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Gothic Horror Bodies: William Blake and Henry Fuseli

The affinities between William Blake (1757-1827) and Henry Fuseli (1741-1825), which spring not only from their long-held acquaintance with each other but also from the mutual admiration for each other’s work, lie in the unique way they portray Gothic bodies in horror, and the imaginative energy of their artwork. Blake considered Fuseli’s contemporary reception as ‘not a Great Painter’, as ‘one of the best compliments’[1] Fuseli could ever have (‘Notebook’), and Fuseli, according to Joseph Farington’s 1796 diary entry, was struck by Blake’s aim ‘to produce singular shapes and odd combinations’, which led Fuseli to remark that ‘Blake has something of madness abt. Him’.[2] Aggravated as the years progressed, Blake’s rumoured madness stood even more firmly on his assertion that ‘fanciful representations’, Frederick Tatham says in Blake’s biography, ‘were presented to his mind’s Eye’ (p. 490).[3] However, it is exactly his mind’s Eye that made him more deeply intuitive, and his numerous illustrations and illuminations, including his vision illustrations like ‘The Ghost of a Flea’ (1819), ₋ commissioned by John Varley ₋ helped establish his unique Gothicism.


‘The Ghost of a Flea’, William Blake, c. 1819-20, © Tate, London 2018

It is this imaginative vision that Fuseli noticed, according to Farington’s account. It is such a peculiarly grotesque manifestation of human imagination that Fuseli also was most famous for; his painting ‘The Nightmare’ (1782), would certainly mark him as an artist of the human unconscious, and of the complex interplay between death and sexual desire, in the context of demonic haunting.


The Nightmare, Henry Fuseli, 1782, © Tate, London 2018

Blake and Fuseli were deeply connected; Blake engraved much of Fuseli’s art, and, despite the class differences between them, they were actually close friends. In the context of their cooperation and the commonality of their thematic agenda, Blake and Fuseli were eventually perceived as misplacements, despite their personal and artistic achievements, in a world of ever-changing commerce and industrialism, with which the Academy (1768), presided by Joshua Reynolds, as Myrone argues, kept pace (p. 33-5).

In his Marginalia (1788), Blake expresses his frustration over contemporary tastes in art, and directs his attack to Reynolds himself, who, as Blake says, is a hypocrite that distorts the qualities of true art:

I always consider’d True Art & True Artists to be particularly Insulted & Degraded by the Reputation of these Discourses, As much as they were Degraded by the Reputation of Reynolds’s Paintings, & that Such Artists as Reynolds are at all times Hired by the Satans for the Depression of Art – A pretence of Art, To destroy Art. (p. 440)[4]

Blake continues, bitterly:

The Neglect of Fuseli’s Milton in a Country pretending to the Encouragement of Art is a Sufficient Apology for my Vigorous Indignation, if indeed the Neglect of My own Powers had not been. Ought not the Employers of Fools to be Execrated in future Ages? They Will and Shall! (p. 440)


Fuseli’s ‘Milton’ series (1799)[1] exhibited, in artful, light/shade Gothic body horror, a bodily aesthetics where grotesque, expressive qualities of Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667) are represented.[2] This foregrounded, ghastly physicality, seen, for instance in Fuseli’s ‘Satan, Sin, and Death (A Scene from Milton’s Paradise Lost)’ (1735-40). This foregrounded, ghastly physicality, seen, for instance in Fuseli’s ‘Satan, Sin, and Death (A Scene from Milton’s Paradise Lost)’ (1735-40), is what also characterises other pieces of work by Fuseli, such as ‘Lady Constance, Arthur and the Earl of Salisbury (from Shakespeare, King John, III, I), and his pencil artwork ‘The Thieves’ Punishment’ (1772). Blake also made a drawing titled the ‘Punishment of the Thieves’ 91824-7), which illustrates the eighth circle of Hell from Dante’s Inferno (1319-21).

[1] Information about Fuseli’s ‘Milton’ Gallery can be found at: http://collections.soane.org/b6185


[2] Milton, John, Paradise Lost (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).


