‘I can only tell it at night’: the nightmares of Henry Fuseli

Posted by maxfincher on March 07, 2011 in Dr Max Fincher, Guest Blog tagged with

In the Christmas of 1789, the artist Henry Fuseli was staying for a few days at Norbury Park in Surrey, with the amateur painter and art collector, William Locke and his wife Federica. In a letter to the celebrated novelist, Fanny Burney (author of Evelina 1788), Federica Locke describes how at breakfast one morning:

Fuseli mentioned a picture which he has just sketched from an ancient German Ballad and promised at night to relate the Story. For he said it must be at night. “I can only tell it at night.” (Weinglass, Letters, 49-50)

The picture that Fuseli refers to is a preparatory sketch (now lost) for his Wolfram introducing Betrand of Navarre to the place where he had confined his Wife, with the skeleton of her lover, which was exhibited at the Royal Academy’s summer exhibition in 1790 (the painting shown below is a later variation):

Federica Locke then proceeds to relate the story of the ballad to Fanny Burney, delighting in how Sir Betrand loses his way in a thunderstorm, comes upon a vast Gothic castle in a forest, sits down to a stately dinner with its owner, and sees a mysterious woman appear to him who drinks from a skull. The woman is his wife, and the skull, her lover, whom Betrand murders after he discovers her infidelity, and imprisons her alive in a dungeon with his corpse.

Federica remarks that Fuseli’s intention in telling the story is to inspire William Locke’s imagination: ‘Fuseli related this hoping that William might be tempted to sketch some part of it.’ Federica herself (re)visions the story in her letter, wishing for a turn of events that would ‘enable me to feel more sympathy for the Lady’. But her main purpose in writing is to fire Fanny Burney’s imagination:

My Locke bids me say that he strongly recommends this subject to you for an ancient Ballad, with such alterations, additions, and improvements as your own imagination may suggest. Do my dearest Fanny. It may while away the time. And when it is done, then let Sisters and Brothers see. Do you comprehend? (Weinglass, Letters, 51)

What emerges in this letter is that Fuseli acknowledges the powerful hold relating or reading aloud narratives about the supernatural exerted over the late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century imagination, captured perfectly in James Gillray’s famous caricature:

Fuseli’s insistence that the tale of Sir Bertrand must be told at night, to an appreciative audience, to stimulate William Locke’s visual imagination, testifies to his awareness of the cultural climate and appetite for the Gothic. But how far were writers of the Gothic influenced by artists like Fuseli and vice versa?

Certainly, Fuseli’s most famous painting, The Nightmare (1781), was extremely popular, and endlessly engraved. Gothic writers might have the image of Fuseli’s painting in their mind’s eye when describing such a phenomenon. John Polidori’s ‘The Vampyre’ (1819) describes a scene that is reminiscent of the painting, with Aubrey, the hapless victim of Ruthven the vampire:

…his enemy threw himself upon him, and kneeling upon his breast, had placed his hands upon his throat, when the glare of many torches penetrating through the hole that gave light in the day, disturbed him.

Fuseli was a great admirer of the English literary tradition, especially Milton, Shakespeare, Richardson, as well as Dante and classical literature. Similar to Horace Walpole in The Castle of Otranto (1765), Fuseli is attracted to the supernatural elements of plays like Hamlet, Macbeth and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But did Fuseli read Walpole’s novel or know of his Gothic drama, The Mysterious Mother (1768), in which Walpole acknowledges the source of the Betrand ballad in a postscript? It is difficult to know, but it is probably unlikely. Federica Locke tells us that, in 1789 at least, ‘Clarissa and Sir Charles Grandison are the only Novels he has read’, and encourages him to read Fanny Burney’s novels.

Previous to becoming an artist in Britain, Fuseli had been a practising minister in the church in his native Zurich, but he lost his faith after reading Enlightenment philosophers like Rousseau and Voltaire. Nevertheless he retained a belief in the supernatural and witches, saying ‘great and good men in all times had believed in them’. His art explores the themes commonly found in Gothic fiction, death, madness, imprisonment, polymorphous sexuality and the supernatural, themes found in Shakespeare and Elizabethan revenge tragedy.

