This rare drawing by the enigmatic draughtsman Thomas Carwitham shows the impact of his training at the Great Queen Street Academy in the orbit of James Thornhill. Carwitham made at least twenty compositions from Ovid's Metamorphoses. The scene here comes from the start of Book 6, and tells the story of a talented tapestry weaver, Arachne, who refused to acknowledge that Athena, goddess of crafts and weaving, was the source of her accomplishments. In the guise of an old woman, Athena appeared to her to urge her to make peace with the goddess, but Athena spurned her advice, instead proposing a tapestry weaving duel. Carwitham has drawn the moment in the story when Athena, on the left reveals herself to Arachne, and prepares to start weaving. A related study, now in the Tate, illustrates the story's conclusion. When the two tapestries were finished, Athena praised Arachne's skill but, affronted that Arachne had chosen to depict a scene of godly misdeeds, struck her in anger. Desperate and unhappy, Arachne hanged herself from a tree; but rather than allowing her to die, Athena transformed Arachne into a spider.
At least one of Carwitham’s historical drawings is dated, a sheet depicting Aurora, Jupiter and Tithonus, is inscribed 1715; it reveals the extent of his progress as a draughtsman since making his first posture studies as a 10 or 11 year old at the Great Queen Street Academy in 1713. Stylistically the scenes from Ovid are close to the 1715 scene, though generally more loosely drawn. In their fluid use of ink and wash, the drawings call to mind the freely-drawn compositional jottings of Sir James Thornhill. In contrast to Thornhill, Carwitham's instinct is to arrange his scenes as a single chorus of figures with perhaps two or three leading players at the front, rather than the dynamism of the baroque groupings of which Thornhill was master. Carwitham also learned technical drawing, for in 1723 he published a textbook on geometry, in which he advertised his services in 'Historical and Architectural Painting.'
While his posture studies suggest that Thornhill's formative influence on Carwitham was at Great Queen Street during the 1710s, Carwitham also worked alongside Thornhill at Hampton Court at the end of the 1720s and Athena and Arachne may date from this later period. Between 1728 and 1732 Carwitham was employed by the German-born pupil of Carlo Maratti, John Christopher Le Blon on a scheme to weave tapestries mechanically; a scheme designed to reduce labour costs and make them affordable to a wider public. As well as making technical drawings of the tapestry looms at Lambeth to guide the construction of Le Blon's Chelsea manufactory, during 1729 and 1730 Carwitham was making copies of the Raphael Cartoons, at the same time that Thornhill was making his own copies.
In 1730 or early 1731 the secretary of the Royal Society, Cromwell Mortimer, inspected Le Blon's enterprise. Mortimer owned two sketches by Carwitham - including a subject from Metamorphoses book 2 – raising the possibility that the Ovid compositions date from about this time. The possibility then arises that Carwitham conceived them as designs for Le Blon's tapestry works. However, Carwitham's time under Le Blon was acrimonious and he took his employers to court in 1733, when the enterprise collapsed without ever going into commercial production. In the words of the 1567 translation, the moral of Ovid's tale of Arachne was 'that folk should not contend ageinst their betters, nor persist in error to the end.' A highly sceptical Vertue called Le Blon a 'bubble monger' and, if Carwitham's Athena and Arachne was drawn circa 1728-30, it is easy to read it as an allegory on Le Blon who over-reached himself, believing that he could out-smart the natural order.
- Disegni antichi di maestri italiani e stranieri dal XVI al XIX secolo, exh. cat. Turin (Galerie Zabert), 19 April to 7 May 1972, no.63.
- Thomas Carwitham, The Description and Use of an Architectonick Sector, London, 1723; it ran to a second edition published in 1733.
- Thomas Osborne, A catalogue of the libraries of the late Dr Cromwell Mortimer... to be sold on the 26th day of November 1753.