William Blake, “The Spiritual Form of Nelson Guiding Leviathan, in Whose Wreathings Are Infolded the Nations of the Earth”, 1805-1809, Tempera on Canvas, 30 x 24 Inches, Tate Museum, London
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. The subject is not drawn from any literary source, but from contemporary history.
The spiritual form of Nelson guiding Leviathan was first shown in Blake’s solo exhibition of 1809, held at his brother’s house in London’s Soho. Though the reviews were mostly negative, some of the paintings did sell, including this portrait of Admiral Nelson. Instead of a lifelike portrait, Blake painted Nelson’s “Spiritual” likeness.
Admiral Nelson is in the centre of a graphic explosion of colour, creating a corona of light around him. He is standing on top of the Biblical sea creature, Leviathan, whose body encircles him; he 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 are arranged around the figure of Nelson. These represent the European nations defeated by the British during the Napoleonic Wars.