An unusual discovery: William Blake at Arlington

William Blake artwork on display at Arlington Court
Published : 11 Aug 2018 Last update : 26 Mar 2020

At Arlington Court in North Devon, the National Trust care for nearly 5000 items in their collection ranging from model boats no bigger than a 10p piece to voluminous Victorian wedding gowns and elegant family portraits.

One of the most significant items in the collection is an original pen and ink drawing by William Blake. It is not known how the picture by the famous poet, artist and social critic came to be at Arlington, but its discovery was almost as mysterious as the image itself.
Paula Martin, House and Collections Manager for the National Trust at Arlington Court explained, 'Legend has it that the framed picture was found on top of a wardrobe in the housemaid’s pantry when the National Trust acquired the house in 1949. It’s not known how long it rested there, but it is suspected to have been purchased direct from William Blake by Colonel John Chichester in the 1820s. Tastes change so it may be that a later member of the Chichester family had it put away for safe keeping and it was forgotten. We carry out regular inventory checks, so such a treasure wouldn’t go unnoticed in the present day.'
The Blake picture is known as 'The Sea or Time and Space (Vision of the Circle of the Life of Man)' which is a quotation from Blake’s work ’Prophetic Book Vala’. The image is inspired by Greek mythology and could be taken from Homer’s ‘Odyssey’.
The image weaves classical imgery into an obscure narrative that seems to revolve around the theme of choice. Wilst various readings have been put forward, the broad consensus is that the kneeling male figure represents divine inspiration and imagination, while the standing female makes the case for the natural, or scientific, order of classical thought.
Whatever the precisie meaning, the sea here appears to represent a positive direction for Blake as his male protagonist gestures towards the waves with an attitude of yearning and mysticism.
The piece has previously been on show at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter in 2016, Petworth's Blake retrospective in 2017 and Tate Britain in September 2019.