The Petworth Blakes and the patronage of Elizabeth, Countess of Egremont

Petworth, West Sussex, is the only major country house to hold original works by William Blake which were collected in the artist’s lifetime.

The story of how two of these works came to Petworth sheds light on the fascinating patronage of Elizabeth Ilive, Countess of Egremont, bringing her out of the shadows of her husband, the celebrated patron George O'Brien Wyndham, 3rd Earl of Egremont.

The 3rd Earl of Egremont, patriotic patron

George O’Brien Wyndham, 3rd Earl of Egremont (1751-1837) is widely recognised as a champion of contemporary art during the early 19th century. Egremont’s patronage of British artists, most famously of JMW Turner (1775-1851), involved his unique encouragement of artists to stay at Petworth House and to draw inspiration from its collections, surroundings and collegiate atmosphere. 

Egremont's support of living artists was manifested through his taste for large-scale oil paintings and marble sculptures. He largely eschewed watercolours, the preferred medium of William Blake. The presence, then, of three watercolours by Blake within Petworth's collection is something of an anomaly.

 

Indeed, the Petworth Blakes are remarkable, not only because they were watercolours, but because two were commissioned by Elizabeth Ilive, Countess of Egremont (1769-1822) - the 3rd Earl’s mistress, then wife – from the artist. Purchases directly from Blake were rare during his life, particularly among the aristocratic elite.

Who was Elizabeth Ilive and what is the story behind her patronage of Blake, an eccentric – and for many, impenetrable – artist?

Elizabeth's commissions

Elizabeth Ilive, Countess of Egremont

Elizabeth Ilive became Egremont's principal mistress in around 1786, when their ages were about sixteen and thirty-five respectively. She lived at Petworth for the remainder of the 1780s and throughout the 1790s, bearing nine children, six of whom survived. Her formal union with Egremont was, however, short-lived: they married in 1801 and separated in 1803, due in all likelihood to Egremont's persistent infidelity.

Elizabeth Ilive, Countess of Egremont (1769-1822) by Thomas Phillips, RA, 1797 / Petworth NT 486814
Elizabeth Iliffe, Countess of Egremont (1769-1822) by Thomas Phillips, RA , 1797
Elizabeth Ilive, Countess of Egremont (1769-1822) by Thomas Phillips, RA, 1797 / Petworth NT 486814

Elizabeth’s father was a printer in Oxford, and so she came from a very different social background to Egremont. At Petworth, she was a devoted mother to her children, while developing intellectual interests in both science and fine art. She established both a museum and a laboratory in the house, won a silver medal from the Royal Society of Arts for her invention of a cross-bar lever (for moving large stones) and is known to have painted. Sadly, no surviving examples of her work are identifiable.

Her patronage of Blake, on the other hand, is clearly recorded by the artist. The first work she commissioned, Satan calling up his Legions, he described as being painted 'for a Lady of high rank'; the second, A Vision of The Last Judgment, he noted was 'done explicitly for the Countess of Egremont’.

At least one, and possibly both, of these paintings post-date Elizabeth’s departure from Petworth in 1803. By then, not enjoying the best of health and recovering from the infant death of their ninth – and only legitimate – child, Elizabeth simply could not cope with her husband’s unrelenting womanising. She spent the rest of her life formally separated, but not divorced, from Egremont.

Satan calling up his Legions

Elizabeth's first commission from Blake, Satan calling up his Legions, illustrates the opening book of Milton's Paradise Lost. Satan is shown against a gold leaf background, rallying the rebel angels who have been cast out by God and sent to hell. 

William Blake, Satan calling up his Legions, c.1800-5 / Petworth House NT 486264
William Blake, Satan calling up his Legions
William Blake, Satan calling up his Legions, c.1800-5 / Petworth House NT 486264

The subject is one which was tackled by others of Blake’s generation. The 3rd Earl had requested a major marble carving representing a 'capital figure of Satan’ from the sculptor Francis Chantrey around 1819. While this was abandoned, the subject was eventually delivered by John Flaxman in the form of 'St Michael triumphing over Satan', finished in 1826.

