Perverse Classicism

The drawings on show here exemplify the shocking and confrontational use of bodily horror by Fuseli and his circle in the 1770s and beyond. Their works evoked the grand tradition of ancient and Renaissance art, but demonstrated a new interest in sex and violence. Artists represented here include: James Barry (1741–1806), John Hamilton Mortimer (1740–1779) and George Romney (1734–1802) in addition to Blake and Fuseli.

James Northcote, Henry Fuseli 1778

James Northcote Henry Fuseli 1778

James Northcote
Henry Fuseli 1778
Oil on canvas, 778 x 645 mm
Lent by the National Portrait Gallery, London

Fuseli is shown here as a passionate young artist, on the point of returning to England from a period of studying in Italy (1770–78). These years made his reputation as a painter of weird and supernatural themes. This portrait suggests his persona as a romantic individualist, in line with new ideas about artistic creativity. He appears as heroic, but also rather petulant.

Fury and force, an energy uniformly supported, and ever active – this is what distinguishes most of the figures and compositions of this masculine genius. Spectres, Demons, and madmen; fantoms, exterminating angels; murders and acts of violence – such are his favourite subjects; and yet, I repeat it, no one loves with more tenderness. The sentiment of love is painted in his look – but the form and bony system of his face characterize in him a taste for terrible scenes, and the energy which they require .

Johann Casper Lavater on Henry Fuseli, from Essays on Physiognomy (1789–98)

Henry Fuseli, Drawing of a figure seated before gigantic antique

Henry Fuseli Drawing of a figure seated before gigantic antique fragments circa 1778-80

Henry Fuseli
Drawing of a figure seated before gigantic antique fragments c.1778–80
Red chalk and brown wash on paper, 420 x 352 mm
© 2006 Kunsthaus, Zürich. All rights reserved

A figure is slumped, despairingly, next to the gigantic fragments of the foot and hand of the ancient sculpted Colossus of Constantine. These fragments were in the courtyard of the Capitoline Museums in Rome, which Fuseli would have visited when he was in Italy. The drawing is usually interpreted as an allegory, representing the anxiety modern artists felt when faced with the overpowering examples of ancient art.

John Runciman, The Fall of Phaeton c.1767–8

John Runciman The Fall of Phaeton circa 1767-1768

John Runciman
The Fall of Phaeton c.1767–8
Red and black chalk on paper, 191 x 245 mm
Lent by the National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh

In ancient myth Phaeton was the handsome child of the sun god Phoebus and Clymene who, growing vain, claimed from his father the right to drive his chariot for a day. Losing control of the vehicle, he plunged to earth spectacularly. Runciman probably took the subject from the ancient author Ovid’s Metamorphoses, an important source of subject matter for artists.

James Barry, Milo of Crotona c.1767–70

James Barry Milo of Crotona circa 1767-1770

James Barry
Milo of Crotona c.1767–70
472 x 387 mm
© Copyright the Trustees of The British Museum

Milo was a celebrated athlete of ancient Italy. According to myth his downfall came because of his pride, when he tried to lift a huge log and got his hand stuck. He was torn apart by a lion, the scene drawn here by the young and idealistic Irish artist James Barry. Like the stories of Prometheus and Phaeton, this narrative provided artists with a chance to show off their skill in depicting the human figure in distress.

John Hamilton Mortimer, Martyrdom of St Erasmus c.1770–5

John Hamilton Mortimer Martyrdom of St Erasmus circa 1770-1775

John Hamilton Mortimer
Martyrdom of St Erasmus c.1770–5
Pen, ink and wash 225 x 278 mm
© Copyright the Trustees of The British Museum

This drawing shows the martyrdom believed to have been suffered by St Erasmus. According to legend he was killed by having his intestines wound upon a windlass. However, this was a mistake, based on a misinterpretation of the rope he is shown holding, in traditional images, as a section of his intestines! Mortimer’s highly original drawing style and shocking subject matter influenced many artists of the period.

Henry Fuseli, Prometheus 1770–1

Henry Fuseli Prometheus 1770-1771

Henry Fuseli
Prometheus 1770–1
Pen and ink on paper, 150 x 222 mm

Lent by the Kunstmuseum Basel, Kupferstichkabinett

This is an example of the results of the ‘five-point’ drawing games Fuseli and his friends engaged in while in Rome The game involved placing dots in a random pattern on a sheet and joining these with the head and extremities of a drawn figure. Some of these dots are still visible here. The essence of the game was speed and facility, rather than plodding correctness.

