Gothic Nightmares: Fuseli, Blake and the Romantic Imagination: Room 7

Revolution, Revelation and Apocalypse

European society was transformed by the French Revolution and Wars (1789–1815). Radically democratic ideas circulated, and political paranoia was rife. It seemed the world was to be made anew: either as a monstrous caricature, or as a utopia. Works on apocalyptic themes by Blake and Gillray feature extensively here; these conveyed a complex and ambivalent attitude to current events.

James Gillray, Un Petit Souper 20 September 1792

James Gillray Un Petit Souper

A cannibal apocalypse: the sub-human depravity attributed to the French ‘sansculottes’ (revolutionaries) is manifested in a scene of bestial consumption. Men, women and children chomp down on human limbs and organs. More body parts decorate the rafters, and through the open door are signs of further carnage. The print amplifies news of massacres in Revolutionary France. Reports condemning these would often refer to the revolutionaries as ‘cannibals’.

Henry Fuseli, The Vision of the Lazar House (Die Vision des Elendsspitals) 1791–3

Henry Fuseli The Vision of the Lazar House (Die Vision des Elendsspitals)

The subject is taken from John Milton’s epic retelling of the Biblical narrative, Paradise Lost (1667). Fuseli represents the vision of the horrid future of mankind, in suffering, madness and disease. Over the heads of humanity the figure of Death, dart in hand, looms, arms outstretched. This unfinished drawing relates to the huge (3 x 4 metres) canvas on this subject exhibited at Fuseli’s one-man show, The Milton Gallery, in 1799.

William Blake, The House of Death c.1790

William Blake, ‘The House of Death’ c.1790
William Blake
The House of Death c.1790

This is a study of the vision of the plague-house shown to Adam in Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667). Blake developed the composition with a large handcoloured print, c.1795. The stylised figures are reminiscent of medieval sculpture, which Blake had studied in his youth. The right-hand side of this drawing shows where the sheet was damaged and repaired early in the twentieth century.

William Blake, The House of Death 1795/c.1805

William Blake, ‘The House of Death’ 1795–c.1805
William Blake
The House of Death 1795–c.1805

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. The subject is the same as in Fuseli’s acclaimed painting, recorded by a drawing shown nearby. Blake’s composition is, though, much more economical and more stylised.

George Romney, John Howard Visiting a Lazaretto c.1790

George Romney John Howard Visiting a Lazaretto

The prison reformer John Howard (1726–1790) is shown looking in horror upon a scene of human devastation inside a plague-house. Howard was a wealthy gentleman who pioneered the prison reform movement. His heroic efforts won him public admiration, and his death triggered an outpouring of poems, prints and proposals for a public monument. Romney executed a huge number of drawings relating to this theme, often distorting his figures for expressive effect.

William Blake, Plague c.1805

A view of a community torn apart by disease; a husband holds the lifeless body of his wife, their dead child on her lap; a daughter or wife, horrified, looks upon the body of a loved one carried on a stretcher. Blake first drew this scene around 1779, when it may have been intended to refer to the historical plague of 1665. He returned to this composition many times in his life, making the scene more generalised. This is the last of the series.

William Blake, Pestilence: Death of The First Born c.1805

William Blake Pestilence: Death of The First Born

This is a Biblical allegory derived from Exodus, Chapter 12. The gigantic figure of Pestilence strides over Egypt, spreading the contagion that will claim the lives of all the firstborn. To the left and right, his victims are in despair. Beneath his feet, a woman mourns her dead child. The angel standing in the doorway presumably embodies Moses’ promise of protection to the Jews who marked their door frames with the blood of the lamb.

John Haynes after John Hamilton Mortimer, Death on a Pale Horse 1 January 1784

John Haynes after John Hamilton Mortimer Death on a Pale Horse

The subject is from Revelation, Chapter 6, in which St John bears witness to a vision of the horsemen who will appear at the end of the world. The last of these is ‘Death’ riding on a ‘pale horse’. Humanity is crushed under the hooves of his steed. This print reproduces a drawing by Mortimer. The design influenced later artists who depicted this scene – including West, Blake and de Loutherbourg, whose works can be seen nearby.

And when he had opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth beast say, Come and see.
And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth.

The Revelation of St John the Divine,
Chapter 6, verses 1-8

Benjamin West, Death on a Pale Horse 1783/1803

Pen and brown ink and wash, heightened with white, on paper The image is based on Revelation, Chapter 6, verses 2–6, where four horsemen herald the end of the world (or Apocalypse). The dominant figure at the centre, clutching lightning-bolts, is Death. West’s patron, William Beckford wrote in 1810: ‘For the future I discover only phantasms…It will be West’s Apocalypse, his Triumph of Death, painted in the same terrible colours, a mingling of mire and blood’.

