John Linnell gifted William Blake one of his last significant commissions - to produce a whole series of illustrations that would decorate a beautiful new publication of Dante's Divine Comedy.
William Blake had long been an admirer of Dante's work and had, on several occasions, even used it to inspire some of his own creations, so this was undoubtably an enticing opportunity. Sadly, William never finished this commission as he died on the 12th of August 1827, less than a year after accepting it. Only a few completed plates ever made their way to the engravers and the book was never published.
However, Blake did complete 102 images in varying degrees of completion which remain in Linnell's possession. Today, they are known as, The Dante Sketches and they are remarkable to say the least. Some would say the very best of Blakes work. Although the images and the text were never joined as William intended, it is still possible to see that Dante's narrative if almost deciphered by Blake in his artwork. William felt that he shared a life view with Dante even though they lived centuries apart and through these paintings and sketches he has enhanced the text's meaning to a clarity of purpose, revealing the contempt they both felt for the material world.
In the early 20th century the sketches were broken up and sold through auction across the world. Today many of them remain in private collections although some can be found in British museums; The Six-Footed Serpent Attacking Agnolo Brunelleschi (1827) can be found in the Tate Britain. This particular sketch is quite horrific as it shows Agnolo being punished for his sin by being consumed by a creature from hell. Although disturbing, it is, at the same time, compelling. It is beautifully detailed and offers great depth to the narrative. Another glorious sketch, also found at the Tate Britain Gallery is, The Circle of the Lustful (1827).
Although a more complete version of this image exists and is housed in The City Museum and Art Gallery in Birmingham, the drawing at the Tate is more detailed and shows a raw energy which is, in fact, somehow missing from the more finished version. Finally, and yet again at the Tate, is Lucifer at the Last Section of the Ninth Circle and it is as disturbing as it sounds. This drawing was a design to be used in the XXXIV Canto of The Divine Comedy, The Inferno. Lucifer is depicted with his three heads for his three mouth to hold the greatest sinners, however true to Blake's understanding of the Devil he has the wings of a fallen angel and floats over the mire of sinners beneath.
Tom Gurney in an art history expert. He received a BSc (Hons) degree from Salford University, UK, and has also studied famous artists and art movements for over 20 years. Tom has also published a number of books related to art history and continues to contribute to a number of different art websites. You can read more on Tom Gurney here.