‘Satan, Sin, and Death (A Scene from Milton’s Paradise Lost)’, Henry Fuseli, c. 1735-40, © Tate, London 2018



Fuseli’s ‘Lady Constance, Arthur and the Earl of Salisbury (from Shakespeare, King John, III, I) (Taken from: http://www.artnet.com/artists/henry-fuseli/lady-constance-arthur-and-the-earl-of-salisbury-1iac4rLScKXOLK5EFEB6ag2)

‘The Thieves’ Punishment’, Henry Fuseli, 1772, © Tate, London 2018



‘The Punishment of the Thieves’, William Blake, 1824-7, © Tate, London 2018


Such ‘flawed sublimity’,[7] in David Punter’s words, is closely connected with death and the dark side of the human condition, and Blake also found it in the Graveyard poetry of the eighteenth century, that urged such artists to renounce the abstractness of reason and Augustanism, and take on what Punter calls the ‘sonorous lines of Milton’ (Literature of Terror, p. 35), which also permeated Gothic expressions in literature at the time.

Blake’s body aesthetics follow a similar direction. Rejecting ‘The Classics’ (p. 428) in his essay ‘On Homer’s Poetry’,[8] he exalted, in his ‘On Virgil’,[9] the ‘Living Form’ (p. 428) of the Gothic, which, for Blake, is what has the only capacity to make and create. Thus, we see a variation on Gothic bodies in Blake’s poetry and illustrations, from the Frontispiece of The Visions of the Daughters of Albion (1795),[10] his ‘The House of Death’ (1795-1805) and his The Book of Urizen (1794),[11] among many others.


‘Frontispiece to ‘Visions of the Daughters of Albion’, William Blake, c. 1795, © Tate, London 2018



‘The House of Death’, William Blake, c. 1795-1805, © Tate, London 2018


In this context, it is worth stating that the body, in Blake’s Gothic cosmology, is not accidentally considered as highly important. In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790), he writes: ‘Man has no Body distinct from his Soul; for that call’d Body is a portion of Soul discern’d by the five Senses, the chief inlets of Soul in this age’ (ll. 10-11)[12]; the fall of the human world, therefore, is depicted through the fall of the human body, and the decayed body in torture. The description of Urizen’s body, and the correspondent pictorial representation, immediately pop to mind:


6. In a horrible dreamful slumber; Like the linked infernal chain; A vast Spine writh'd in torment Upon the winds; shooting pain'd Ribs, like a bending cavern And bones of solidness, froze Over all his nerves of joy. And a first Age passed over, And a state of dismal woe.

7. From the caverns of his jointed Spine, Down sunk with fright a red Round globe hot burning deep Deep down into the Abyss: Panting: Conglobing, Trembling Shooting out ten thousand branches Around his solid bones. And a second Age passed over, And a state of dismal woe. (ll. 35-43, 1-9)



‘First Book of Urizen pl. 10’, William Blake, 1796, © Tate, London 2018

By the 1800s, Blake had already woven an intricate web of quasi-religious imagery, subtly evident in such collections as his Songs of Innocence and Experience (1789), and largely expounded in his Milton (1810)[1] and Jerusalem (1804-20).[2] For Blake, it is such horror bodies that provide the perfect medium for representing moments of the fall, as well as the perfect medium through which to awaken the reader’s torpor in a world of Reason. One of the peaks of such imaginative representation is Plate 2 of his Jerusalem:

[1] Blake, William, ‘Milton’, in Blake’s Poetry and Designs, ed. by Mary Lynn Johnson and John E. Grant (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1979), pp. 234-306.


[2] Blake, William. ‘Jerusalem’, in Blake’s Poetry and Designs, ed. by Mary Lynn Johnson and John E. Grant (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1979), pp. 308-359.


‘Jerusalem, plate 2, Title Page’, William Blake, 1804-20, © Tate, London 2018

The intense physicality of the body in pain, Albion’s tormented, diseased body, which lies, incidentally, in a similar, passive posture as that of the female body haunted by the demon in Fuseli’s The Nightmare, is a prime example of the way Blake’s acts of representation are based on ‘real bodies’ (p. 402), as he himself wrote in his A Descriptive Catalogue’ (1809).[13] The turning of the inside-out of Albion’s bowels instigates a king of un-making, a parasitical feeding-off of Albion’s body that is by itself highly political, especially in the context of grand social injustice, poverty, and fear, that comprised Blake’s experience of nineteenth-century England. His disillusionment has come a long way from the reluctant prophetic hope of The French Revolution (1790),[14] but his more informed imaginative vision, centred on the human, does leave possibilities for regeneration into the Divine Body, and the annihilation of death. For this reason, the fall, and the fall of the human body, is a necessary part of a more profound seeing through the eye, and Blake’s ‘more distinct, sharp, and wirey’ line (A Descriptive Catalogue, p. 407), in his paintings, just like in Fuseli’s, strive away from the abstractness of benumbing reason. It is in this and so many other respects that carefully looking into Blake’s art is like bursting open prisons, like the bursting open of the Bastille in The French Revolution, and encountering the bodies of horror that it reveals:

