The combustible milieu of London in the late 1780s and early 1790s witnessed an extraordinary collaboration between painter/theorist/translator Henry Fuseli and poet/artist/engraver William Blake. Under the aegis of radical publisher Joseph Johnson, the pair worked together to produce daring images for Erasmus Darwin’s The Botanic Garden (1792–1799): The Fertilization of Egypt (1791) and Zeus Battling Typhon (1795). But who set the agenda for these strange images?
This lecture triangulates between Fuseli, Blake and Darwin to argue that an emphasis on collaboration can enrich our understanding of the conceptual and aesthetic frameworks that gave these images their generative force—their ability to evoke complex networks of association in the mind of the viewer. Moreover, it explores how images made by matrices pressed together on the bed of the printing press were also products of external marketplace pressures. Bringing The Fertilization of Egypt into conversation with Falsa ad Coelum (c.1790) and a series of erotic drawings that Fuseli made between 1800–1810, it contends that the bold virility first realised and later frustrated in these graphic works speaks to the economic climate that brought Fuseli, Blake and Darwin into professional alliance. We see the same uncomfortable role reversals between authors, painters and printers, then taking place in the publishing industry, mirrored and reimagined in these drawings. Herein, the potent eroticism of the ancients becomes both antidote and antonymy to modern life and the perceived ‘emasculating’ effects of commercial society.
Sarah Carter is a SSHRC (Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council) and FRQSC (Fonds de Recherche du Québec) funded postdoctoral fellow at the University of Chicago where she is pursuing a project entitled “Empire follows Art”: Trafficking Culture in Imperial Britain 1780-1830. She completed her PhD at McGill University in 2022. Her dissertation research explored the reception of erotic antiquity in the eighteenth century.
Organised by Dr Ketty Gottardo (The Courtauld) and Professor David Solkin (The Courtauld) as part of the Frank Davis Memorial Lecture series ‘Fuseli and the Graphic Body‘.