Major William Blake exhibition in West Sussex

Portrait of William Blake by Thomas Philipsoil on canvas, 1807.National Portrait Gallery, London
Portrait of William Blake by Thomas Philipsoil on canvas, 1807.National Portrait Gallery, London

William Blake in Sussex: Visions of Albion is the major New Year exhibition at the National Trust’s Petworth House, running from January 13-March 25. The exhibition is the first to bring together for display many of the works that were inspired by his experience living in Sussex.

Andrew Loukes, exhibitions manager, said: “Sussex remains the only area outside London that Blake ever lived, spending three years in Sussex from 1800 to 1803 with his wife Catherine, renting a cottage in Felpham that he described as ‘the sweetest spot on Earth’. Petworth will re-unite Blake’s works made during his time at Felpham along with later pieces that were informed by the landscapes of the Sussex coast and countryside.

“The exhibition will include extraordinary works by Blake on loan from the British Museum, National Portrait Gallery and Tate. These will be combined with three paintings by Blake from the Petworth collection and a fourth on loan from the National Trust’s Arlington Court, Devon.

“This new exhibition has particular significance to Petworth. Elizabeth Ilive, mistress and then wife to George Wyndham, the 3rd Earl of Egremont, commissioned Blake to paint The Last Judgement, 1808 and Satan calling up his Legions, c 1800-1805, both of which are usually displayed in the mansion. The Last Judgement is of particular significance given that the watercolour likely features Elizabeth ascending to Heaven with her six children beside an artist that may represent Blake.

“These two paintings will be displayed alongside a third painting by Blake, Characters from Spenser’s Faery Queen, 1825, purchased by the Earl of Egremont from the artist’s widow as a philanthropic gesture. The inclusion of Blake’s work at Petworth stands as the only example of his work within an English country house collection. This suggests the patrons had a forward-thinking taste in art which led them to commission visionary paintings from an artist largely unheard of during his own lifetime, considered mad by his contemporaries and someone who had been tried for sedition.

“Elizabeth Ilive’s role also demonstrates a revolutionary woman of the period by taking an active role in commissioning artists.”

Andrew added: “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.

“An unmissable addition to the exhibition, on loan from the British Museum, will be the hand-coloured relief etching of Blake’s illustrated epic poem Milton, of which only four are still in existence. Written and illustrated between 1804-1811, the preface to Milton, ‘And did those feet in ancient time’ was adopted for the anthem Jerusalem.

“One of the illustrations for display from the poem depicts Blake’s conception of Milton; a spirit of John Milton, the author of Paradise Lost, in the shape of a comet landing on the foot of Blake.”

Entry is by pre-booked, timed tickets only, which are on sale from www.nationaltrust.org.uk/petworth or 0344 249 1895. £12 for National Trust members or £16 for non-members.