James Gillray, Presages of the Millennium 4 June 1795

James Gillray Presages of the Millennium

The prime minister, William Pitt (1759–1806), is shown riding a powerful white horse – heralding the end of the world. The monkey seated behind Pitt is the Prince of Wales. Pitt’s political followers trail behind him.

Philip James De Loutherbourg, The Vision of the White Horse 1798

Philip James De Loutherbourg, ‘The Vision of the White Horse’ 1798
Philip James De Loutherbourg
The Vision of the White Horse 1798

This painting illustrates Revelation, Chapter 6, showing two of the apocalyptic riders revealed in a vision to St John. The first, on a white horse, ‘had a bow; and a crown was given unto him: and he went forth conquering, and to conquer’. The second, on a red horse, has ‘a great sword’. The painting was created for Thomas Macklin’s ‘Bible Gallery’ a commercial gallery featuring paintings of Biblical subjects that were subsequently engraved.

William Blake, Death on a Pale Horse c.1800

William Blake Death on a Pale Horse

This watercolour represents the vision at the opening of the sixth chapter of the Book of Revelation. Blake has painted the final rider to appear to St John, Death, on a pale horse. The feathers above this figure are probably meant as an image of divine protection. The figure at the bottom must be the third rider, on a black horse, spreading famine, or the personification of Hell, spreading pestilence.

Henry Fuseli, St John’s Vision of The Seven Candlesticks 1796

At the beginning of Revelation, St John describes being struck down ‘as if dead’ by the vision of a white-clad Christ in the midst of seven golden candles. Fuseli’s painting plays on the contrast between the heavy, material body of the long-limbed St John, and the supreme grace of the deity. The low viewpoint, and the high-waisted costume of Christ (perhaps suggestive of contemporary female costumes) further enhances this effect.

William Blake, The Whirlwind: Ezekiel’s Vision of the Cherubim and Eyed Wheels c.1803–5

This is a complex Biblical allegory derived from the prophetic Book of Ezekiel in the Old Testament. The tiny figure at the bottom is Ezekiel, looking in awe as a whirlwind delivers the vision of a man with four faces and four wings. As the vision unfolds, Ezekiel witnesses a wheel ‘full of eyes’, hears the voice of God, and sees ‘the likeness of a throne’ and the ‘likeness of a man’ - a vision of ‘the glory of the Lord’.

William Blake, Satan in his Original Glory: ‘Thou wast Perfect till Iniquity was Found in Thee’ c.1805

William Blake, ‘Satan in his Original Glory: ‘Thou wast Perfect till Iniquity was Found in Thee’’ c.1805
William Blake
Satan in his Original Glory: ‘Thou wast Perfect till Iniquity was Found in Thee’ c.1805

This Biblical illustration alludes to lines in the Book of Ezekiel, Chapter 28. Blake represents Satan in his former glorious state, standing on the ‘mountain of God’. The tiny, joyous figures embody the precious stones and beautifully crafted musical instruments mentioned in the Biblical text.

James Gillray, Satan in all His Glory – or – Peter Pindar Crouching to the Devil 1792

James Gillray Satan in all His Glory - or - Peter Pindar Crouching to the Devil

Gillray’s satirical print presents James Lowther, Earl of Lonsdale (1726–1802) as the character of Satan from Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667). Lonsdale was a notoriously cruel landowner. The figure cowering to the left is the satirical poet James Wolcot (1738–1819) who published as ‘Peter Pindar’. He had dared to criticise the Earl. On the right is Lowther’s lawyer with snakes instead of legs, like the figure of Sin in Milton’s poem.

William Blake, David Delivered out of Many Waters c.1805

William Blake, ‘David Delivered out of Many Waters’ c.1805
William Blake
David Delivered out of Many Waters c.1805

Blake’s Bible illustrations are often hard to interpret. This design alludes to passages in the Book of Psalms, but its exact subject is uncertain. The bearded figure floating on his back in the sea is probably the prophet David, being visited by a vision of Christ and winged ‘cherubim’ who offer him salvation.

William Blake, God Writing on the Tables of the Covenant c.1805

God appears as a mighty vision, writing out the laws of the ten commandments. The prophet Moses is at the bottom of the composition. Blake thought the laws laid out in the Old Testament were too rigid. Here it may be important that Moses is a tiny, cowering figure, who can see only the back of the deity. The implication is that prophet has only an incomplete sense of the divine.

William Blake, The Four and Twenty Elders Casting their Crowns before the Divine Throne c.1803–5

William Blake, ‘The Four and Twenty Elders Casting their Crowns before the Divine Throne’ c.1803–5
William Blake
The Four and Twenty Elders Casting their Crowns before the Divine Throne c.1803–5

This watercolour evokes imagery from the Book of Revelation, Chapters 4 and 5. St John witnesses the glorious vision God, surrounded by a rainbow. Around his throne are twenty-four elders dressed in white and ‘four beasts full of eyes before and behind’. The deity holds ‘a book written within and on the backside, sealed with seven seals’

James Gillray, Preparatory drawing for ‘A Peep into the Cave of Jacobinism’ c.1800

 Gillray Preparatory drawing for 'A Peep into the Cave of Jacobinism'

Gillray made drawings and notes like this in prepration for his caricatures. This is the study for a print published as ‘A Peep into the Cave of Jacobinism’, shown nearby. Although the overall design is quite resolved, we can see Gillray scribbling notes and ideas frantically. We can read several alternative titles, including: ‘Peep into the Cave of Deceit’; ‘Cave of Sedition’; ‘Truth trampling over Opposition’.