Henry Fuseli, The Thieves Punishment (Die Strafe der Diebe) 1772

Henry Fuseli The Thieves Punishment (Die Strafe der Diebe) 1772

Henry Fuseli
The Thieves Punishment (Die Strafe der Diebe) 1772 
Black chalk, 463 x 613 mm
© 2006 Kunsthaus, Zürich. All rights reserved

This subject is drawn from Dante’s Inferno (1319-21). The poet, led by his guide Virgil, encounters a scene of horror in Hell. Thieves are attacked by snakes and are themselves transformed into serpents, then back again, in a writhing, mutable mass. Dante’s poem was only now being rediscovered by artists, who were drawn to its weird and fantastic images.

Unidentified artist, sometimes attributed to James Jefferys, Drawing of a Prison Scene c.1779

Unidentified artist Jefferys Drawing of a Prison Scene circa 1779

Unidentified artist, sometimes attributed to James Jefferys
Drawing of a Prison Scene c.1779
Pen and black ink and grey washes on paper, 374 x 563 mm
Lent by the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

Eight male figures are shown, bound, in a gloomy dungeon. Most struggle and twist; one, to the bottom right, appears already dead; another, in the centre, appears insane. This is one of a group of works by an unidentified artist, created in Rome around 1779 under the influence of Fuseli. They are sometimes attributed to the talented but troubled young draughtsman James Jefferys.

George Romney, Prometheus Bound 1779–80

George Romney Prometheus Bound 1779-1780

George Romney
Prometheus Bound 1779–80
Graphite, ink and wash on paper 280 x 410 mm
Private collection, USA

This is the preparatory study for the large drawing, shown nearby. Romney’s rapid, broad style of drawing matches the violent subject-matter, taken from the Greek tragedy by Aeschylus. The translator of this play noted: ‘the poet has given free scope to his unbounded imagination, and exerted the strength and ardour of his genius with a wild and terrible magnificence’

George Romney, Prometheus Bound c.1778–9

George Romney Prometheus Bound circa 1778-1779

George Romney
Prometheus Bound c.1778–9
Black chalk on six sheets of laid paper, 1015 x 1270 mm
Lent by National Museums Liverpool, The Walker

The allegorical figures of Force and Strength tie the rebel Titan, Prometheus, to a rock on Jupiter’s orders. The subject is taken from the ancient Greek play, Prometheus Bound, by Aeschylus. This is one of a series of unusually large drawings created by the portrait painter Romney at the end of the 1770s, after he had spent time in Rome studying art. These focus on supernatural and violent themes.

Maria Cosway, Unidentified Scene c.1780s

Maria Cosway Unidentified Scene circa 1780s

Maria Cosway
Unidentified Scene c.1780s
Pen and ink and wash on paper, 283 x 356 mm
Lent by the Victoria and Albert Museum, London

This is an unidentified subject. Although we might speculate that this is intended to represent some specific classical or early Christian martyrdom, the artist’s real focus has clearly been on the sadomasochistic potential of the theme. Maria Cosway’s debt to the work of Fuseli was remarked upon frequently in the 1780s, when she was represented at the Royal Academy exhibitions by visionary and Sublime subjects.

Richard Cosway, Prometheus c.1785–1800

Richard Cosway Prometheus circa 1785-1800

Richard Cosway
Prometheus c.1785–1800
Pen and brown ink on paper, 225 x184 mm
Print Collection, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations.

This drawing exemplifies Cosway’s highly refined draughtsmanship. The technique of hatching and making dots and lozenges derives from printmaking, rather than the more expressive methods characteristic of so many drawings of Sublime subjects. Arguably, this technique is at odds with the theme. We might note that Cosway was primarily active as a portrait miniaturist, a profession which demanded close attention to detail.

Thomas Banks, The Falling Titan 1786

Thomas Banks The Falling Titan 1786

Thomas Banks
The Falling Titan 1786
Marble 838 x 902 x 584 mm
Lent by the Royal Academy of Arts, London

Cast from the heavens, a rebellious Titan crashes through rocks while a tiny satyr and goat flee for their lives. According to classical mythology, the giant Titans had sought to overthrow heaven but their revolution failed and they were hurled to earth to make way for Zeus and his family. Banks was a close friend of Fuseli. Although this work is highly refined in its execution, it shows their shared interest in strange and savage themes.

Thomas Banks, The Falling Titan c.1790–1800

This etching by Banks represents his own sculpture of The Falling Titan, shown nearby. Rather than serving as a strict reproduction, the print emphasizes the pictorial qualities of the original work. The scratchy draughtsmanship and weird perspective evokes the works of the famously ‘Sublime’ artists, Salvator Rosa (1615–1673) and Hendrik Goltzius (1558–1617).

