William Blake's dreamy rendering of The Faerie Queene

Characters from Spenser's Faery Queen watercolour by William Blake (detail)

Epic and intricate, The Faerie Queene dazzled Queen Elizabeth I when it was published. Nearly 250 years later, William Blake painted the poem’s characters in ethereal watercolours. But what do the characters represent, and how does Blake illustrate them? Richard Ashbourne, Assistant Curator for London and South East, takes a closer look.

Characters from Spenser's Faery Queen watercolour by William Blake at Petworth House and Park, West Sussex
Characters from Spenser's Faery Queen watercolour by William Blake at Petworth House and Park, West Sussex
Characters from Spenser's Faery Queen watercolour by William Blake at Petworth House and Park, West Sussex

‘And sing of Knights and Ladies gentle deeds’

The Faerie Queene is a long and fantastical poem by the English poet Edmund Spenser. The ‘Queene’ in the title alludes to Queen Elizabeth I, to whom the poem was dedicated in 1590. The tale, which follows the knights and ladies of the queen’s court in mythical ‘Fairie Land’, explores the meaning of virtue.

Many of the story’s characters feature in this detailed watercolour, painted by William Blake around 1825. A poet, like Spenser, as well as a painter, Blake’s art is steeped in symbolism and spirituality. He was inspired by his Christian beliefs, and his imagery is open to many interpretations.

The Characters in Spenser’s ‘Faerie Queene was sold shortly after Blake’s death by his widow Catherine to George Wyndham, 3rd Earl of Egremont. Petworth House already had a small collection of Blakes, including two commissioned by Elizabeth Ilive, the 3rd Earl’s wife, in 1807 – 'Satan calling up his Legions' and 'A Vision of the Last Judgment'.

Elizabeth's commissions

In The Faerie Queene, Blake focuses on the story’s heroes, who are all mounted on horseback. In this article, Richard Ashbourne looks at them each in turn, their meaning in the poem, and how the artist paints them.

Leading the procession, far left, is the Redcrosse Knight, his shield showing the cross of Saint George. The defeated dragon writhes on the ground. He is accompanied by Una, who, like the Virgin Mary, rides an ass. They represent the virtue Holiness.

Between them pads the tawny lion, Una’s guardian and companion. The lion was so overcome by her beauty that instead of attacking, ‘he kiss'd her weary Feet, And lick'd her lilly Hands with fauning Tongue’.

Redcrosse Knight and Una, Spenser's Faerie Queen watercolour by William Blake (detail 1)
Redcrosse Knight and Una, Spenser's Faerie Queen watercolour by William Blake (detail 1)
Redcrosse Knight and Una, Spenser's Faerie Queen watercolour by William Blake (detail 1)

Next is Sir Guyon, on the brown horse, who embodies Temperance, or self-restraint. He resists many temptations on his journey (past the Gulf of Greediness and Whirlpool of Decay) to rescue those trapped in the sinful Bower of Bliss.

Sir Guyon, Spenser's Faerie Queen watercolour by William Blake (detail 2)
Sir Guyon, Spenser's Faerie Queen watercolour by William Blake (detail 2)
Sir Guyon, Spenser's Faerie Queen watercolour by William Blake (detail 2)

Britomart, her arms open, follows Sir Guyon. She is a knight the same as any of the men, and, in this way, she parallels Queen Elizabeth, England’s female monarch. Just as the queen was celebrated for her virginity, so Britomart signifies Chastity.

Britomart, Spenser's Faerie Queen watercolour by William Blake (detail 3)
Britomart, Spenser's Faerie Queen watercolour by William Blake (detail 3)
Britomart, Spenser's Faerie Queen watercolour by William Blake (detail 3)

Artegall comes next, his horse rearing up. He represents Justice, doling out judgement wherever he finds conflict. Justice is also above him among the stars, identified by her scales.

Artegall’s squire stands stoically beside him, his back to us: ‘His name was Talus, made of iron mould, immovable, resistless, without end; who in his hand an iron flail did hold, with which he threshed out falsehood, and did truth unfold’. Talus is literally made of iron, which Blake shows with his dark, metallic skin and steely muscles.

Artegall and Talus, Spenser's Faerie Queen watercolour by William Blake (detail 4)
Artegall and Talus, Spenser's Faerie Queen watercolour by William Blake (detail 4)
Artegall and Talus, Spenser's Faerie Queen watercolour by William Blake (detail 4)

Behind them is the greatest of the heroes, and the embodiment of virtuous Magnificence, young Prince Arthur. He is driven in the poem by love for the Faerie Queene, who does not actually appear in the poem herself. Blake does not depict her either, and she remains instead a remote and awesome figure.

Prince Arthur, Spenser's Faerie Queen watercolour by William Blake (detail 5)
Prince Arthur, Spenser's Faerie Queen watercolour by William Blake (detail 5)
Prince Arthur, Spenser's Faerie Queen watercolour by William Blake (detail 5)

Last in line is Sir Calidore, looking back at the poem’s villains, their heads bowed. Aptly for the knight of Courtesy, it falls to him to muzzle the skulking Blatant Beast, who symbolises slander.

Sir Calidore, Spenser's Faerie Queen watercolour by William Blake (detail 6)
Sir Calidore, Spenser's Faerie Queen watercolour by William Blake (detail 6)
Sir Calidore, Spenser's Faerie Queen watercolour by William Blake (detail 6)

Jove meanwhile as the sun presides over the whimsical ensemble, while Cynthia leaps from the crescent moon. Floating in the hazy distance, top left, is their destination, the Faerie Queene’s palace. It may represent New Jerusalem, the heavenly holy city, with Babylon and the Tower of Babel, top right, left behind.

Jove, Spenser's Faery Queen watercolour by William Blake (detail 7)
Jove, Spenser's Faery Queen watercolour by William Blake (detail 7)
Jove, Spenser's Faery Queen watercolour by William Blake (detail 7)
Cynthia, Spenser's Faery Queen watercolour by William Blake (detail 8)
Cynthia, Spenser's Faery Queen watercolour by William Blake (detail 8)
Cynthia, Spenser's Faery Queen watercolour by William Blake (detail 8)
Babylon and the Tower of Babel, Spenser's Faery Queen watercolour by William Blake (detail 9)
Babylon and the Tower of Babel, Spenser's Faery Queen watercolour by William Blake (detail 9)
Babylon and the Tower of Babel, Spenser's Faery Queen watercolour by William Blake (detail 9)

Their dreamlike world swirls before us, a vision of English folklore reimagined for the Romantic age.