This striking set of etchings illustrating John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667) was produced in 1896 by the British printmaker and painter, William Strang (1859–1921). This set is number 98 of a limited edition of 150, which were mounted and bound with a decorated front-board.

William Strang’s illustrations for Paradise Lost

William Strang was born in Dumbarton in Scotland, and moved to London to attend the Slade School of Art in 1876. Strang became involved in the movement to revive the status of etching, but later focussed on painting portraits and imagined scenes.

Strang’s ten etchings for Paradise Lost place the poem’s characters at their centre. Unlike John Martin’s sublime landscapes with their tiny figures, Strang’s prints are dominated by the forms of God and Satan, Sin and Death, Adam and Eve. Their bodies are boldly outlined in the style of Renaissance sculpture, or paintings by Rembrandt and Albrecht Dürer.

Milton and music

Some critics have suggested that Paradise Lost has a powerful aural quality, and there are references to ‘celestial’ song and music throughout the poem. One of the first etchings in Strang’s series portrays Milton playing music to his daughters, who are singing from a song sheet. The family scene seems inspired by Dr Thomas Newton’s description of Milton unwinding at the end of his working day: ‘After his severer studies, and after dinner… he used to divert and unbend his mind with playing upon the organ or bass-viol, which was a great relief to him after he had lost his sight; for he was a master of music as was his father’.[1]

[1] Thomas Newton, ‘The Life of Milton’, in Paradise Lost … A new edition, with notes of various authors (London, 1749), Vol. 1, p. li.