St. Michael overcoming Satan by John Flaxman in the north Bay of the North Gallery at Petworth.
St. Michael overcoming Satan by John Flaxman in the north Bay of the North Gallery at Petworth.
St. Michael overcoming Satan by John Flaxman in the north Bay of the North Gallery at Petworth.

Egremont’s desire for this sculpture could have been, at least in part, inspired by Elizabeth's commission. 

A Vision of the Last Judgment

The second work Elizabeth commissioned from Blake is A Vision of the Last Judgment. It is the third in a series of works dealing with the subject of the Last Judgment and this version may have been adapted to reflect Elizabeth’s personal circumstances, to which the difficult themes were certainly pertinent.

William Blake, A Vision of the Last Judgment, 1808 / Petworth House NT 486270
William Blake, A Vision of the Last Judgment, 1808
William Blake, A Vision of the Last Judgment, 1808 / Petworth House NT 486270

It is a highly complex composition with a multitude of figures, from the tortured to the virtuous. Ultimately, it goes back to Michelangelo’s Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel. Although Blake never saw the frescoes first hand, he could have known Michelangelo's frescoes from reproductive engravings. Signed and dated 1808, the Petworth Last Judgment was shown in the same year in one of the artist's rare exhibitions at the Royal Academy.

The chief message of the work is the glorification of family life, depicting mothers and fathers with infants ascending to heaven, in contrast to the wicked, who descend into hell below. Temptation is suggested by the kneeling figures of Adam and Eve, and lustfulness by the central and potentially symbolic figure of the Harlot. 

The Harlot, who rides a Beast in Revelations, is depicted sitting above the Beast's cave. She is also positioned at the entrance to a central compositional shape which mirrors the shape of the uterus. At the very least, the principal message of this subject must have resonated strongly with its intelligent patron, who, from the age of sixteen, had delivered nine children – three of whom had died as infants – to a man whose continued philandering eventually brought about the end to a long-awaited and all too brief marriage. 

Blake paid tribute to Elizabeth’s brave patronage of this subject, memorialising her in a poem he penned in one of his manuscript notebooks, now kept in the British Library:

" What mighty Soul in beauty's form
Shall dauntless view the infernal storm
Egremont's Countess can control
The flames of hell that round me roll "
- William Blake

A philanthropic gesture

After Elizabeth's death in 1822, Egremont retained formal ownership of her possessions, including the two Blake pictures. Ultimately, they do not appear to have been given significant positions within Egremont's displays at Petworth. However, the precedent set by Elizabeth may have influenced Egremont's acquisition of the third Blake painting to come to Petworth, The Characters in Spenser’s ‘Faerie Queene’.

Egremont purchased this picture from Blake’s widow, Catherine, after Blake’s death in 1827, perhaps as a philanthropic gesture. He paid the generous price of eighty guineas – a sum which could easily have sustained Catherine for the rest of her life.

William Blake, The Characters from Spenser's 'Faerie Queene', c. 1825 / Petworth NT 486263
William Blake, The Characters from Spenser's 'Faerie Queene'
William Blake, The Characters from Spenser's 'Faerie Queene', c. 1825 / Petworth NT 486263

Spenser’s poem of the Faerie Queene, published in parts from 1590, remains one of the longest in the English language and was highly regarded by Elizabeth I, who rewarded Spenser with a life-long pension. The library at Petworth contains a first edition, which in Egremont's eyes may have given Blake’s painting added interest.  

Egremont’s acquisition of this painting demonstrates a level of interest in Blake which was rare for the period. Collectively, the material remains today not only one of the most remarkable features of Petworth’s celebrated collection but also offers valuable insights into various cultural and personal relationships in and around the house in the early nineteenth century.  

This article is adapted from an essay by Andrew Loukes, curator of the exhibition Blake in Sussex: Visions of Albion.

Blake in Sussex: Visions of Albion is on view at Petworth House in West Sussex until 25 March 2018.