The Last Judgement by William Blake, 1808

The Last Judgement (1808) by William Blake (1757-1827) © Derrick E. Witty

The Last Judgement (1808) by William Blake (1757-1827)

William Blake was an unsuccessful and obscure artist in his own lifetime. His only period of living outside London was between 1800 and 1803, when he rented a cottage at Felpham, West Sussex, and his association with nearby Petworth began.

His years in Sussex were mainly spent on commissions for the poet William Hayley, who was a friend of the 3rd Earl of Egremont. When Blake was arrested for sedition after throwing a trespassing soldier out of his cottage garden, the 3rd Earl was a magistrate at his first trial.

The Last Judgement

The Last Judgment, commissioned by the 3rd Earl’s estranged wife, Elizabeth Iliffe, is particularly extraordinary among our collection as it was one of very few watercolours to be acquired.

Watercolour and tempera were two of Blake’s preferred media; he despised oil paint, which he considered a vulgar and dishonest invention, and instead looked for inspiration to the frescos by artists of the early and pre-Renaissance (which he knew through engravings only). The Last Judgment is especially informed by his hero Michelangelo’s rendition of the subject in the Sistine Chapel, Rome.

Typically, in his version, Blake blends the biblical account with his own visionary imaginings. There is a lengthy explanation of the work in a letter published by Martin Butlin in the Petworth House Archive, administered by the West Sussex Records Office.

This describes the seated Christ at the top of the picture, the pit of Hell at the bottom, the fall of the wicked on the right-hand side, and the resurrection of the just on the left.

Blake's other works

Blake’s other two works at Petworth are Satan calling up his legions (from Milton’s Paradise Lost), again commissioned by Elizabeth Iliffe, and Characters from Spenser’s Faery Queen, bought by the 3rd Earl from the artist’s widow Catherine.

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