New exhibition of major works celebrates William Blake’s relationship with Sussex for the first time at Petworth

Press release
William Blake's The Last Judgement, 1808
Published : 15 Jan 2018

Some of William Blake’s greatest works from poetry to painting will be displayed at Petworth in West Sussex from 13 January.

The new exhibition is the first to bring together many of the works that were inspired by Blake’s experience of living in Sussex, including paintings commissioned by the Wyndham family, owners of Petworth, and rare hand-coloured relief etchings of Blake’s illustrated epic poem Milton.

Sussex is the only area outside London that Blake ever lived, spending three years there from 1800 to 1803 with his wife Catherine, renting a cottage in Felpham that he described as ‘the sweetest spot on Earth’.

Paintings on display include extraordinary works by Blake on loan from the British Museum, National Portrait Gallery and Tate, as well as three paintings by Blake from the Petworth collection and another on loan from the National Trust’s Arlington Court in Devon.

Of the paintings to come from the Petworth collection, two were commissioned by Elizabeth Ilive, mistress and then wife to George Wyndham, the 3rd Earl of Egremont. The third was purchased by the 3rd Earl from the artist’s widow as a philanthropic gesture. Descendants of the 3rd Earl donated the 17th-century mansion to the National Trust in 1947.

Andrew Loukes, Exhibitions Manager, said: “William Blake in Sussex is not only a subject of great local interest but also of national cultural significance, not least because the famous lines that were later adopted for the song Jerusalem were written in the county.

“It’s very exciting to be mounting the first exhibition to re-unite many of Blake’s Sussex-related works, especially at Petworth – the only great English country house to hold major paintings by the artist.”

Alongside the Blake exhibition is a parallel exhibit showing original drawings by the author and President of the Blake Society, Philip Pullman, made for the internationally acclaimed His Dark Materials books that echo Milton’s Paradise Lost.

These chosen illustrations feature as part of an immersive experience in the Red Room using projections, sound and text to connect these Miltonian works within the wider context of the exhibition.

Works on display include:

  • Satan calling up his Legions, c. 1800-1805. From the Petworth collection, this painting was commissioned by Elizabeth Ilive, mistress and then wife of the 3rd Earl of Egremont. .  
  • The Last Judgement, 1808. Commissioned by Elizabeth Ilive, this painting is of particular significance because it is believed that the watercolour features Elizabeth ascending to Heaven with her six children beside an artist thought to represent Blake. The painting is usually on display in the house.
  • The Sea of Time and Space, 1821. Watercolour of a stormy coastal scene. Discovered at Arlington Court above a wardrobe in the housemaid’s pantry when the house was given to the National Trust in 1947. Little is known of how – or why – it came to be there.
  • Characters from Spenser’s Faery Queen, 1825. The third painting by Blake to come from the Petworth collection. Purchased by the Earl of Egremont from the artist’s widow as a philanthropic gesture.
  • Hand-coloured relief etchings from Blake’s illustrated epic poem Milton, written with John Milton, author of Paradise Lost, as the inspiration. An unmissable addition to the exhibition, these prints are on loan from the British Museum, and are from one of only four sets in existence. Written and illustrated between 1804 and 1811, the preface to Milton includes the lines ‘And did those feet in ancient time…’ which were later adopted for the anthem Jerusalem.
  • One of the prints shows the spirit of John Milton in the shape of a comet landing on Blake’s foot.
  • Illustration of the cottage at Felpham, overtly referencing Blake’s experiences in Sussex with the text ‘In Felpham I saw Visions of Albion.’

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