Blake's The spiritual form of Nelson guiding Leviathan
William Blake, The spiritual form of Nelson guiding Leviathan, in whose wreathings are infolded the Nations of the Earth, c. 1805-9, tempera on canvas 30" x 24"
William Blake occupies a unique position in art history in that he was both a major artist
and a major poet. Often the two went hand-in-hand, his art illustrating his poetry, or if
not his, the poetry of others. I suppose, then, for me, what makes this such an intriguing
example of his work is the fact that here, unusually for Blake, the subject is not drawn
from any literary source, but from contemporary history.
The painting was first shown in his solo exhibition of 1809, held at his brother’s house in
London’s Soho; a site, incidentally, that also served as the family shop, selling women’s
stockings. The reviews were mostly negative, one famously describing the paintings
as “the wild effusions of a distempered brain.” Not everyone hated it, though, and some
of the paintings did sell, including this portrait of Admiral Nelson.
Nelson was the hero of one of the greatest events of this period, the Battle of Trafalgar
in 1805. You might know him as the figure atop the column in Trafalgar Square. At the
Battle of Trafalgar, Nelson led a great victory over Napoleon’s navy, but was fatally
wounded. The outpourings of patriotic feeling that followed these events and the artistic
opportunities they offered, were quickly exploited by many artists. Blake’s Nelson,
however, is a world away from those melodramatic scenes of the dying hero that were
so current at the time, like this one by Benjamin West (Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool).
A Spiritual Likeness?
Instead of a lifelike portrait, Blake paints Nelson’s “Spiritual” likeness. He stands on top
of the Biblical sea creature, Leviathan, whose body encircles him. Nelson controls the
beast with a bridle, attached to its neck, which he holds loosely in his left hand. Trapped
in, crushed under, or in one case, half-consumed within Leviathan’s coiled body, ten
figures, male and female, are arranged around the figure of Nelson; these represent the
European nations defeated by the British during the Napoleonic Wars. Under his feet is a
black body, whose wrists are fettered. The head and arms of the figure to the bottom left
appear to be submerged under water, which occupies the lowest portion of the painting.
Nelson stands in the centre of a graphic explosion of colour, creating a corona of light
The visual coupling of explosion and water may bring to mind naval conflicts, but clearly
this is no illusionistic representation of any specific battle. The painting should rather be
viewed as an allegory a representation of an abstract idea in material form.
Benjamin West’s The Immortality of Nelson of 1807 (National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London) is similarly allegorical. Here Neptune delivers the soul of Nelson into the arms of Brittania (an allegorical figure of Great Britain). West draws on Christian art in the composition, recalling Rubens’ Descent from the Cross.
Classical, Biblical and Hindu References
Like West, Blake also uses classical and Christian references: the nude Nelson in contrapposto is modelled on the Apollo Belvedere, for instance. Similarly, Nelson is shown with Christ-like attributes: the halo and the loincloth. What distinguishes Blake’s image is the unusual composition that critics have noted owes more to Indian than Graeco-Roman or Christian art, specifically statues of Nataraja (the Dancing Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction, who dances within an aureole of fire, standing on Apasmara, the Dwarf of Ignorance, who is killed during the dance).
Blake highlights this connection in the Descriptive Catalogue he wrote for the exhibition.
Here, he claims to have been “taken in vision” and shown works of art from “Persian,
Hindoo, and Egyptian Antiquity…some of them one hundred feet in height”. Drawing on
these visionary works he wished to create similarly grand images of national heroes.
Though modestly proportioned, Blake hoped this preparatory work would gain him a
commission to create a massive fresco. It was for this reason he painted using tempera,
only on canvas rather than plaster, which sadly accounts for the sorry state of the
For all his talk of visions, though, Blake would have seen Hindu art in his waking hours,
too, as Britain’s growing colonial presence in India meant that translations of Hindu
scriptures and engravings of its artworks were in wide circulation. Among educated
circles these works were discussed with avid interest, many holding the view that in
India could be found the source for all the world religions. Blake draws on these ideas in
the painting, which is exceptionally eclectic in its scriptural references.
Leviathan comes from the Old Testament, and like Shiva, is said to represent
the forces of destruction in the world. It is difficult to know what Blake is implying here
though, for while Shiva destroys in order to transform and so is seen as a positive force,
in Christian tradition at least, Leviathan is generally held to be an agent of Satan.
Certainly, there is something confusing, if not downright disconcerting, in this alliance of
a national hero with a diabolical monster. Similarly, the contorted figures and agonized
expressions of the defeated nations contrasts uncomfortably with the calm, classical
elegance of Nelson; while compositionally, the claustrophobic treatment of the space
lends the painting a nightmarish quality giving one the distinct impression that this is
more a critique than a celebration of Britain’s naval supremacy, a view supported in the
fact that Blake himself was a pacifist.
An Anti-Slavery Message?
Blake was also a fierce opponent of slavery. The black body in the painting may act as
a reference to the Slave Trade Act of 1807, which abolished the trade of slaves in the
British Empire. This figure is situated, much as Apasmara the dwarf is to the Dancing
Shiva, directly beneath Nelson’s feet. It could be argued that, just as the one stands for
ignorance, the figure here represents not an individual slave as such, but slavery itself,
which is in the process of being destroyed.
Whatever Blake’s intentions may have been in depicting the figure thus, we are struck
most by his individual suffering, prostrate and wretched, if anything he serves to remind
us that though the trade had been criminalised, slavery itself would continue to be legal
for many years to come.
Wildly ambitious and devilishly ambiguous, The Spiritual Form of Nelson guiding
Leviathan is a work that for all its oddities and contradictions speaks directly to us
in our postcolonial age. Undoubtedly the British Imperial project, made possible by
its naval strength, enriched Britain financially through the appropriation of immense
natural resources, as well as culturally through the influx of new ideas and new
artistic languages. The question remains though as to what rights and responsibilities
metropolitan artists, like Blake, have when adopting the intellectual, cultural and artistic
resources of other, less dominant, cultures.
Bronze figure of Nataraja, from Tamil Nadu, Southern India, around AD 1100, British Museum, London
Essay by Ben Pollitt
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