Pity by William Blake
Colour print finished in ink and watercolour on paper, 425 mm x 539 mm
presented to the Tate Gallery by W. Graham Robertson 1939
And pity, like a naked new-born babe,
Striding the blast, or heaven's cherubin hors'd
Upon the sightless couriers of the air,
-- Macbeth I.7
This is one of my favourite Blake prints, for the subtlety of its colouring as well as for the beauty of its image. A beautiful but sad lady is lying on the ground. Above her two white horses fly through the air, their limbs stretched out so that they occupy the whole breadth of the picture. Sidesaddle on the nearer one is another beautiful figure, gazing down at the recumbent lady, and carrying a baby in her arms.
The background is gloomy and stormy, colours of a sea at night roiling with dark clouds, and there seem to be the slanting lines of a driving rain between the earthly and heavenly figures. The speed of the winds is accentuated by the leaping gallop of the horses.
The figures are in white or grey and their skin is deliciously fresh and pink. The lady's gown is perhaps white where her chest is illuminated, but darkens into shadows, and deeper shadow, down to her feet, which it covers entirely. It looks like a winding-shroud, and at a casual glance it looks like perhaps the angelic figure has picked up her departed soul in the form of a babe. But her eyes are not closed in repose; rather they are cast back in worry, sadness, unease. And her face and lips and breast are full of life, a flush over her cheeks, a delicate richness in the bare arms that are clasped where her robe leaves her bosom. Long hair cascades on the ground around her.
The white or grey horse nearer us is dappled on the haunches; the further one we see little of. On that one behind is a rider, arms stretched out right and left in the wild motion, its face away from us. Whatever it is doing, it is not parallel to the pitying action of the nearer one.
This print Pity is assumed to be based on the lines from Macbeth, so the riding figures would be cherubim. They do not look like the juvenile putti a cherub is usual depicted as, however. The far one is powerful, swift, elemental; the near one is another beautiful lady, demure in a white robe, with the same living fleshly colours over her face and arms and chest. Her strong but sensitive arms hang down, and where the tips of the hands meet she balances that baby, standing upright on her fingers and opening wide its arms to greet her.
Her face is kind, keen, thoughtful; and her long hair flies stiffly out in the wind. The relationship between her and the one on the ground is unobvious. We can't see whether it's a rescue or a lament or a stillbirth or what. The fallen figure seems inwardly contemplating without awareness of the beings rushing above her.
No details of the ground are visible in the tempestuous gloom, but there are textures that make it look stony at the right where her feet lie shrouded, and grassy where her head lies tousled in its dull gold hair. It is as if her sad head casts a faint light around her. Deep-sea tints of green and gold and blue shimmer beneath her.
See the picture at http://www.tate.org.uk/servlet/ViewWork?cgroupid=999999961&workid=1126&searchid=6227&tabview=image
though that has a lot more turquoise to it than the postcard I've been working from.