William Blake

The House of Death


Not on display

William Blake 1757–1827
Colour print, ink and watercolour on paper
Support: 485 × 610 mm
Presented by W. Graham Robertson 1939

Display caption

The English poet John Milton, who died in 1674, was viewed by Blake as England's greatest poet, worthy of emulation but by no means above criticism. It was inevitable that in the large colour prints, his most important printing project, Blake would include Miltonic subjects.This print illustrates lines from Book XI of Milton's poem Paradise Lost. The Archangel Michael shows Adam the misery that will be inflicted on Man now he has eaten the Forbidden Fruit. In a vision of 'Death's 'grim Cave' Adam sees a 'monstrous crew' of men afflicted by 'Diseases dire'.

Gallery label, August 2004

Does this text contain inaccurate information or language that you feel we should improve or change? We would like to hear from you.

Catalogue entry

N05060 The House of Death 1795/c. 1805

N 05060 / B 320
Colour print finished in ink and watercolour 485×610 (19 1/8×24) on paper approx. 545×770 (21 1/2×30 1/4)

Signed ‘WB 1795’ b.l. and inscribed ‘The House of Death Milton’ below design Watermarked ‘1794/1 TAYLOR’
Presented by W. Graham Robertson 1939
PROVENANCE Thomas Butts; Thomas Butts jun.; Capt. F.J. Butts; his widow, sold through Carfax April 1906 to W. Graham Robertson
EXHIBITED Carfax 1906 (26); Tate Gallery (51a), Manchester (56), Nottingham (39) and Edinburgh (42) 1913–14; on loan to Tate Gallery 1923–7; BFAC 1927 (49, pl.37); Wartime Acquisitions National Gallery 1942 (13); Tate Gallery 1947 (55); Cambridge 1971 (73); Tate Gallery 1978 (101, repr.)
LITERATURE Rossetti 1863, p.202 no.17, and 1880, p.209 no.19; Robertson in Gilchrist 1907, p.409, repr. facing p.338; Blunt in Warburg Journal, VI, 1943, p.212, pl.63b; Keynes Faber Gallery 1946, pp.5, 12, colour pl.5; Preston 1952, pp.50–2 no.9, pl.9; Digby 1957, pp.46–7, pl.46; Blunt 1959, pp.20, 41, 59, pl.27a; Gert Schiff, Johann Heinrich Füsslis Milton-Galerie, 1963, pp.78–9, pl.38; Hagstrum 1964, pp.67–8, pl.42b; Beer 1968, p.192; Keynes Letters 1968, p.17; Raine 1968, 11, p.96, pl.151; Taylor and Grant in Blake Studies, 1, 1968–9, pp.42–6, 195–6, repr. p.43; Bentley Blake Records 1969, p.572; Kostelanctz in Rosenfeld 1969, p.128, pl.5; Pointon 1970, p.135, pl.124; Tomory Fuseli 1972, pp.211–2; Mellor 1974, pp.160–1, pl.44; Bindman 1977, pp.98, 100, 104, pl.81; Klonsky 1977, p.59, repr. in colour; Bindman Graphic Works 1978, no.335, repr.; Paley 1978, pp.37–8, pl.33; La Belle in Blake, XIV, 1980–1, pp.73–6, pl.8; Butlin 1981, pp.172–3 no.320, colour pl.397; Raine 1982, at pl.64, repr.; Behrendt 1983, pp.143, 179–81; Butlin in Blake, XVII, 1983–4, p.159; Warner 1984, pp.87, 94, 102, 121; Hoagwood 1985, pp.69, 76, pl.1. Also repr: Figgis 1925, pl.73; Mizue, no.882, 1978, 9, p.19 in colour

This copy of the design was listed in Blake's account with Thomas Butts of 3 March 1806 as ‘House of Death’, apparently having been delivered on 5 July 1805. There are two other known copies of the design, at the British Museum and in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge (Butlin 1981, nos.321 and 322, colour pls.398 and 399). The Tate Gallery copy of the print may be the first pull, the British Museum one the second, and the Fitzwilliam Museum one, in which the left-hand of the foremost reclining figure is made much more expressive by being open, with extended figures, instead of resting on a shoulder, the third. This ordering is the case if one holds that all the pulls were made at the same time, in 1795; the modelling of the right-hand figure in the British Museum pull in particular has affinities with other works attributed to c.1795. Alternatively however, it could be that the British Museum pull and that in the Fitzwilliam Museum were made in about 1795, in that order, while the Tate Gallery copy was done.afresh c.1804–5. For a related pen and wash drawing of c.1790 see N05192.

The composition, also known as ‘The Lazar House’, illustrates Milton's Paradise Lost, XI, 477–93. Death hovers above; Despair stands on the right. The latter figure recurs on page 51 of Jerusalem, probably etched c.1804–7 (repr. Erdman Illuminated Blake 1974, p.330), a design that also exists as a separate coloured print, ‘Vala, Hyle and Skofeld’ of c.1820 (see Butlin 1981, nos.578 and 579, pl.812 and colour pl.961). The figure of Death is based on a figure in the copy of Fuseli's ‘Fertilisation of Egypt’ made by Blake for his engraving published in Erasmus Darwin's The Boianic Garden in 1791; this was probably based in its turn on the Jupiter Pluvius on the Column of Marcus Aurelius and is modified from Fuseli's original figure (both drawings are in the British Museum; the Blake, Butlin no.173, pl.213, and the Fuseli are repr. Blunt 1959, pls.21b and 21a respectively). The position of the figure, right across the top of the design instead of in one corner as in no.12, is common to Fuseli's pen and wash drawing of the same subject in the Kunsthaus, Zurich, presumably made for the oil completed for his Milton Gallery in 1793 (repr. Schiff 1963, pl.37, Tomory, op.cit., p.101, and Schiff 1973, 11, p.305 no.1023; see also ibid. p.569 no.1764), but Blake's composition is otherwise different.

Death is shown in the guise of Blake's character Urizen, close to the depiction of God the Father in ‘Elohim Creating Adam’ (N05055) and ‘God Judging Adam’ (N05063). Blake's meaning is perhaps to show the Creator presiding over the inevitable decay of his material creation; He blasts them with the scroll of Law, its ends transformed into thunder-bolts, as has been suggested by Kathleen Raine. Visually the design seems to be the counterpart of ‘Christ Appearing to the Apostles’ (N05875): the wrath of the Old Dispensation is contrasted with the mercy of the New.

Published in:
Martin Butlin, William Blake 1757-1827, Tate Gallery Collections, V, London 1990

You might like

In the shop