Nevertheless, one cannot say that either Walpole or Fuseli saw themselves or their art in comparable terms, as we might today; ‘Gothic’ would have been a term or critical disparagement for Fuseli. When Fuseli exhibited The Mandrake: A Charm in 1785, Walpole commented that Fuseli’s painting was ‘Shockingly mad…strange…Madder than ever’, a comment that, ironically, might be applied to Walpole’s own novel. As the foremost Fuseli scholar, Martin Myrone has observed, artists like Fuseli, Blake and Gillray and others ‘share the same range of new strategic possibilities regarding audiences, marketing and the power of sensation. Which is not to say that they directly emulated Gothic writers or would have wanted to be seen doing so’ (Myrone, Frayling and Warner, Gothic Nightmares, 35). Ann Radcliffe used the landscape paintings by seventeenth-century artists, Salvator Rosa and Claude Lorrain, as inspiration for her descriptions of France and Italy. But it would be difficult to argue that Fuseli found inspiration in Gothic fiction for his paintings.

The biographical portrait we have of Fuseli presents him as a figure not out of place in a Gothic novel. A complex man, Fuseli was a member of the art establishment, occupying the post of Keeper of the Royal Academy of Art from 1804, and later Professor of Painting from 1810. He advocated a close observation from nature to the students in the life classes, and lauded Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. Yet as Myrone notes, he was reportedly perceived as ‘a wild, anti-social eccentric, much given to foul language and daring proclamations against conformity’ (Myrone, ‘Gothic Romance and the Quixotic Hero’, p.2). Often referred to ‘the Wizard’ painter, Fuseli kept a private cabinet of erotic, and sometimes pornographic sketches which feature castrating, phallic women in every possible sexual position and variation. Fuseli also sketched and painted the Greek male lovers, Achilles and Patroclus, from Homer’s The Illiad. Many of these private sketches, including perhaps the more queer subjects, were subsequently destroyed after his death:

Byron believed that Ezzelin Musing over Meduna (first exhibited 1780) was taken from a real subject, yet Fuseli told him that he created the subject out of his own imagination. Could Fuseli’s painting in turn have influenced Byron’s poem Manfred perhaps? It is a tempting thought.

Marie Mulvey Roberts has noted, Fuseli painting of The Rosicrucian Cavern (1804) was very likely an influence upon Mary Shelley’s novel.

Certainly, we should not underestimate that Fuseli was deeply attracted to telling stories of the supernatural, even if he did not read gothic novels by contemporary writers. As Federica Locke recalls, while Fuseli was staying with her: ‘Spectres was one of the subjects and produced many extraordinary stories told with all the fire of poetic genius’ (Weinglass, Letters, 41). That Fuseli painted in such a way too, makes him the pre-eminent Gothic painter of eighteenth-century Britain.


John Knowles, The Life and Writings of Henry Fuseli: Keeper and Professor of Painting to the Royal Academy in London: Volume I (London: Henry Colburn and Richard Bentley, 1831)

Martin Myrone, Gothic Nightmares: Fuseli, Blake and the Romantic Imagination (London: Tate Publishing, 2006)

Martin Myrone, Henry Fuseli (London: Tate Publishing, 2001)

Martin Myrone, ‘Henry Fuseli and Gothic Spectacle’, The Huntington Library Quarterly 70:2 (2007) 289-312

Martin Myrone, ‘Gothic Romance and the Quixotic Hero: a pageant for Henry Fuseli’ Tate Papers

Marie Mulvey Roberts, ‘Mary Shelley: Immortality, Gender and the Rosy Cross’ in Reviewing Romanticism ed. Philip W. Martin and Robin Jarvis (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992) pp.60-68.

David H. Weinglass, The Collected English Letters of Henry Fuseli (London: Kraus International Publications, 1982)

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