John Flaxman, Prometheus Bound 1794

John Flaxman Prometheus Bound 1794

John Flaxman
Prometheus Bound 1794
Pen and ink on paper, 275 x 363 mm
Lent by the Royal Academy of Arts, London

The rebellious Titan, Prometheus, is tied down in punishment for having stolen fire from the gods. The subject is the same as in the drawings by Fuseli, Romney and Cosway, shown nearby. The purified, linear style used here by the sculptor Flaxman was greatly admired by contemporaries.

John Flaxman, The Storm

John Flaxman The Storm

John Flaxman
The Storm
Pen and ink on paper, 406 x 559 mm
Lent by the Royal Academy of Arts, London

This drawing refers to the lines from Aeschylus’s play Prometheus Bound, describing his hero being attacked by Zeus: ‘Th’ impetuous storm / Rolls all its terrible fury on my head’. This design comes from a series of drawings illustrating the plays of Aeschylus. Flaxman had already produced two series of similar designs illustrating Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, which had attracted enormous acclaim.

William Blake, Los and Orc c.1792–3

William Blake, ‘Los and Orc’ c.1792–3
William Blake
Los and Orc c.1792–3

This is an allegorical scene, which can be interpreted through Blake’s invented iconography. Orc, Blake’s embodiment of energy and the powers of revolution, is shown chained to a rock in a bleak landscape, while a second figure, who can be identified as his father Los, laments their fate. The theme of the chaining of Orc by his parents is a key element in Blake’s personal mythology..

William Blake, The Blasphemer c.1800

William Blake, ‘The Blasphemer’ c.1800
William Blake
The Blasphemer c.1800

Here, Blake renders rather slight Biblical references as a scene of fantastic, grotesque physical drama. The source is thought to be the story of Moses condemning to death the blasphemous son of an Israelite woman (Leviticus, Chapter 24). But it has also been suggested that the subject is, ‘The Stoning of Achan’ (Joshua, Chapter 7). Having confessed to coveting rich clothes, gold and silver, Achan is condemned to death by stoning and his worldly goods burned.

Henry Fuseli, Hephaestus, Bia and Crato Securing Prometheus on Mount Caucasus c.1810

Henry Fuseli Hephaestus, Bia and Crato Securing Prometheus on Mount Caucasus circa 1810

Henry Fuseli
Hephaestus, Bia and Crato Securing Prometheus on Mount Caucasus c.1810
Pencil and watercolour on paper, 359 x 302 mm
Lent by Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki, purchased 1965 (1965/80)

Illustrating the opening scene of Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound, this design shows the rebel Titan bound foot, arm and chest to a mountaintop; Crato, holding down Prometheus’ right arm, commands Hephaestus, the god of fire, to drive a spike through his heart. Bia holds the spike to his chest in preparation. Fuseli’s treatment of this theme suggests a provocative fusion of sex and violence.

Henry Fuseli, Brunhild Watching Gunther Suspended from The Ceiling on their Wedding Night 1807

Henry Fuseli Brunhild Watching Gunther Suspended from The Ceiling on their Wedding Night 1807

Henry Fuseli
Brunhild Watching Gunther Suspended from The Ceiling on their Wedding Night 1807
Pencil, ink and wash on paper, 483 x 317 mm
Nottingham Castle Museum and Art Gallery

This drawing shows marital problems of the most severe kind, in a subject drawn from the German medieval epic, The Nibelungenlied. The Burgundian king Gunther has just celebrated his marriage to the icily sexy Brunhild. But while he expected a night of passion, the new queen wrestles him into submission, binds his hands and feet and leaves him hanging from the ceiling so she can sleep undisturbed.

William Blake, The Punishment of The Thieves 1824–7

William Blake, ‘The Punishment of the Thieves’ 1824–7
William Blake
The Punishment of the Thieves 1824–7

This drawing represents the ‘Punishment of the Thieves’ that Dante and Virgil witness in the eighth circle of Hell, described in Cantos 24 and 25 of Dante’s Inferno (1319–21). Here, punished souls are attacked by snakes and transformed into monstrous serpents. Blake makes the most of the possibilities for grotesque spectacle offered by the medieval poet.

Theodore Von Holst, Frontispiece to Mary Shelley, Frankenstein published by Colburn and Bentley, London 1831

Theodore Von Holst Frontispiece to Mary Shelley, Frankenstein

Theodore von Holst
Frontispiece to Mary Shelley, Frankenstein published by Colburn and Bentley, London 1831
Steel engraving in book 93 x 71 mm
Private collection, Bath

This is the first illustrated edition of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, originally published in 1818. Von Holst’s design evokes the heroic, heavy-limbed figures of Fuseli. The setting, with its dramatic lighting and medieval tracery, is thoroughly Gothic in style.