The Nightmare in Modern Culture

Fuseli’s art continued to exert an influence after his death in 1825. The Nightmare was reproduced and lampooned throughout the nineteenth century; it continued to inspire artists, thinkers and filmmakers in the modern age. The film clips and exhibits on show here demonstrate that The Nightmare has been an enduring image of sexual terror, and is a lasting testament to a turbulent era in British culture.

William Raddon after Henry Fuseli, The Nightmare published 20 April 1827

William Raddon after Henry Fuseli The Nightmare

William Raddon after Henry Fuseli
The Nightmare published 20 April 1827
Proof engraving, 184 x 230 mm

Lent by the Victoria and Albert Museum, London

This print reproduces the final version of The Nightmare, created by Fuseli in the last months of his life but now lost. It resembles the painting shown by Fuseli at the Royal Academy in 1782, although the owl and the vain fairies on the left are new additions. Prints like this helped ensure that Fuseli’s image continued to be well known.

William Blake, The Head of the Ghost of a Flea. Verso: A Profile and a Reduced Drawing of Milton’s First Wife c.1819

William Blake, 'The Head of the Ghost of a Flea. Verso: A Profile and a Reduced Drawing of Milton's First Wife' circa 1819

William Blake
The Head of the Ghost of a Flea. Verso: A Profile and a Reduced Drawing of Milton's First Wife circa 1819
Pencil on paper
support: 189 x 153 mm
Bequeathed by Miss Alice G.E. Carthew 1940

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With the encouragement of the painter and astrologer John Varley (1788–1842), Blake produced a series of ‘visionary heads’ recording the features of imaginary and historical characters said to have visited him. This drawing represents the bloodthirsty spirit of a flea. Varley took the fact that Blake drew both a whole face, and the detail of the mouth, as evidence of the concrete nature of these visions.

William Blake, The Ghost of a Flea c.1819–20

William Blake, 'The Ghost of a Flea' circa 1819-20

William Blake
The Ghost of a Flea circa 1819-20
Tempera heightened with gold on mahogany
support: 214 x 162 mm frame: 382 x 324 x 50 mm
Bequeathed by W. Graham Robertson 1949

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This weird image was said to have been inspired by a vision. The scaly creature is meant to be the ghost of a flea. He appears, as if on a stage, holding an acorn cup and a thorn. Like Fuseli’s The Nightmare, Blake’s painting seems to incorporate a range of references to folklore, science and literature. Blake may have had the evil imp of Fuseli’s painting in mind when he painted this picture.