Grappling with Monsters

In the early years of the 19th century, the British romantic artist William Blake painted a very strange and brownish picture he called The Spiritual Form of Nelson Guiding Leviathan. For many years art historians have pored over Blake’s work for secret symbols, hidden messages and coded narratives, but this one seems quite straightforward so long as we have the title to guide us through the oddness of the image. The painting’s central character is a golden haired, haloed man who is naked save for a pair of skimpy pants. Despite his state of undress, he is poised heroically as he controls with apparent ease some sort of serpentine, scaly monster. Trapped within this monster’s muscly coils are various naked figures in a selection of helpless poses, some inverted, as they desperately wrestle to free themselves. At the bottom of this circular composition of writhing snake and disorientated bodies lie two figures, one white slumped and one black huddled, both apparently exhausted from the struggle. All around flames lick out as if this some hellish detail taken from The Last Judgement. What can all this have to do with Admiral Lord Nelson?

To uncover the meaning behind Blake’s nightmarish vision we need to turn to history and consider what it was that made Nelson so famous. His two momentous achievements were the British victory over the French fleet at the Battle of the Nile in 1798, and the defeat of the French and Spanish navies at the Battle of Trafalgar, fought off Cape Trafalgar on the Spanish coast, during which he was killed in 1805. These victories set the scene for what would be a century of British naval supremacy, ultimately underpinning the expansion of Empire. Those are the two main attributes that are conjured up by the idea – the cult of Nelson – naval power and imperialism. So was this Blake’s tribute to Nelson? He certainly worked on the painting for about four years from around the time of Nelson’s death. Meanwhile other leading artists such as John Flaxman and Benjamin West were producing much more sober and monumental pieces to feed the outpouring of national pride in – and grief over the loss of Nelson, the naval hero.

But what Blake has done, as we might expect Blake to do, is to subvert the very idea of these catalytic events, synthesising a personification of the impact of them via Nelson himself. What Blake is saying here is that, at the very least, this extreme hero worship is all highly questionable. So if this isn’t a tribute to a war hero, it an attack on the flabby thinking that implies imperialism is necessarily a good thing. But even if Blake’s commentary is barbed, he still holds Nelson and turn-of-the-century Britain in considerable esteem.

In Blake’s painting we know that the all-but-naked figure is Nelson. There he stands, nonchalantly heroic, holding what, on closer inspection, turns out to be a representation of a thunderbolt. Multi-tasking Nelson also finds time to direct a serpent-like creature, which we know by the title is intended to represent the Old Testament sea monster, Leviathan, here shown wrapping itself around its apparent victims. When Blake showed his painting in a private exhibition in London in 1809, alongside its companion Spiritual Form of Pitt Guiding Behemoth (c.1805), it was number 1, and the accompanying description explained that it is the sea creature that: ‘…in whose wreathings are infolded the Nations of the Earth’.

We can guess that Blake is probably making reference to those nations with which Britain was at war, but they might also be her colonies, here shown caught in a sinister maritime Empire represented by the giant sea snake. Blake most probably would have condemned such an Empire. With this painting and its pendant featuring Pitt, Blake is showing the two leaders as bringers of apocalyptic war, even if Blake appreciated that the campaign against Napoleon was just and righteous. As I have described, Blake’s Nelson stands over the huddled figure of a manacled black man, presumably a slave and highlighting the role of the Royal Navy in suppressing the slave trade after it was made illegal in the British Empire in 1807. It has been suggested that Bake may have seen the modern British Empire as enacting a divine plan for the world, making way for the millennium through acts of regenerative destruction (see F. David Peat (2007) Pathways of Chance [Pari Publishing], p. 127). Here then, Nelson guides a pathway through the chaos of the modern world by controlling a writhing sea monster symbolising an all powerful Britain as it flexes its maritime muscle.

If Blake’s Nelson really is paving the way for the millennium, what if we now turn our attention to another artwork representing the actual turn of the millennium nearly two hundred years later? It is Quantum Cloud (1999) by Anthony Gormley. Gormley’s sculpture stands on the south bank of the river Thames adjacent to the Millennium Dome on the North Greenwich peninsula. Famous for his work The Angel of the North (1998) near Gateshead in Tyne and Wear, Quantum Cloud is actually a third taller at 30 metres. At the time of its unveiling it was the tallest sculpture in the United Kingdom. Constructed from tetrahedral units made from 1.5 metre long sections of steel, the pieces were arranged using a computer model with a random walk algorithm starting from points on the surface of an enlarged figure based on Gormley’s body that forms a residual outline at the centre of the sculpture. In designing Quantum Cloud, Gormley was influenced by Basil Hiley, quantum physicist (and long-time colleague of David Bohm). The idea for Quantum Cloud came from Hiley’s thoughts on pre-space as a mathematical structure underlying space-time and matter, and his comment that “algebra is the relationship of relationships”. The comment was made during a conversation between Gormley, Hiley and writer David Peat at a 1999 London gathering of artists and scientists, organized by Peat. This is all very interesting, but above and beyond the quantum physics, what do we as the audience see in this work? Most people encounter it for the first time when exploring the Millennium Dome (O2) venue, or using the cable car that crosses the Thames nearby and provides a bird’s-eye view of Gormley’s sculpture. To my mind, Gormley’s Millennium Man is just as much trapped inside the neo-modern metallic cloud of his time as Blake’s idea of Nelson, encircled by the writhing leviathan.

Sections of this entry are informed either directly or indirectly by the David Blayney Brown’s entry on Blake published in the exhibition catalogue Artist and Empire [Tate, 2015]. 

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