This large, magnificent drawing from Fuseli’s early years in England (from 1764-70) has been described by Nancy Pressly, together with its near companion The Cave of Despair (Schiff 338, fig. 1), as ‘perhaps Fuseli’s finest works from the 1760s'. However, she also tells us that a large number of works from this period were destroyed by a fire at the house of his friend the radical publisher and bookseller Joseph Johnson in January 1770 (Pressly, pp. 28-9). Moreover, although Fuseli had arrived in London in 1764 he had only become a fully professional artist some time later, in part encouraged by Joshua Reynolds, following a period when he had concentrated more on his translation of Winkelmann’s Reflections on the Paintings and Sculpture of the Greeks, published in 1765, and on his own Remarks on the Writings and Conduct of J.J. Rousseau, 1767. He left for Italy in the spring of 1770, not returning to England, after a stay of a few months in Zurich, until 1778. Works of the later 1760s are exceedingly rare. Moreover, it is perhaps the earliest surviving demonstration of Fuseli’s abilities as a draughtsman and inventor of striking imagery.
The drawing illustrates the passage from Edmund Spenser’s (1552-1599) patriotic verse allegory The Faerie Queene, Book I, Canto IX, verse 13, in which Prince Arthur, the future King of that name, tells Una and the Red Cross Knight how, exhausted from hunting in the forest, he had dismounted and fallen asleep, only to dream of the Faerie Queene:
‘Forwearied with my sportes, I did alight
From loftie steed, and downe to sleepe me layd:
The verdant gras my couch did goodly dight,
And pillow was my helmett fayre displayd:
Whiles every sence the humour sweet embayd,
And slombring soft my hart did steale away,
Me seemed, by my side a royall mayd
Her daintie limbes full softly down did lay:
So fayre a creature yet saw never sunny day.’
After she had told him of her love and given him her name, she vanished and he awoke alone and bereft (verses 14-15):
‘Most goodly glee and lovely blandishment
She to me made, and badd me love her deare.
For dearly sure her love was to me bent,
As, when just time expired, should appeare.
But, whether dreames delude, or true it were,
Was never hart so ravisht with delight,
Ne living man like wordes did ever heare,
As she to me delivered all that night;
And at her parting said, she Queene of Faries hight.
When I awoke, and found her place devoyd,
And nought but pressed gras where she had lyen,
I sorrowed all so much, as earst I joy'd,
And washed all her place with watry eyen.
From that day forth I lov'd this face divyne;
From that day forth I cast in carefull mynd,
To seek her out with labor and long tyne,
And never vowd to rest till her I fynd:
Nyne monethes I seek in vain, yet ni'll that vow unbynd.’
Only the inclusion of the horse’s head, looming into the space of the drawing from the right, upsets the equilibrium of the scene, anticipating as it does the horse’s head in The Nightmare of 1781 (Schiff 757-9); surely Prince Arthur’s dream had not been a nightmare! However, at this early point in Fuseli’s developing imagery, it could perhaps reflect the more neutral significance of the lines about Queen Mab in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Act I, Scene 4:
And in this state she gallops night by night
Through lovers’ brains, and then they dream of love.
(For the significance of horses and nightmares in Fuseli’s art see Christopher Frayling, 'Fuseli’s The Nightmare: Somewhere between the Sublime and the Ridiculous' in Martin Myrone, ed., exh. cat., Gothic Nightmares: Fuseli, Blake and the Romantic Imagination, London, Tate Britain, 15 February – 1 May 2006, pp. 9-20). The illuminated form behind the horse’s head is presumably Arthur’s spear, its presence a flash of light adding to the drama of the horse’s impact.
In addition Fuseli adds a whole troupe of fairy-like figures including the gnome on the left holding a whip with serrated tooth-like edges culminating in a cat-of-nine-tails ending in flowers. These anticipate Titania’s attendants in the great canvases illustrating A Midsummer Night’s Dream – painted for Boydell’s Shakespeare Gallery in the 1780s (Schiff 753-4).
