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Tate to show hidden Blakes

Consumed by flames, contorted in ecstasy ... William Blake's lost depictions of the torments of hell have been acquired by the Tate

Tormented images of human figures consumed by flames, floundering in murky waters or contorted in ecstasy or anguish, by one of the greatest and oddest geniuses in British art, William Blake, have been acquired by the Tate after a £441,000 fundraising appeal.

The rich, dense, hand-applied colour is as fresh as if newly made, on eight sheets which were lost for almost 200 years until they turned up tucked into an Edwardian international train timetable in a box of secondhand books.

They were inherited by Blake's widow, Catherine, who had worked on them as his studio assistant, when he died in 1827. A note on the back of the sheets records she gave them to a man called Frederick Tatham – but then they disappeared without trace until a book lover bought them at a sale in north London in 1978. He wishes to remain anonymous, but last year offered them to the Tate as a single group if it could raise the purchase price. The money came from Tate members and patrons, the public, and a £141,000 donation from the Art Fund charity – whose new director, Stephen Deuchar, has just left as head of Tate Britain.

They have been exhibited just once since they were found, to protect the colour, but will go on display at the Tate next summer. Next winter they will be seen at the Pushkin museum in Moscow, in an exhibition on Blake and British art.

Blake, who chatted with the angels he saw perched in a tree, and sat naked in his London garden with Catherine, emulating what he saw as the lost innocence of Adam and Eve, created the etchings through a complicated process he largely invented.

The etchings, hand-printed and finished in pen and ink and layers of colour, were created as separate individual works, but based on images from his series of books in the 1790s in which he created his own prophetic universe.

Alison Smith, the Tate curator who has been working on the plates, said: "There is something deeply visceral about them – you feel they take you straight into the mind of Blake."

"This set is unique because they have terse but powerful captions added by Blake: the figure in flames is captioned 'I sought pleasure and found pain unutterable' – that says it all, really." © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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