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A Century of Giving

William Blake

Death on a Pale Horse


pen, Indian ink, grey wash and watercolour on paper, 39.3cm x 31.1cm

The Fitzwilliam Museum: 765

William Blake here illustrates the Revelation of St John: a terrifying vision of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. In this drawing, the crowned figure of Death on a frenzied white horse is accompanied by another, wild-eyed rider on a black horse, spreading famine or disease.

The Bible was Blake's most important source of subject matter: he saw it as the embodiment of the whole history of mankind. 'The Old and New Testaments', he declared, 'are the Great Code of Art'. This watercolour was one of a large series of Bible illustrations he produced for his most significant patron, Thomas Butts.

Painted c.1800, when European society was being transformed by war and revolution, and apocalyptic themes abounded, it was bought by Cockerell for £60 in 1914, just as WW1 broke out. Its subject, he commented, was 'unhappily but too appropriate in the present circumstances'.

Largely thanks to Cockerell, the Fitzwilliam has an exceptionally rich collection of Blake material - including watercolours, drawings, prints and illuminated books. Not long after his appointment, he organised an exhibition of Blake's works at the Museum. And, long after Cockerell's death in 1962, Blake material - in the form of promised loans, donations and bequests - continued to arrive in the Museum.

Cockerell was also keen to illustrate Blake's influence on the circle of young poets and artists who had surrounded him, notably Samuel Palmer.

In 1916, nine proofs of Palmer's landscape etchings were presented to the Museum anonymously through the Friends - providing the basis for what would become a choice collection of Palmer's work.

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