Fuseli’s first illustrations to the world of English literature draw on elements from a wider circle than Spenser’s Elizabethan epic. Fuseli, despite his foreign background, was one of the pioneers in illustrating The Faerie Queene, a genre of literature coming into fashion in the later 18th Century at the same time as Ossian and the ‘Gothic’. The only important precedents were William Kent’s 32 engravings for the three-volume edition of Spenser’s text published in 1751 and four drawings by Mortimer dating to the mid-1760s, though not engraved and published by John Hall until 1777 (J. Sunderland, ‘John Hamilton Mortimer, his Life and Works’, Walpole Society, LII, 1986-8, pp. 180-1, nos. 132. 13-16, illustrated); his grand full-length painting of Sir Arthegal, the Knight of Justice, with Talus, the Iron Man at Tate Britain was not exhibited until 1778 (Sunderland, op.cit., p. 185, no. 136, illustrated). Alexander Runciman also illustrated four episodes in 1776 (Pressly, loc. cit.).
It was perhaps Fuseli’s Continental background that lead him to go back to further international sources in the story of the enchantress Armida and the crusader knight Rinaldo in Tasso’s Jerusalem Liberata and Van Dyck’s paintings of the same subject of 1627 in the Baltimore Museum and the Royal Collection (S.J. Barnes, N. de Poorter, O. Millar and H. Vey, Van Dyck: A Complete Catalogue of the Paintings, New Haven and London, 2004, pp. 296-7, illustrated; both paintings were in England in the 18th Century). These were part of a tradition derived in their turn from Antique sarcophagi of Semele and Endymion. (For this tradition see Schiff, p. 68).
Some twenty years after the present drawing Fuseli painted a later version of The Faerie Queene appearing to Prince Arthur in oils for the first volume of Thomas Macklin’s Poet's Gallery, 1780 (Schiff 721, Öffentliche Kunstsammlung, Basel, fig. 2); this was engraved by Peltro W. Tomkins (D.H. Weinglass, Prints and Engraved Illustrations by and after Henry Fuseli, Aldershot and Brookfield, VA, 1994, p. 88, no. 78, fig. 3). Whereas the painting measures 102.5 x 109 cm (40 ½ x 43 in.) the engraving is an upright, 42.5 x 35.4 cm. (17 ¾ x 13 7/8 in.); this was perhaps to make it conform to a standard book format, but in the event Macklin published his work as an oblong folio (H. Hammelmann with T.S.R. Boase, Book Illustration in Eighteenth-Century England, New Haven and London, 1975, pp. 34-5).
Both painting and engraving share a more disciplined, neo-classical composition. The two main figures are less subtle in their articulation, the Queene standing rather than tripping forward as in the present drawing. The dominating, enveloping form of the Queene’s veil is tamed. The much clearer, more semi-circular form of Arthur’s body is now balanced by the largest of the attendant fairies. The horse’s head is still shown, largely invisible save for the eyes in the now bituminous background of the picture (see Schiff, p. 140) and even in the engraving is nearly lost against the dark background; the eyes are seen more from the front, closer to The Nightmare than to the present drawing.
Weinglass points out that Fuseli’s undated letter of about 1800 suggests that verses 34 and 35 provide ‘soul, action, passion’ (Weinglass, ibid.), and quotes Laurel Bradley as suggesting that Fuseli is ironically deflating a lofty subject: the ‘powerful figure [of Gloriana, in Spenser equated with the Queene of the Faeries and Queen Elizabeth I] in a clinging garment and fashionable hat gestures imperiously towards the passive Knight and then becomes ‘a materialisation of Arthur’s erotic dreams rather than a spirit inspiring virtuous action’ (L. Bradley, ‘Eighteenth Century Paintings and Illustrations of Spenser’s Faerie Queene: A Study in Taste’ in Marsyas: Studies in the History of Art, XX, 1979-80, pp. 31-91).
Although the Zurich exhibition catalogue of 1969 gives the lender as anonymous, a label on the back of the drawing gives the source as Professor Paul Ganz (1872-1954). He was a distinguished Swiss art historian, specialising in Holbein and Fuseli, publishing books on the latter's drawings in 1948 and 1959. He was also closely involved in the Art Council exhibition of Fuseli’s works in 1950.
A pencilled inscription on the back of the frame reading ‘From the collection of Baroness North’ suggests a possible earlier provenance though this has not yet been proven. Susan, Baroness North was the daughter of Susan, Countess of Guilford, one of Fuseli’s most important patrons in his later years; he died in her house on Putney Hill, in the presence of the Countess and her daughter, who inherited her collection of works by the artist.
We are grateful to Martin Butlin, C.B.E. for his help in preparing this catalogue entry.