Gothic Nightmares explores the work of Henry Fuseli and William Blake in the context of the Gothic – the taste for fantastic and supernatural themes which dominated British culture from around 1770 to 1830.
Henry Fuseli The Nightmare exhibited 1782 Oil on canvas, 1210 x 1473 x 89 mm Lent by the Detroit Institute of Arts, Founders Society Purchase with funds from Mr and Mrs Bert L. Smokler and Mrs Lawrence A. FleischmanThis painting created a sensation when it was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1782. What is the subject of this painting? We may never be sure; Fuseli wanted his picture to intrigue us. The leering imp may embody the physical effects of a nightmare, or be an emblem of sexual desire. Is this picture an allegory, an illustration of a literary source, or something more personal?
Henry Fuseli, Prometheus 1770-1771 Pen and ink on paper, 150 x 222 mm Lent by the Kunstmuseum Basel, Kupferstichkabinett This is an example of the results of the ‘five-point’ drawing games Fuseli and his friends engaged in while in Rome The game involved placing dots in a random pattern on a sheet and joining these with the head and extremities of a drawn figure. Some of these dots are still visible here. The essence of the game was speed and facility, rather than plodding correctness.
Richard Cosway Prometheus circa 1785-1800 Pen and brown ink on paper, 225 x184 mm Print Collection, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations.
Thomas Banks The Falling Titan 1786 Marble 838 x 902 x 584 mm Lent by the Royal Academy of Arts, LondonCast from the heavens, a rebellious Titan crashes through rocks while a tiny satyr and goat flee for their lives. According to classical mythology, the giant Titans had sought to overthrow heaven but their revolution failed and they were hurled to earth to make way for Zeus and his family. Banks was a close friend of Fuseli. Although this work is highly refined in its execution, it shows their shared interest in strange and savage themes.
William Blake The Punishment of The Thieves 1824-7 Chalk, pen and ink and watercolour on paper, 372 x 527 mm This drawing represents the ‘Punishment of the Thieves’ that Dante and Virgil witness in the eighth circle of Hell, described in Cantos 24 and 25 of Dante’s Inferno (1319-21). Here, punished souls are attacked by snakes and transformed into monstrous serpents. Blake makes the most of the possibilities for grotesque spectacle offered by the medieval poet.
Theodore Von Holst Frontispiece to Mary Shelley, Frankenstein published by Colburn and Bentley, London 1831 Steel engraving in book 93 x 71 mm Private collection, Bath This is the first illustrated edition of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein , originally published in 1818. Von Holst’s design evokes the heroic, heavy-limbed figures of Fuseli. The setting, with its dramatic lighting and medieval tracery, is thoroughly Gothic in style.
Henry Fuseli Satan Starting from the Touch of Ithuriel's Spear (Satan flieht, von Ithuriels Speer beruht) 1779 Oil on canvas, 2305 x 2763 mm Milton’s Satan, represented here as a heroically-proportioned figure, leaps back from the slightest touch of the angel Ithuriel’s spear. He protects Adam and Eve, who slumber in each other’s arms at the bottom of the composition. This canvas was exhibited by Fuseli at the Royal Academy in 1780. It was one of the works which made his reputation as a painter of infernal subject-matter. Him thus intent Ithuriel with his Spear Touch’d lightly; for no falseh ood can endure Touch of Celestial temper, bu t returns Of force to its own likeness: up he starts Discoverd and surpriz’d. As when a spark Lights on a heap of nitrous Powder, laid Fit for the Tun some Magazin to store Against a rumord Warr, the Smuttie graine With sudden blaze diffus’d, inflames the Aire: So started up in his own shape the Fiend. John Milton, Paradise Lost, 1667, Book IV, ll.810-19
after Henry Fuseli Satan Summoning his Legions, engraved illustration to John Milton, Paradise Lost published by F.I. du Roveray 1802 Engraving in a bound volume 114 x 88 mm Private collection, London Satan has been expelled from heaven, and here conjures up his demonic army. This is one of six small engravings executed after designs by Fuseli, illustrating a new edition of Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667). Fuseli was all too aware of the irony in seeing his vast ambitions reduced to little illustrations such as this.
