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William Blake

Regency Portraits Catalogue

William Blake

by James Deville
published 1823
11 1/2 in. (292 mm) high
NPG 1809

Inscriptionback to top

Incised on back of neck: A66/PUBD AUG.1.1823 I DEVILLE/67 Strand London.

This portraitback to top

Deville was a sculptor and phrenologist employed as a young assistant by Nollekens from whom no doubt he learned the technique of taking life-masks with the help of straws to prevent suffocation (Rupert Gunnis, Dictionary of British Sculptors 1660-1851, 1953, p 130). The mask was taken when Blake was aged 56 so that the phrenologist could have a cast of Blake's head 'as representative of the imaginative faculty' (H. H. Gilchrist, Anne Gilchrist: her Life and Writings, 1887, p 259), though the value of this was ridiculed by Sydney Smith and Tom Moore who visited Deville's studio in 1826 to find out his opinion of their friends; these were so wildly inaccurate that they laughed 'even to tears' (Moore, Memoirs and Journals, 1854, V, p 70). Mrs Blake did not like the bust and George Richmond said the unnatural severity of the mouth was caused by the discomfiture of the process 'as the plaster pulled out a quantity of his hair' (H. H. Gilchrist, Anne Gilchrist: her Life and Writings, 1887, p 260); according to Herbert Horne the Fitzwilliam Museum had many of Blake's hairs still adhering to the plaster (Herbert Horne, 'The Life Mask of William Blake' in Century Guild Hobby Horse, January 1887, p 27). The Fitzwilliam version, formerly in the Richmond family possession, is undoubtedly the original; NPG 1809 with its cleaner and smoother surface represents Deville's finished intention (see Sir David Piper, The Image of the Poet, 1982, pp 116-18).
Francis Bacon's 'Study for Portrait III' is based on this life-mask, reproduced in John Russell, Francis Bacon, 1971, plate 24.

Physical descriptionback to top

A life-mask of the whole head and beginning of the neck, eyelids closed over prominent eyeballs, eyebrows low, nose short, mouth set and turned down, ears unusually low down and far back hair scanty and brushed back.

Provenanceback to top

John Linnell; Christie's (Linnell Trustees sale) 15 March 1918 (171) bought by A. Martin for the NPG.

Exhibitionsback to top

'William Blake and his Circle', British Museum bicentenary exhibition, 1957.

This extended catalogue entry is from the out-of-print National Portrait Gallery collection catalogue: Richard Walker, Regency Portraits, National Portrait Gallery, 1985, and is as published then. For the most up-to-date details on individual Collection works, we recommend reading the information provided in the Search the Collection results on this website in parallel with this text.

View all known portraits for William Blake