William Blake, 'Cerberus' 1824-7

William Blake
Cerberus 1824-7
Pencil, pen and ink and watercolour on paper
support: 372 x 528 mm
Purchased with the assistance of a special grant from the National Gallery and donations from the Art Fund, Lord Duveen and others, and presented through the the Art Fund 1919

At the very end of his life Blake undertook an ambitious new project: to illustrate the famous Divine Comedy of the medieval Italian poet Dante.  This epic text follows the travels of Dante himself, accompanied by the Roman poet Virgil, through Heaven, Hell and Purgatory. Dante’s poem was often admired for its imagination and invention, although its many scenes of horror and fantasy were also thought shocking and extravagant.

Blake produced 102 watercolours and planned to engrave these (although only seven were undertaken).  The illustrations were commissioned by John Linnell. Another artist and friend, Samuel Palmer (1805–1881), recalled seeing Blake at work on these ‘sublimest designs’ in the last days of his life. Having endured years of critical neglect and professional struggle, Blake found new support among a few artists such as Linnell and Palmer, who considered his spirituality and rigorous techniques to be exemplary.