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William Blake, 1757–1827
The Poems of Thomas Gray, Design 55, "The Bard."
Additional Title(s):

Verso: The Poems of Thomas Gray, Design 56, "The Bard."

The Bard Weaving Edward's Fate, From 'The Bard: A Pindaric Ode', a poem by Thomas Gray
Part Of:

Collective Title: The Poems of Thomas Gray

between 1797 and 1798
Materials & Techniques:
Watercolor with pen and black ink, graphite and gouache 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: "3"; in graphite upper center: "+ +"; on verso in black ink upper left: "4"; in graphite upper center: "2 x"; in graphite center: "1 X"

Credit Line:
Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection
Copyright Status:
Public Domain
Accession Number:
Drawings & Watercolors
Prints and Drawings
Subject Terms:
armor | bard | beard | crown (costume component) | feather | horse (animal) | knights (landholders) | lance | leaf | literary theme | man | men | religious and mythological subject | robe | ropes | spear | text | trees | vines | women
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IIIF Manifest:

Thomas Gray’s poem “The Bard,” published in 1757, imagines a confrontation between the English conqueror Edward I and the last bard of Wales. Edward has ordered the Welsh bards put to death in order to suppress their telling of history. The Bard curses Edward and prophesies his ultimate defeat upon the return of Welsh rule, before throwing himself into the river Conway, a final act of defiance. The poem became extremely popular, helping to create an idea of Welsh mountains as synonymous with liberty.

In 1797 and 1798, the visionary artist William Blake created a series of exquisite illustrations to accompany Gray’s text. Some of the most vivid images highlight the narrative trajectory of the poem. The title page presents a composed Bard, draped in robes and holding his harp. As the poem progresses, the Bard develops a frenetic energy, his hair wild and his eyes lit with passion. The final page shows the Bard, barely colored, almost a force of nature, committing suicide in the Conwy.

Gallery label for Art in Focus: Wales (Yale Center for British Art, 2014-04-04 - 2014-08-10)
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. 71

Art in Focus : Wales (Yale Center for British Art, 2014-04-04 - 2014-08-10) [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] [Exhibition Description]

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] [Exhibition Description]

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. 71, pl. 71, 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]

Patrick Noon, A Princely Amateur, Paul Mellon and his Collection of British Drawings , Master Drawings, vol. 38, no. 3, Master Drawings Association, Inc., Fall, 2000, pp. 340-42;, fog. 3, NC1 M37 (YCBA) Another copy available as item VF 2329 [YCBA]

Paul Mellon's Legacy : a passion for British art [large print labels], , Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT, 2007, v. 2, no. 71, N5220 M552 P381 2007 OVERSIZE (YCBA) [YCBA]

John Russell, Blake the Craftsman, Art , Sunday Times, Issue no. 7749, December 12, 1971, p. 27, Sunday Times Digital Archive [ORBIS]

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]

Yale Center for British Art, Wales, New Haven, 2014, p. 21, V2519 (YCBA) [YCBA]

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