Scenes of “Inferno” Blake Drew on his Deathbed to Sell at Bonhams

Even as William Blake (1757-1827) lay on his deathbed he worked feverishly on his illustrations for Dante’s Inferno, one of the world’s greatest works of literature. A scene from the Inferno, drawn by the visionary artist and poet, will go under the hammer in Bonhams sale of 18th and 19th Century British Watercolours and Drawings, on 11 March 2008, New Bond Street, London. The pencil sketch is thought to be a study for the figures of infamous lovers Paolo and Francesca who were condemned to Hell on account of their adultery. It is expected to fetch £6,000-9,000.

William Blake was commissioned in 1824 to illustrate Dante’s seminal work, The Inferno, the first of three books forming The Divine Comedy. Although the enterprise was cut short by his death in 1827, the handful of watercolours that he managed to complete are considered to be among some of his finest work. Blake’s main preoccupation in the last days of his life was his work on the Inferno – such was his dedication that he spent one of the very last shillings he possessed on a pencil to continue sketching. On the day of his death, the great artist worked furiously on his Dante series, although his final drawing was a portrait of his wife, Kate, who sat by his bedside weeping. Having filled his last days with scenes of Hell, it must have been with relief that he drew his wife, who he proclaimed to have “ever been an angel to me”.

The scene to be sold by Bonhams depicts the tragic lovers Paolo and Francesca entwined in a passionate embrace. Francesca had been tricked into marrying her husband Gianciotto, who was horribly disfigured, when Paolo, his brother, was sent to settle the nuptial contract. She fell in love with Paolo and was horrified to discover the deception. The two became lovers but when Gianciotto found them together one day, he lunged at Paolo with his sword. Francesca threw herself between the two men and was killed, as was Paolo soon afterwards. On account of their adultery the couple were condemned to the circle of Hell devoted to carnal lust, in which sinners are tossed and whirled on the winds, helpless in the tempests of passion.

The sale includes another work by William Blake, a study of a baby’s head in pencil and wash, estimated at £10,000-15,000. The baby is thought to be a member of John Linnell’s family. Linnell (1792-1882), who was a successful landscape artist, was particularly close to Blake and commissioned him to illustrate the Divine Comedy.