back to works by this artist go to previous work

Thomas Stothard

1755 - 1834

The Pilgrimage to Canterbury by Thomas Stothard

The Pilgrimage to Canterbury   1809-17

  Etching and engraving by Louis Schiavonetti and James Heath after Thomas Stothard.
With the artists' names in the plate.
Ref: Shelley M. Bennett, 1988, pp.44-9; R.N. Essick The Separate Plates of William Blake, 1983, p.88.
S 345 x 954 mm; I 268 x 933 mm
Very fine India paper impression with the engraved word ‘Proof’. First issue lettered proofs of this nature are of far superior quality to the normal lettered print impressions which lack the word 'Proof' and which have been re-printed from the plate up to the present day.

Much has been written concerning Thomas Stothard’s Pilgrimage to Canterbury and the later, remarkably similar, composition by his one-time engraver, William Blake. This large engraving and the painting upon which it was based were the cause of a permanent rift between William Blake and two of this most important employers, the publisher R.H. Cromek and the artist Thomas Stothard. Indeed, the argument surrounding these men and the subject of the Canterbury Pilgrims has led to lasting academic debate.

Robert Cromek is said to have suggested the subject of the procession of Chaucer’s Canterbury Pilgrims to Thomas Stothard as the subject for a painting in about 1806. In that year Cromek commissioned Thomas Stothard to design a large painting of this subject with the aim of producing the engraving shown here. Thomas Stothard’s painting was completed by 1807 and was an immense popular success. It was exhibited first at Cromek’s house and then went on tour of the British Isles as an advertisement for subscriptions to the projected engraving.

Cromek commissioned Louis Schiavonetti to engrave Thomas Stothard’s composition, but when Schiavonetti died in 1810 he had completed only the etched state of the plate. The copper plate was given to Francis Engleheart to complete, but Cromek’s death in March 1812 again interrupted progress. His widow gave the plate to Niccolo Schiavonetti, Louis’s younger brother, but he too died. The plate was finally completed by James Heath and was published on 1st October 1817.

Although now famed as an artist of immense standing in his own right, at the time of these events William Blake was regarded primarily as a professional reproductive engraver. Between the years 1780 and 1785 more than half of Blake’s graphic productions were reproductive engravings of works by Thomas Stothard. In view of this, Blake’s early income and reputation as a professional engraver must have been heavily dependent on commissions from Thomas Stothard and his publishers. Clearly, by the early 1800’s William Blake and Thomas Stothard were well known to one another.

William Blake was incensed by Thomas Stothard’s project to paint Chaucer’s Pilgrims in this manner, for he claimed that the basic design and concept had been stolen from him by Cromek on a visit to his studio in 1805. Later in his life Blake even claimed that he had, at one time, been the artist who was first commissioned to paint the work.

William Blake proceeded to create his famous tempera painting of this subject, essentially a mirror-image of Thomas Stothard’s design, which he finished by the year 1808/9. Blake then embarked immediately upon the engraving of his plate of the subject, on a similar scale to the engraving shown here. The first state of Blake’s plate was ready for publication in 1810 and the work was then adjusted gradually over the following years, reaching its completed state by 1820-23.

In view of the fact that more has been written about William Blake’s plate of Chaucer’s Canterbury Pilgrims than any other single printed work by this great artist, the dispute surrounding the two rival versions of the Canterbury Pilgrims is of considerable importance to scholars.

Most contemporary evidence, in particular accounts by Smith in Nollekens and His Times (II, pp.467-471) and by Cunningham in his Lives of British Painters (II, p.163) support the view that Thomas Stothard was the true originator of both this concept and its design. Both of these authors assert that Blake visited Stothard while the latter was working on his Chaucer design and stole the concept from Stothard. If true, it would seem that Blake then rushed to finish his engraving of the subject by 1810, ahead of Stothard’s plate – a view which would fit with Blake’s continuing precarious financial predicament. In the recent past, Robin Hamlyn, of the Tate Gallery, has produced apparently conclusive evidence to support this view, proving, at last, that Blake’s famous plate was in fact a blatant plagiarism of Thomas Stothard’s work.

The earliest evidence which shows that William Blake was considering a subject related to Chaucer appears to date from around the year 1800-1803 when Blake produced a portrait head of Chaucer with two associated figures on horseback. In contrast to this, Thomas Stothard had already made a watercolour design of The Canterbury Pilgrims leaving the Tabard Inn in procession, in about 1793 (the composition of this watercolour is remarkably similar to both artists' later Canterbury Pilgrims designs). Stothard’s design was engraved and published in Joseph Ritson’s book The English Anthology in 1793-4, and was, therefore, widely available. It is inconceivable that Blake, as Stothard’s engraver, would have been unware of this engraving after the work of his largest employer. From this evidence, it appears that both artist’s compositions were derived initially from Stothard’s composition of c.1793, and that Cunningham’s contemporary account has, at last, been fully vindicated.

Both this engraving and the painting upon which it was based brought Thomas Stothard great contemporary fame. Stothard was the first modern painter to explore the pictorial potential of Chaucer’s vivid descriptions of the pilgrims and the procession in his Canterbury Tales. He began by making extensive researches into written and pictorial records of Chaucer’s time in order to re-create an accurate view of the pilgrims. Thomas Stothard based the idea of his composition upon the famous frieze of ancient Greek sculptures, now known as the Elgin Marbles, from the Parthenon in Athens (although at this date his composition would have been based upon engravings of the marbles). The final result was the impressive composition displayed in this outstanding engraving.

Very good proof impression with full lettering and the engraved word ‘Proof’. Printed on fine India paper applied to original warm white wove paper, as issued. Trimmed to edge of the India paper sheet, leaving margins around the image and lettering on all sides. Some repaired nicks at outer edges of sheet, one just touching upper edge of image, otherwise generally very good condition.