William Blake

The House of Death


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
William Blake 1757–1827
Graphite, ink and watercolour on paper
Support: 318 × 451 mm
Bequeathed by Miss Alice G.E. Carthew 1940

Display caption

Blake believed John Milton to be England’s greatest poet, worthy of emulation but by no means above criticism. This drawing illustrates lines from Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667), which describe a ‘Lazar-house... , wherein were laid/Numbers of all diseas’d, all maladies/... Dire was the tossing, deep the groans, despaire/Tended the sick... / And over them triumphant Death his Dart/Shook’.
Blake claimed that his epic poem, Milton 1804, had been ‘recited’ to him by Milton’s spirit. In this poem Blake criticises the poet’s ideas, and Milton asks for his errors to be corrected.

Gallery label, September 2004

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Catalogue entry

N05192 The House of Death c. 1790

N 05192 / B 259
Pencil, pen and wash 318 × 451 (12 1/2 × 17 13/16)

Bequeathed by Miss Alice G.E. Carthew 1940
PROVENANCE ...; ? William Bell Scott, sold Sotheby's 20–25 April 1885, 2nd day (185, as ‘Subject from Milton, pen and ink sketch’) £1 bought Pincott; ...; Miss Carthew
LITERATURE Collins Baker in Huntington Library Bulletin, X, 1936, p.142; Gert Schiff, Johann Heinrich Füsslis Milton-Galerie, 1963, pp.78–9, pl.38; Hagstrum 1964, pp.67–8, pl.42a; Warner in Erdman and Grant 1970, pp.186–7, pl.93; Butlin 1981, p.131 no.259, pl.307

This is a more or less finished drawing illustrating Milton's Paradise Lost, XI, lines 477–93 and related to the large colour print, N05060. The drawing has been damaged and was repaired by Miss Carthew, particularly in the upper left-hand corner. In the print the recumbent pair on the left are omitted, Death and Despair completely changed, and the other figures less radically altered.

Collins Baker suggested that the drawing was by Fuseli, who did a number of versions of the subject including a large picture for his Milton Gallery, completed in 1793. However, although there is some general similarity in mood and in the figure of Despair on the left, the composition is completely different, with recumbent figures based on Blake's early studies of Gothic tombs in Westminster Abbey, and heads on the right that are entirely characteristic of Blake's style. Moreover, the relationship to the print, which is in reverse, seems to be too close for another artist to be involved.

The drawing seems to show a later development of the style and technique of the pen and wash drawings of the 1780s, for example N05198 and N05200. It is close to the Tiriel illustrations of c.1789 (Butlin 1981, no.198, the series repr. Bentley Tiriel 1967) but rather more personal, particularly the air-borne figure of Death which is already Blake's typical Urizen-like type of bearded old man. On the other hand it probably precedes the somewhat freer style of ‘Los and Orc’ (T00547). It can therefore be dated to the beginning of the 1790s.

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

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