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William Blake, 1757–1827

The Poems of Thomas Gray, Design 109, "Elegy Written in a Country Church-Yard."

Additional Title(s):

Verso: The Poems of Thomas Gray, Design 110, "Elegy Written in a Country Church-Yard."

Part Of:

Collective Title: The Poems of Thomas Gray

between 1797 and 1798
Watercolor with pen and black ink and graphite on moderately thick, slightly textured, cream wove paper with inlaid letterpress page
Sheet: 16 1/2 x 12 3/4 inches (41.9 x 32.4 cm)

Inscribed in black ink upper right: "5"; in graphite center: "x"; on verso in black ink upper left: "6"; in graphite center: "x"

Credit Line:
Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection
Copyright Status:
Public Domain
Accession Number:
Drawings & Watercolors
Prints and Drawings
Subject Terms:
basket | boy | child | clouds | digging | dirt | farming | father | food | girl | gloves | grain | harvest | hat | literary theme | man | men | rain | shovel | sickle | sky | text | trees | wheat straw | women
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IIIF Manifest:

In about 1795 the London bookseller Richard Edwards commissioned William Blake to provide illustrations for a deluxe edition of Edward Young's Night Thoughts. A standard edition of the poem was taken apart and the pages mounted on large sheets of paper on which Blake drew and colored his designs. Blake created 537 illustrations on 269 sheets (now in the British Museum, London), only a fraction of which were actually published. With the model of Blake's watercolors for Night Thoughts in mind, Blake's friend John Flaxman commissioned a set of watercolor illustrations of the poems of Thomas Gray as a birthday gift for his wife, Ann, known as Nancy.
Again the pages of a standard edition of the poems were mounted on large sheets, perhaps left over from the earlier project, on which Blake created his watercolor illustrations. Unlike his illustrations to Night Thoughts, these 116 watercolors on fifty-eight sheets (all now in the Paul Mellon Collection, ycba) were never intended for publication.
On each of the pages of text Blake marked with a graphite "X" the lines that he intended to illustrate. The three pages displayed here convey something of the range and variety of Blake's responses to Gray's poetry. The image of Cythera's day, from Gray's ode celebrating the poet's calling, is light and exuberant. Cythera, one of the Ionian Islands, was the center of a cult of Aphrodite. A group of levitating young devotees of the goddess of love dance and play instruments beneath a six-pointed star.
"The Bard" was a seminal text of Romantic nationalism. Based on the traditional account of the killing of the Celtic minstrel-poets by Edward I after his conquest of Wales, the poem is the lament of the lone surviving bard and his curse on Edward and his descendants. Blake himself identified with the bard, writing in the Introduction to the Songs of Experience: "Hear the voice of the Bard!" For the opening of Gray's poem, Blake produced one of the most powerful designs in the set. Departing from his standard practice, he chose to illustrate a line later in the poem. He marked a double "X" in the upper left of the letterpress page, which corresponds to the similarly marked line, "And weave with bloody hands the tissue of thy line," several pages further on. The figure of the bard plucks the bloody strands from which he will weave Edward's fate. The strands at the same time suggest the harp with which the bard traditionally accompanied his songs.
While Gray's most celebrated poem, "Elegy in a Country Churchyard," gave little scope to the more extravagant side of the artist's visual imagination, Blake did create a sequence of images that enhance the quiet poignancy of the poet's meditation. The compact figure of the reaper, with its coiled energy, forcefully evokes the former vitality of those "rude forefathers" who lie buried in the churchyard.

Scott Wilcox

Baskett, John, Jules David Prown, Duncan Robinson, Brian Allen, and William Reese. Paul Mellon's Legacy: A Passion for British Art. New Haven : Yale Center for British Art , 2007, cat. no. 72

William Blake - The Artist (Tate Britain, 2019-09-11 - 2020-02-20) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition]

An American's Passion for British Art - Paul Mellon's Legacy (Royal Academy of Arts, 2007-10-20 - 2008-01-27) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition]

Paul Mellon's Legacy : A Passion for British Art (Yale Center for British Art, 2007-04-18 - 2007-07-29) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition]

An American's Passion for British Art - Paul Mellon's Legacy (Yale Center for British Art, 2007-04-18 - 2007-07-29) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition]

The Human Form Divine - William Blake from the Paul Mellon Collection (Yale Center for British Art, 1997-04-02 - 1997-07-06) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition]

William Blake - His Art & Times (Art Gallery of Ontario, 1982-12-03 - 1983-02-06) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition]

William Blake - His Art & Times (Yale Center for British Art, 1982-09-15 - 1982-11-14) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition]

John Baskett, Paul Mellon's Legacy: a Passion for British Art: Masterpieces from the Yale Center for British Art, , Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT, 2007, pp. 275-76, no. 72, pl. 72, N5220 M552 P38 2007 OVERSIZE (YCBA) [YCBA]

Colin Cross, Blake revealed, William Blake : Discovery of a Masterwork , Observer, vol. 12, November 21, 1971, pp. 19-23, V 1245 Detached from Observer colour magazine [ORBIS]

Paul Mellon's Legacy : a passion for British art [large print labels], , Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT, 2007, v. 2, N5220 M552 P381 2007 OVERSIZE (YCBA) [YCBA]

Arnold Fawcus, Unknown Watercolours by William Blake, Illustrated London News, vol. 259, No. 6881, December 25, 1971, pp. 45-46, 49-51, Illustrated London News Historical Archive [ORBIS]

William Blake, Tate Publishing, London, p. 110, cat. 85, NJ18.B57 M97 2019 (LC) Oversize (YCBA) [YCBA]

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