Paradise found: Blake works back in UK

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The Independent Online

A dozen William Blake watercolours have been returned to Britain to be put on display for the first time in nearly a century, marking the 200th anniversary of the writing of the poem that gave the nation one of its most famous hymns, Jerusalem.

A dozen William Blake watercolours have been returned to Britain to be put on display for the first time in nearly a century, marking the 200th anniversary of the writing of the poem that gave the nation one of its most famous hymns, Jerusalem.

The watercolours illustrate each of the 12 books of John Milton's Paradise Lost, the epic poem that inspired Blake as an artist and a writer. Completed in 1807, these paintings are more delicately drawn than later Blake sets on the same subject, which have been sold by the millions as postcard prints.

Since they were not intended as book illustrations, Blake had more room for creativity, and the results included the sexualised imagery of The Temptation and the Fall of Eve and the evocative depiction of Satan as a handsome archangel in Satan Calling up his Legions.

The watercolours have not been seen since they were sold in 1914 to the research library established at San Marino, California, by the American bibliophile Henry E Huntington.

In all, Blake produced three sets of Paradise Lost watercolours: in 1807, 1808 and 1822. His admiration for Milton also led him to write his own version of the poem, entitled Milton. It was in the preface to this that he composed the words "And did those feet ...", which were put to music by Charles H H Parry in 1916 to create the hymn universally known as Jerusalem.

The bicentenary of Milton is being celebrated with the exhibition of the watercolours by the Wordsworth Trust at Grasmere, which recently has been exploring the links between poetry and art in the Romantic movement. Huntington was one of a small number of collectors who treasured Blake's prints and drawings in the last century. By the time of his death in 1927 he had created one of the world's great Blake collections.

Dr Robert Woof, director of the Wordsworth Trust, said the 1807 watercolours, painted for the scholarly clergyman the Rev Joseph Thomas, showed Blake working out how to capture Paradise Lost in visual form, as he moves towards the grander later sets. "This is the first chance people will have to compare them," Dr Woof said. The 18th-century artist identified not just with the work of Milton, but also with the life of the blind poet whose books were burnt by the hangman. Both were visionaries who constructed a very personal image of religion and Blake borrowed one of Milton's most celebrated phrases - "Fit Audience find tho' few" - for use in a descriptive catalogue of his paintings.

His own version of Milton's poem about the Fall of Man is a poetic meditation in which Milton returns to the human world and engages with Blake in a great act of redemption.

The exhibition will be opened today by the writer Philip Pullman, whose celebrated trilogy His Dark Materials has been seen as a latter-day interpretation of Paradise Lost.

The exhibition's many other illustrations demonstrate the epic's extraordinary influence on artists. Others represented include Medina, Fuseli, Romney, Turner, Dore and Hogarth.

Paradise Lost, the poem and its illustrators, starts today at the Wordsworth Museum, Dove Cottage, and continues until 31 October

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