Will Tate save a set of William Blake watercolours?

The museum is trying to raise £8.8 million to keep the works in the UK


The Tate is now facing the difficult decision of whether to try to buy the recently discovered set of 19 Blake watercolours, valued at £8.8 million. These are the original illustrations for Robert Blair’s poem The grave, and some of the images were reproduced in 1808. A UK export licence has been deferred until 30 May, to enable a British institution to match the price, and there could be an extension until 30 September.

Although the Tate has an outstanding Blake collection, it would love to acquire the Blair set. However, the price is now twice what it offered three years ago. Last month a Tate spokesman said that the gallery is “considering its position in relation to this important group of works”.

The watercolours were acquired at auction in 1836 by artist John Stannard, and remained hidden away with his descendants until 2000. When the Blakes were then sold by Glasgow bookdealer Caledonia Books they were assumed to be coloured prints, and went for £1,000. Few “sleepers” in recent years have proved quite so valuable.

The watercolours were bought by Ilkley bookdealer Paul Williams, who contacted a dealer in Leeds, and together they took them to Swindon auctioneer Dominic Winter, who identified them as lost originals. The bookdealers did not proceed with an auction, and as The Art Newspaper revealed, the Tate was given an option to buy the set (The Art Newspaper, No. 136, May 2003, p. 42).

The Tate offered £4.2 million, and the price was agreed, but the owners refused to proceed, saying that a private buyer had been found. Sir Nicholas Serota later described the situation as “frustrating”.

The private sale was arranged by London dealer Libby Howie, who said the buyer is a collector of 19th- and 20th-century art. Our enquiries suggest that the owner could be Swiss, and the purchase was made through a family trust in the British Virgin Islands.

Blake specialist Professor David Bindman now fears that the private owner “may be tempted to break up the group of 19 watercolours”, to maximise their financial value.