As a poet and artist, William Blake had a highly personal response to John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667). According to one story, Thomas Butts found Blake and his wife in their summer house in Lambeth, nude and reciting parts of the poem. Blake reportedly cried ‘Come in! … It’s only Adam and Eve, you know!’[1]

The truth of this wonderful story is open to question, but there’s no doubt that Milton played a vital role in Blake’s life and work. He produced books inspired by the poet, designs for Milton’s Comus (1801), as well as pencil sketches, paintings and three sets of illustrations to Paradise Lost.

The first set of 12, in pen and watercolour, was produced in 1807 for the Reverend Joseph Thomas. The second set, also of 12, was commissioned a year later by Thomas Butts; and the final set, of which three are known, was made for John Linnell in 1822.

What is special about the ‘Butts Set’ of illustrations of Paradise Lost?

The images shown here are from the famous ‘Butts Set’. These nine are held together in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, while two others are kept in the Huntington Library and at the Victoria & Albert Museum.

Thomas Butts (1757‒1845) was one of Blake’s major patrons. A clerk in the government office in charge of military pay, Butts had a modest income, but he must have had access to another source of cash to enable him to fund so many of Blake’s paintings, prints and books.

The ‘Butts Set’ is more vividly coloured and almost twice the size of the ‘Thomas Set’ of illustrations. The figures are more prominent, detailed and well defined than in the earlier versions. Blake’s images of God, Christ, Adam, Eve and Satan, combine spiritual radiance with a powerfully human strength, physicality and emotion.

Which paintings are shown here?

  1. Christ accepting the Office of Redeemer (Book 3, l. 227). Satan floats below God and his angels, with a spear in his hand.
  2. Satan watching the Caresses of Adam and Eve (Book 4, l. 492).
  3. Adam and Eve Sleeping (Book 4, l. 798). The angels Ithuriel and Zephon hover above them. 
  4. The Archangel Raphael and Adam and Eve (Book 5, l. 443).
  5. The Casting of the Rebel Angels into Hell (Book 6, l. 835).
  6. The Creation of Eve (Book 8, l. 470).
  7. The Temptation and Fall of Eve (Book 9, l. 791).
  8. Michael Foretelling the Crucifixion to Adam (Book 12, l. 411). Eve sleeps below the Cross.
  9. The Expulsion from Eden (Book 12, l. 632). Michael leads Adam and Eve out of Paradise.

[1] Alexander Gilchrist, Life of William Blake, ‘Pictor ignotus’ (London, 1863), Vol. 1, p. 115.