ArtWeekend

The Tumultuous Times of William Blake

Blake was received by his contemporaries as either extremely odd or completely mad or perhaps both.

William Blake, “Newton” (1795 – c.1805), color print, ink and watercolor on paper, 460 x 600 mm, Tate Britain (all images courtesy Tate Britain unless otherwise noted)

LONDON – The great visionary painter William Blake (!757-1827) was a contrarian from first to last. He was often at war with his contemporaries, his patrons (such as they were), and the institutions of the day – such as the recently established Royal Academy. 

Blake reserved some of his most stinging rebukes for its first president, the grand and suspiciously amiable society portraitist Sir Joshua Reynolds, scribbling curses and vituperations in the margins of Reynolds’ Discourses on Art for what Blake regarded as Reynolds’ calamitous, smoothly turned excursions into wrong-headedness. You could call Blake out of key with his times, as Ezra Pound once described Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, one of Pound’s alter egos in a famous sequence of poems. That, however, would be true only in part.

This new exhibition at Tate Britain, the first large-scale survey of Blake’s prints, illustrated books, and paintings in three decades, tells his story chronologically. It embeds him, socially and intellectually, within the tumultuous times through which he lived — the American Revolution, the French Revolution and the seemingly endless Peninsular Wars all played out during his lifetime — and tells us how he was received as an artist.

William Blake, “Portrait of William Blake” (1802), pencil with black, white, and gray washes, 243 x 201 mm, Collection Robert N. Essick

How was he received? With a degree of incredulity by most, is the answer. The man was either extremely odd or completely mad or perhaps both. It all began relatively uncontroversially. Blake, who was born on Broad Street, Soho, London, the son of a shopkeeper, and lived at various addresses in the capital for all but three years of his relatively long life, had ambitions to be an artist from a very young age, and his parents, who were in the hosiery business, paid for him to go to the Royal Academy Schools to be taught. 

Some of his earliest pencil drawings, faint and unfinished, are on the walls of the exhibition. Someone has even manhandled over from the Royal Academy an 18th-century plaster cast of a nude portrait of Cincinnatus fiddling with his sandal that Blake drew from. He was encouraged to be a copyist of the Antique, and he did it dutifully well.

What we now recognize is that in spite of Blake’s lifelong commitment to his own visions, his own curious and often baffling re-writings and re-interpretations of mythology, is that much of him remained in style, and in essence, a neoclassical artist — and this in spite of the fact that the subject matter of much of his work is firmly encamped on the wilder shores of Romanticism. 

William Blake, “Albion Rose” (c. 1793), color engraving, 250 x 211 (courtesy of the Huntington Art Collections)

Just see how he habitually paints his clusters of maidens, from first to last, even when they are about to be wafted up into the Empyrean — and so many beings waft around all the time in Blake’s work. Aside from the clothes, these dames belong in a London drawing room, circa 1780.

 Such were Blake’s innovative skills as a printmaker (and we see this, to dazzling effect, in this exhibition over and over again), that he has always been justly celebrated for bringing together word and image as never before, of creating books where his own poems, painstakingly written, line by line, in his own fine, regular, tiny hand, embed themselves within a visual world, which is also of his own creation. 

These long illustrated poems – Jerusalem, Milton, America: a Prophecy and several others — are the natural heirs to the illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages. A related question arises. Has anyone ever really — and I mean really really — understood Blake’s long visionary poems? No. Does this exhibition even bother to try? No. That is a sensible decision. 

William Blake, “‘Europe’ Plate I: Frontispiece, ‘The Ancient of Days'” (1827), etching with ink and watercolor on paper, 232 x 120 mm, The Whitworth, The University of Manchester

Looking at all these plates laid out before us, we recognize now that vandalism of a kind has served us well. These poems, once published as complete books, were often dismembered and pulled apart by later owners. Blake himself was up to meting out a bit of rough treatment when it came to dealing with the products of his own hand. He would publish individual plates separately because they were proving to be particularly popular with the buyers. Blake, in common with the rest of humankind, then and now, forever needed the money. What we admire, always, is the minute attention he gives to the smallest thing.

And yet Blake did not necessarily want to work small – much of his print work, which often necessitated rigorously pent dimensions, caused him to rail not only against working within such limitations, but also of being robbed of his precious time – and he declared as much on the occasion of his only public exhibition ever staged in his lifetime, which happened above his brother’s shop at 28 Broad Street, a short hop from where he was born. 

Blake, in a thunderous Descriptive Catalogue to accompany the show, declared that he wanted his work to be shown 30 meters high, like the greatest of frescos, so that the world would at last be driven to its knees in acknowledgement of his greatness. It did not happen. The show was a commercial disaster. The only notice from a critic declared him mad, the victim of his own delusions. Blake vowed never to show in public again.

William Blake, “The Ghost of a Flea” (c.1819), graphite on paper, tempera and gold on mahogany, 214 x 162 mm, Tate Britain

In fact, Blake almost always worked relatively small even when unconstrained, and the only (fairly) large painting of his in this show, the relatively little-known Virgin and Child in Egypt (1810) is by no means a masterpiece. On the other hand, when he worked small – as in The Ghost of a Flea (c.1819-20) — the subject matter seems to be perfectly suited to its size, and to be entirely in tune with what had brought it into being. 

This painting, as dark as it is tiny, is the perfect embodiment of what Blake himself described its visionary moment of conception — an image vouchsafed from Elsewhere. Some spirit whispered it into his ear, and Blake felt compelled to paint the likeness of this strange demon. 

It is difficult to describe the atmosphere of this wonderful painting. It feels pent and – yes – secretive, as if, were it to exist on any larger scale, it would expose itself too much to the cold, hard, withering light of analytical reason. It is a tight fist of prowling malevolence, almost Shakespearean in its strange, brassy strut. And it is so dark that it is almost invisible.

William Blake continues at Tate Britain (Millbank, Westminster, London) through February 2.

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