William Blake, Hell, Death and Despair.


It seems strangely appropriate in the wake of recent local and global events to be considering apocalyptic visions from the early 19th century. It might also be appropriate at a time when social media is saturated with ubiquitous solipsistic proclamations of despair, to note one from a different time that is uniquely beautiful. For as long as humans have had a notion of a violent afterlife, we have lived in fear of it, and sometimes through art and music that fear is given form. As it is here, in this drawing by William Blake, Dante Conversing with Farinata Degli Uberti, pen and watercolour over pencil and perhaps black chalk, 36.7 × 52 cm, 1824-27. It is an illustration of a journey through hell, although the characters in this vision don’t seem that perturbed by the eternal fire, they seem quite calm, calm enough to converse and exchange ideas. It is particularly modern. I always find the drawings of William Blake modern, I think it has something to do with his graphic ability being advanced, considering the overall composition, thinking ahead in the way only an engraver must be able to do. It is quite lovely, lyrical and elegant, the colour is sparing and applied in flat patches over the line. It is everything but violent, perhaps in the romantic age, everything was beautiful, even death. I like to think of Blake’s drawings outside of their illustrative purpose, this variety of media is my favourite for Blake, probably the last version before the printing process, the image is still a drawing but refined, developed through pen and watercolour. It is very theatrical in its construction and layout. I like the way the stage like layers bring us up close to the action. It is so like a stage that one imagines that the different aspects of the set could slide in and out of the picture frame like Baroque theatre sets. Trap doors into hell are opened and souls (Farinata Degli Uberti) are beginning to emerge. The city in the background is northern, there is a suggestion of heavy industry a premonition of an industrial hell, satanic, Sheffield, Manchester or Leeds. Perhaps the gentle nature of hell in this case is partly influenced by the fact that when Blake made the work, he did not actually have that much longer to live.

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