is perhaps a pencil drawing gone over by someone else to make it more saleable in the later 19th century.” A long footnote includes the following comments:

When this drawing was first brought to my attention in 1965 I accepted it on the basis of a reproduction but suggested, in a letter to Sir Geoffrey Keynes of 13 December 1965, that it had perhaps been gone over in parts by someone else. By the time it was acquired by Essick in 1971 I had been able to see it and was satisfied that it was a perfectly good work by Blake and it was included without qualification in my catalogue in 1981. However, constant brooding over reproductions of this work has led me to my present doubts.

Not surprisingly, these statements immediately caught my attention. In 1965 Butlin apparently believed that Death Pursuing had been “gone over” only “in parts by someone else,” but his statement in 2009 that it is “a pencil drawing” from Blake’s hand suggests that he now believes that all the washes were added by “someone else.” While I am tempted to do some teary-eyed “brooding” myself over Butlin’s partial deattribution of what I had long considered one of the more delicious examples of neo-gothic horror in my collection, his comments raise more general issues about how drawings are attributed, how the scholar/connoisseur converts subjective responses into convincing propositions, and how reproductions can play a role in those endeavors.