Henry Fuseli Macbeth Consulting the Vision of the Armed Head 1793-1794 Oil on canvas, 1630 x 1300 mm Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington Shakespeare’s Macbeth has asked the ‘Weird Sisters’ to predict whether he will become king. The apparition of an helmeted head warns, ‘Macbeth! Macbeth! Macbeth! Beware Macduff’, referring to his political rival. Fuseli noted that he had made the features of the spectral head resemble Macbeth’s own: would not this make a powerful impression on your mind? “ THUNDER. FIRST APPARITION: AN ARMED HEAD. MACBETH . Tell me, thou unknown power- FIRST WITCH . He knows thy thought: Hear his speech, but say thou nought. FIRST APPARITION . Macbeth! Macbeth! Macbeth! Beware Macduff, Beware the Thane of Fife. Dismiss me. Enough.” -William Shakespeare, Macbeth (1606), Act 1, Scene 3
William Blake Lear and Cordelia in Prison circa 1779 Pen and ink and watercolour on paper, 123 x 175 mm Bequeathed by Miss Alice G.E. Carthew 1940 The ageing British king Lear lies sleeping on his daughter Cordelia’s lap while in prison. Lear’s willfulness has split the kingdom, and Cordelia laments the fate of her father and of the nation. This is one of a group of drawings by Blake dealing with British history made around 1779. His source for this scene though was Nahum Tate’s reworking of Shakespeare’s Kin g Lear (1681).
John Runcim an The Three Wi tches circa 1767-1768 Ink and body colour on prepared laid paper, 235 x 248 mm Lent by the National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh This fluently- executed design probably shows the three witches from Shakespeare’s Mabceth (1606), clustered together in wicked conspiracy. John Runciman made a profound impression on his contemporaries during his short life. With his brother Alexander, he was among the first artists to treat Shakespeare as the source of heroic subjects, presenting scenes and characters freed from the trappings of stage presentations.
Alexander Runciman The Witches show Macbeth The Apparitions circa 1771-1772 Pen and brown ink over pencil on paper, 616 x 460 mm Lent by the National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh The tragic Scottish king Macbeth is subjected to the alarming sight of the three witches casting the spells that will conjure prophetic visions. The drawing seems to compress the images drawn by the famous spell of the three witches - ‘Double double toil and trouble’ – with the culminating dance around the cauldron: ‘Like elves and fairies in a ring’.
Henry Fuseli The Weird Sisters or The Three Witches 1783 Oil on canvas, 650 x 915 mm Lent by the Kunsthaus, Zürich (gift of the city of Zürich) In one of his best-known compositions, Fuseli presents a dramatically stylized portrayal of the three witches from Shakespeare’s Macbeth (1606). This painting was exhibited in 1783. A critic of the time commented: ‘He draws correctly, but his Imagination, impetu ous but not full, is the most incorrect Thing imaginable!’. BANQUO . What are these So wither'd and so wild in their attire,That look not like the inhabitants o' the earth,And yet are on't? Live you? or are you aught That man may question? You seem to understand me, By each at once her choppy finger laying Upon her skinny lips: you should be women, And yet your beards forbid me to interpret That you are so. -William Shakespeare, Macbeth (1606), Act 1, scene 3
James Gillray A Phantasmagoria – Scene – Conjuring-up an Armed Skeleton 5 January 1803 image: 279 x 245 mm With permission of the Warden and Scholars of New College, Oxford The three witches from Shakespeare’s Macbeth (1606) are shown wearing the features of contemporary opposition politicians, including Charles James Fox. The print criticises the Peace of Amiens made with France in 1802, which was perceived as sacrificing Britain’s interests. The feigned oval suggests that the whole scene may be a phantasmagorical projection of the type popular at this time.
William Blake The House of Death 1795/circa 1805 Colour print finished in ink and watercolour on paper, 485 x 610 mm Presented by W. Graham Robertson 1939 The subject is taken from Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667), Book X. In a vision presented to Adam, Death hovers over a plague-house, dart in hand, teasing his victims with the promise of eternal sleep but letting them suffer further.