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Rare William Blake works to be exhibited in Sussex, where he lived

Detail from William Blake’s painting, The Sea of Time and Space
Detail from William Blake’s painting, The Sea of Time and Space (Vision of the Circle of the Life of Man), which will be shown at the exhibition of the artist’s works, opening to the public on Saturday at Petworth House in Sussex. Photograph: National Trust Images/John Hammond/John Hammond

A painting by William Blake which spent decades in a dark corner of the library at Petworth House in Sussex is about to go on display as one of the treasures of the house, a key work from the poet and artist’s three years in the area, the only place he ever lived outside London.

The exhibition includes loans from the British Museum, the Fitzwilliam, the Victoria and Albert Museum and other collections of paintings, drawings, letters, and rare surviving copies of books which Blake intended as money making ventures. As ever in his life, these turned into financial disasters.

Detail from William Blake’s painting, A Vision of the Last Judgment
Detail from William Blake’s painting, A Vision of the Last Judgment. Photograph: William Blake/National Trust

He is now revered as one of the greatest figures in literary and artistic history but was a shabby and eccentric figure during his Sussex years. In a portrait by Thomas Phillips, on loan from the National Portrait Gallery, the artist had to lend Blake good clothes, and could only persuade him to sit still by getting him to tell the story of how he was introduced to Milton by Michaelangelo and the Angel Gabriel.

Andy Loukes, curator of the exhibition which opens to the public on Saturday, believes Blake must have come to Petworth when he was living with his wife Catherine in a tiny cottage in Felpham near Bognor Regis – now being restored by the Blake Cottage Trust – but such a humble figure was not recorded among the famous visitors.

Petworth House, Sussex
Petworth House in Sussex, where William Blake’s exhibition, William Blake in Sussex: Visions of Albion Exhibition, will open on Saturday. Photograph: National Trust Images/David Levenson/NTPL/David Levenson

The Blake exhibition includes a painting that sat in the Petworth library of a waterfall of naked bodies rising to heaven and crashing down into hell, with one very odd image for the Last Judgment: a woman surrounded by a halo of tiny babies – and just opposite her, the seated figure of an artist drawing her portrait.

Loukes believes the woman is Elizabeth Iliffe, who commissioned the painting from Blake. For years she was one of the many mistresses of the third Earl of Egremont, the famous collector and patron of artists including JMW Turner. She bore seven of his believed 40 illegitimate children, before they finally married. In 1803, their only legitimate child was born and soon died, and Elizabeth left Petworth to live in London. The painting, Loukes believes, shows her redeemed while the philanderers crash into hell.

The couple were never divorced, so after her death, her two Blake paintings came back to Petworth and Egremont as her heir.

Elizabeth, a remarkable character who was awarded a silver medal for her scientific work, has also been brought out of the shadow in beautiful portraits of her and her children, on loan from the Egremont family.

The third earl bought another painting from Blake’s widow Catherine after the artist died, paying the huge sum of £80 which was enough for her to live on for years.

Loukes says it was clearly an act of philanthropy.

The exhibition includes all the court documents relating to the farcical episode which ended Blake’s time in Sussex, when he was tried for sedition after driving two drunken soldiers out of his garden – one of whom claimed in his defence that Blake had abused the king. Blake was eventually cleared, but by then was back in London. However, he held in his memory and used the images of the sea and the rolling downland for the rest of his life. He described it himself as the place which created his “visions of Albion” which became his most famous works including Jerusalem.

“His sea is always the Sussex coast,” Loukes said, “it was the only one he ever lived beside.”

  • William Blake in Sussex: Visions of Albion, Petworth House, 13 January – 25 March
  • This article was amended on 10 January 2018. An earlier version said Blake’s cottage was being restored by the Blake Society rather than the Blake Cottage Trust. This has been corrected.
This article titled "Rare William Blake works to be exhibited in Sussex, where he lived" was written by Maev Kennedy, for The Guardian on Wednesday 10 January 2018 01.35pm

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