James Gillray, A Peep into the Cave of Jacobinism 1 September 1798

James Gillray A Peep into the Cave of Jacobinism

This was the frontispiece for the first volume of the reactionary magazine, The Anti-Jacobin Magazine and Review, published in 1798. The figure of Truth holds up a torch, which illuminates the dark cave of political sedition. The pamphlets strewn on the ground read ‘Libels’, ‘Defamation’, ‘Sedition’, ‘Ignorance’, ‘Anarchy’ and ‘Atheism’ - the leading themes of revolutionary politics according to conservatives.

James Gillray, Voltaire Instructing the Infant Jacobinism c.1800

James Gillray Voltaire Instructing the Infant Jacobinism

A monstrous infant, representing the creed of Jacobinism (revolutionary democracy), is shown receiving his education at the knee of the philosopher Voltaire (1694–1778). The spectral figures around them embody the various sins and misunderstandings that are being instilled into the youth. This sketchy oil painting was done in prepration for an illustration to the ‘Ode to Jacobinism’, an anonymous poem first issued in The Anti-Jacobin.

James Gillray, Jacobin Grammar c.1800

The retired opposition politician Charles James Fox (1749–1806) is haunted by a nightmarish vision of Alecto, one of the monstrous furies. She leads the radical journalist and politician John Horne Tooke (1726–1812) and instructs Fox to give him lessons in sedition. The point of the satire is to besmirch the name of Fox, placing him as the progenitor of the revolutionary thought of the 1790s.

James Gillray, Political Dreaming! – Visions of Peace! – Perspective Horrors 9 November 1801

The war minister William Windham (1750-1810) is shown in bed, sleepless, and surrounded by the terrible parade of monstrosity and perversion which he feared would accompany the proposed peace with France. To the left, a skeleton on stilts straddles a pile of discarded British trophies, wearing the revolutionary bonnet rouge. In the background, we can see St Paul’s Catherdral in flames and Britannia in chains.

James Gillray, Phaeton Alarm’d 22 March 1808

James Gillray Phaeton Alarm'd

In an extravagant cosmological phantasmagoria, the Foreign Secretary, George Canning (1770–1827), is cast as Phaeton, recklessly driving a chariot across the sky and causing chaos in the constellations. The signs of the Zodiac represent Canning’s various political opponents and emblems of the troubled times. To the bottom left, the ghost of Canning’s mentor, Pitt, looks on mournfully.

James Gillray, Disciples Catching the Mantle: The Spirit of Darkness Overshadowing the Priests of Baal June 1808

In an overblown scene of biblical spectacle, the late prime minister William Pitt (1759–1806) is the prophet Elijah, ascending to heaven. As he flings his cloak away, his political followers reach up to catch the garment. On the right, Pitt’s opponents are cast as the pagan followers of Baal. The demonic spectre of Pitt’s rival, Charles James Fox, spreads out his dark cloak in an effort to protect them.

James Gillray, The Valley of the Shadow of Death 24 September 1808

Napoleon is ironically cast as a Christian pilgrim, from John Bunyan’s Protestant epic, The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678). He is assailed by various animals and monsters, representing his enemies. The British lion is on the attack, along with the Portuguese wolf and a Sicilian terrier dog. France’s ally, Russia, is the bear who lumbers behind Napoleon.

William Blake, The Spiritual Form of Nelson Guiding Leviathan c.1805–9

William Blake, ‘The Spiritual Form of Nelson Guiding Leviathan’ c.1805–9
William Blake
The Spiritual Form of Nelson Guiding Leviathan c.1805–9

This is an allegory of the war with France. The great naval commander Nelson (1758–1805) is shown as a smooth-limbed, classical god, directing the Biblical monster Leviathan. Blake had a complex attitude to the war. Leviathan is a horrible, scaly creature; yet its master, Nelson, appears a heroic figure.

William Blake, The Spiritual Form of Pitt Guiding Behemoth 1805

William Blake, ‘The Spiritual Form of Pitt Guiding Behemoth’ ?1805
William Blake
The Spiritual Form of Pitt Guiding Behemoth ?1805

This is a companion to Blake’s allegorical painting of Nelson. Here, the prime minister William Pitt (1759–1806) is shown as a Christ-like figure, guiding the biblical monster Behemoth, and giving directions to the Reaper and the Plowman. He is surrounded by scenes of terror and violence.