William Blake’s (1757-1827) watercolour of Jacob’s Ladder is one of about eighty watercolours which Blake made between about 1800 and 1806 for his loyal patron, the civil servant Thomas Butts (more of Blake’s works for Butts follow in tomorrow and Friday). In Genesis 28, Jacob has a dream in which he sees a staircase between heaven and earth with figures ascending and descending on it.
We do not know the precise date of this watercolour, but it may well have been inspired by a vision which Blake had shortly after he moved from London to Felpham, West Sussex in 1800, which he described in a poem addressed to Ann Flaxman, wife of the sculptor John Flaxman:
Away to Sweet Felpham for Heaven is there
The Ladder of Angels descends thro the air
On the Turret its spiral does softly descend
Thro’ the village then winds at My Cot it does end
You stand in the village & look up to heaven
The precious stones glitter on flights seventy seven
And My Brother is there & My Friend & Thine
Descend & Ascend with the Bread & the Wine
(‘To my dear Friend Mrs Anna Flaxman’)
The poem suggests that Blake felt that there was a connection between heaven and earth in Felpham. Having only known the smoggy air of London for the first 43 years of his life, one can well imagine that Blake felt that the veil between heaven and earth was thinner in Felpham – the kind of place one might encounter angels.