Johann Heinrich Füssli, Henry Fuseli, R.A. (Zurich 1741-1825 Putney Hill)
Property from the Collection of the Late Sir Colin and Lady Anderson
Johann Heinrich Füssli, Henry Fuseli, R.A. (Zurich 1741-1825 Putney Hill)

The Vision of Orestes

Johann Heinrich Füssli, Henry Fuseli, R.A. (Zurich 1741-1825 Putney Hill)
The Vision of Orestes
with inscription 'W. Blake' (lower left)
graphite, pen and grey ink, and grey and brown wash
18 x 24 ¼ in. (45.7 x 61.6 cm)
G. Schiff, Johann Heinrich Füssli 1741-1825, Munich 1973, p. 594, no. 1425.
London, Tate Gallery, Henry Fuseli, 1975, no. 72.

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Lot Essay

This drawing is an illustration to Euripides’ Iphigenia in Tauris, 285-291. The story is one of the many developments of incidents arising from the Trojan Wars: Homer relates how Agamemnon, returning home after the Fall of Troy, is killed by his wife Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus. This murder is revenged in its turn by Agamemnon’s son Orestes. Later developments of the story by the dramatists Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides add the participation of Orestes’ sister Electra (as also in Richard Strauss’s opera) and the pursuit of Orestes with his childhood friend Pylades by the Erinyes (or the Furies), in their turn avenging Clytemnestra. This episode shows the Erinyes holding up the bloodied body of Clytemnestra to hurl it at Orestes, at which point it is transformed into a rock. Here Fuseli avoids the problem of depicting this transformation by omitting Clytemnestra’s body altogether; in another drawing of the same subject (fig. 1; see G. Schiff, op. cit., no. 1426, also dated by him at 1800) the arms are shown in full holding a rock.

Fuseli described his friend Blake as ‘dammed good to steal from’ and Schiff has suggested (exhib. cat., 1975) that the grouping of the three Erinyes is based on Blake’s large colour print of Hecate. The present drawing is particularly remarkable for its monumental scale and bold handling.

The presence of the inscription 'W. Blake' in a dark corner reflects the changing fortunes of the two artists concerned. During his lifetime Blake was hardly known outside a smaller number of patrons like Thomas Butts and John Linnell. His exhibition of 1809 was sparsely attended and had only one, highly negative review. A few essays on Blake were published in B.H. Malkin’s A Father’s Memoirs of his Child, 1806, Crabb Robinson’s ‘William Blake, Künstler, Dichter und religiöser Schwärmer’ in Vaterländisches Museum, 1841, J.T. Smith’s Nollekens and his Times, 1828, and Allan Cunningham’s Lives of the Most Eminent British Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, 1830, but these were more biographical and anecdotal than appreciative. In no way was he treated as anything as important as Fuseli: Member, Librarian and Keeper of the Royal Academy and the creator of the Milton Gallery and of well-known examples of ‘horrible imaginings’ such as The Nightmare (fig. 2).

Only in 1863 came the first full Life of William Blake by Alexander Gilchrist, tellingly subtitled ‘Pictor Ignotus’. Gilchrist died before the book could be published, leaving it to be finally seen through the press by the two Rossetti brothers, Dante Gabriel and William Michael, thus bringing Blake into the orbit of the Pre-Raphaelites and so immensely widening knowledge of his work. At much the same time the original collections of Blake’s works began to be dispersed in the salerooms, the Butts collection in 1852, 1853 and 1854, that of the Reverend Joseph Thomas in 1872, and that of Frederick Tatham, from Blake’s widow, in 1863. Many of these works reappeared in dealers’ catalogues such as those of Bernard Quaritch. At the same time the great Blake collections of the second half of the 19th century were being formed, including those of Richard Monkton Milnes, 1st Lord Houghton, which passed to his son, the first Marquess of Crewe, and those of the Disraeli and Stirling families. The British Museum had already bought its first example in 1847; the Royal collection acquired a watercolor in or after 1876.

In 1876 occurred the first large exhibition of Blake’s art, at the Burlington Fine Arts Club. A further monograph on Blake, by Algernon Swinburne, was published in 1868, while a second edition of Gilchrist’s Life appeared in 1880. All this activity led to a greater appreciation of Blake’s work, and a greater financial value. Meanwhile Fuseli’s reputation had greatly declined as Queen Victoria’s reign wore on, partly on moral grounds. Misattributions for Blake and outright fakes began to appear, including a number of important works by such artists as Fuseli (the present drawing is a fine example) being given fake Blake signatures.

Sir Colin Anderson joined the family shipping firm Anderson, Green & Co in 1935 and became responsible for creating a more modern aesthetic in the ship’s interiors, most notably in the flagship of the Orient Line, Orion. Although always destined to enter the family business Sir Colin’s love of art began as an undergraduate at Oxford. While studying at Trinity College he became friends with Sir Kenneth Clark who introduced him to many of the emerging artists of the time as well as many of the great figures of the past.

We are grateful to Martin Butlin for his help in preparing this catalogue entry.

Fig. 1. Henry Fuseli, The Vision of Orestes, private collection.
Fig. 2. Henry Fuseli, The Nightmare, Detroit Institute of Arts.

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