And the den nam‘d Horror held a man / Chain‘d hand and foot; round his neck an iron band, bound to the impregnable wall; / In his soul was the serpent coil‘d round in his heart, hid from the light, as in a cleft rock: And the man was confin‘d for a writing prophetic. In the tower nam‘d Darkness was a man / Pinion‘d down to the stone floor, his strong bones scarce cover‘d with sinews; the iron rings / Were forg‘d smaller as the flesh decay‘d: a mask of iron on his face hid the lineaments / Of ancient Kings, and the frown of the eternal lion was hid from the oppressèd earth. / In the tower namèd Bloody, a skeleton yellow remainèd in its chains on its couch / Of stone, once a man who refus‘d to sign papers of abhorrence; the eternal worm / Crept in the skeleton. In the den nam‘d Religion, a loathsome sick woman bound down / To a bed of straw; the seven diseases of earth, like birds of prey, stood on the couch / And fed on the body: she refus‘d to be whore to the Minister, and with a knife smote him. (ll. 29-38).

[1] Quoted in Myrone, Martin, ‘Fuseli to Frankenstein: The Visual Arts in the Context of the Gothic’, in Gothic Nightmares: Fuseli, Blake and the Romantic Imagination (London: Tate Publishing, 2006), pp. 31-40 (p. 31).


[2] Quoted in Myrone, Martin, ‘Fuseli to Frankenstein: The Visual Arts in the Context of the Gothic’, in Gothic Nightmares: Fuseli, Blake and the Romantic Imagination (London: Tate Publishing, 2006), pp. 31-40 (p. 31).


[3] Tatham, Frederick, ‘Life of Blake’, in Blake’s Poetry and Designs, ed. by Mary Lynn Johnson and John E. Grant (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1979) pp. 489-496.


[4] Blake, William, ‘Blake’s Marginalia’, in Blake’s Poetry and Designs, ed. by Mary Lynn Johnson and John E. Grant (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1979), pp. 429-447.


[5] Information about Fuseli’s ‘Milton’ Gallery can be found at: http://collections.soane.org/b6185


[6] Milton, John, Paradise Lost (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).


[7] Punter, David. The Literature of Terror : A History of Gothic Fictions from 1765 to the Present Day. Vol. 1, the Gothic Tradition, Gothic Tradition, 2nd ed. (London: London : Longman, 1996, 1996).


[8] Blake, William, ‘On Homer’, in Blake’s Poetry and Designs, ed. by Mary Lynn Johnson and John E. Grant (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1979), p. 428.


[9] Blake, William, ‘On Virgil’, in Blake’s Poetry and Designs, ed. by Mary Lynn Johnson and John E. Grant (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1979), p. 428.


[10] Blake, William, ‘Visions of the Daughters of Albion’, in Blake’s Poetry and Designs, ed. by Mary Lynn Johnson and John E. Grant (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1979), pp. 68-80.


[11] Blake, William, ‘The Book of Urizen’, in Blake’s Poetry and Designs, ed. by Mary Lynn Johnson and John E. Grant (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1979), pp. 140-159.


[12] Blake, William, ‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell’, in Blake’s Poetry and Designs, ed. by Mary Lynn Johnson and John E. Grant (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1979), pp. 85-102.


[13] Blake, William, ‘A Descriptive Catalogue’, in Blake’s Poetry and Designs, ed. by Mary Lynn Johnson and John E. Grant (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1979), pp. 399-408.


[14] Blake, William. ‘The French Revolution’, in The Poetical Works of William Blake, ed. by John Sampson (London, New York: Oxford University Press, 1908), Bartleby.com, 2011. www.bartleby.com/235/

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