William Blake

Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing


Not on display

William Blake 1757–1827
Watercolour and graphite on paper
Support: 475 × 675 mm
Presented by Alfred A. de Pass in memory of his wife Ethel 1910

Display caption

At the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, fairy king Oberon and queen Titania make friends again, and Moth, Peaseblossom, Cobweb and Mustardseed dance in a ring, while Puck claps the beat.William Blake’s fairies dance on weightless tiptoes wearing petals, leaves and gauzy dresses. They look human, but are small compared to a tree trunk. The strange, silvery light from the fireflies transforms them into magical beings. Blake’s fairy features and dancing fairy rings helped define how we think of fairies today.

Gallery label, October 2020

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Catalogue entry

N02686 Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing c.1785

N 02686 / B 161
Pencil and watercolour, irregular 475×675 (18 3/4×26 1/2)
Presented by Alfred A. de Pass in memory of his wife Ethel 1910
PROVENANCE Mrs Blake, sold to Francis Cary, sold Christie's 13 March 1895 (16) £3.10.0 bt. Leggatt; Alfred A. de Pass, given 1910 to the Tate Gallery
EXHIBITED Carfax 1904 (34); Tate Gallery (45), Manchester (52), Nottingham (34) and Edinburgh (37) 1913–14; Shakespeare in Art, Arts Council, April–May 1964 (33); New Haven and Toronto 1982–3 (16, repr.)
LITERATURE Gilchrist 1863, I, p.366; Rossetti 1863, p.237 no.212, and 1880, p.251 no.240; Blunt 1959, p.10; Gert Schiff, Johann Heinrich Füssli, ein Sommernachtstraum 1961, p.20, pl.13; Merchant in Apollo, LXXIX, 1964, pp.320–2, pl.6 (reprinted in Essick 1973, pp.241–3, pl.66); Martin Butlin, ‘Another Blake Watercolour cleaned at the Tate Gallery’ in Blake Newsletter, VI, 1972–3, p.43; Bindman 1977, pp.37–8, pl.32; Paley 1978, p.20; Butlin 1981, p.61 no.161, colour pl.182; Warner 1984, p.155, pl.89; Baine 1986, p.4

This watercolour illustrates the closing scene of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. It is close in style and handling to the three finished watercolours of events from the life of Joseph exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1785 (Butlin 1981, nos.155–7, colour pls.183–5); there seems no reason to adopt the slightly later dating of c. 1785–87 proposed by David Bindman (exh. cat. 1982–3, loc.cit.). Two further watercolours showing ‘Oberon and Titania, preceded by Puck’ and ‘Oberon and Titania on a Lily’ are distinct in style and seem to date from the early 1790s (see Butlin 1981, nos.245–6, pls.294–5).
The watercolour was cleaned and restored to something near its original brilliance in 1973.

Published in:
Martin Butlin, William Blake 1757-1827, Tate Gallery Collections, V, London 1990

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