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November 2019, No. 1400 – Vol 161

William Blake. Tate Britain, London

Exhibition Review

William Blake. Tate Britain, London

By ESTHER CHADWICK

As bookends to Tate’s first major William Blake exhibition in nearly two decades, the curators, Martin Myrone and Amy Concannon, have chosen two single-sheet works, each small yet full of visual energy: Albion rose (cat. no.1; Fig.16) and ‘Europe’ plate I: frontispiece, ‘The Ancient of Days’ (in the Manchester impression, supposedly coloured by Blake in the final days of his life; no.166; Fig.17). Together these coloured prints announce a familiar Blakean struggle between the bright optimism of creative inspiration and the darker power of authority from on high. They epitomise a ‘contrary’ relationship, in Blake’s terms, between Imagination and Reason, between the liberating potential of art and its dialectical, self-enslaving other. Each image could be understood as a representation of characters from Blake’s vast personal mythology: Los, the imaginative artist, who is also ‘the prophet of eternity’, and Urizen, the ‘self-contemplating shadow’, the god-like circumscriber with whom Los grapples for freedom.

The large body of work on display at Tate Britain invites viewers to consider Blake’s own career as one of such ‘contraries’ – prolific, inspired, successful at times, but variously threatened or oppressed (in his own mind, at least) by the world in which he nevertheless sought to find a place. Celebrated here is Blake’s ability to overcome the opponents, material and ideological, of what he called ‘real Art’, and to continue to produce works of astounding richness and energy until his last days. The exhibition is structured chronologically with five principal sections: ‘Blake Be An Artist!’; Making Prints, Making a Living; Patronage and Independence; Independence and Despair; and ‘A New Kind of Man’. Elaborated further in the accompanying book,(1) each attends to the major phases of Blake’s life as a visual artist, from his training at the Royal Academy in the 1770s to his apotheosis in the 1820s as a Romantic visionary at the hands of the group of artists who called themselves the Ancients, led by Samuel Palmer and John Linnell.

There are inevitable overlaps with the major Tate exhibitions of 1978 and 2000,(2) but Blake’s network of patrons, his London geography, the definitive contribution of his wife, Catherine, and, in particular, the experience of his one-man exhibition in 1809 are notable emphases. Despite the curators’ insistence on the importance of historicising Blake, the exhibition does not especially foreground historical context. It is unapologetically monographic; only some twenty works by others feature among over three hundred overall. Neither does it look in any depth at the materials and methods of Blake’s craft, as did the exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, in 2014.(3) The curators have admirably synthesised much new Blake scholarship, although limited interest is shown in an emergent ‘global’ Blake, encompassing the artist’s fascination with Indian art, an aspect that has been examined by scholars such as David Weir.(4) His reception far beyond Britain is hinted at briefly in the display of José Joaquin de Mora’s Meditaciones poéticas (1826; University of Liverpool Library; no.117). Illustrated by the plates originally designed for Robert Blair’s The Grave, it was destined for a South American market.

Embedded in this exhibition is a meta-argument about how we study Blake as an artist. Myrone provides a useful historiographical reflection in his introduction to the catalogue. While outlining divergent ‘schools’ of Blake scholarship and highlighting the multiplicity of interpretative possibilities afforded by a single work, embraced in what he calls the ‘Blake for all’ mode (p.14), he and Concannon recommend a ‘determinedly historicist and materialist’ (p.14) approach in the tradition established by David Erdman and E.P. Thompson in the mid-twentieth century. According to Myrone, ‘Blake’s failures, and his successes, are equally social facts’ (p.16). One of the ways in which Blake is brought down to earth is by including the prices paid for various commissions, notably the commercial engravings on which he relied for an income. Drawing on research recently complied by G.E. Bentley,(5) the curators are able to inform viewers, for example, that the artist was paid £10 for ten drawings and over £120 for the engravings carried out for Mary Wollstonecraft’s 1792 translation of C.G. Salzmann’s Elements of Morality (this at a time when an ordinary servant might earn around £4 a year). Sarah Haggarty’s Blake’s Gifts is also foundational to the curators’ understanding of Blake as an economic creature.(6)

After a section showcasing Blake’s work for Blair’s Grave and the peak of his renown as a designer – evidenced by Thomas Phillip’s well-known portrait of Blake of 1807 (National Portrait Gallery, London; no.110) – visitors arrive at a hiatus. Blake conceived of his solo show of 1809 as a means to exhibit ‘The grand Style of Art restored’.(7) Sixteen works in tempera and watercolour, each accompanied by manifesto-like catalogue explanations, were displayed above the family’s haberdashery shop in Broad Street, Soho (a street that was beginning to show signs of economic decline). The exhibition was a disaster, one critic famously calling it the work of an ‘unfortunate lunatic’. Tate has built a three-sided box within the gallery, with three sash windows, wooden floorboards and low ceiling, as a partial ‘evocation’ (rather than a precise reconstruction) of the space. Blake’s insistence on the ‘restoration’ of lost art lends an irony to this installation, which conveys a sense of absence and the unrecoverable. The room is dark, the pictures obscure. Every ten minutes, in an attempt to show how they might originally have looked, coloured projections illuminate two of the temperas, The spiritual form of Nelson guiding Leviathan (c.1805–09; Tate; no.123) and The spiritual form of Pitt guiding Behemoth (c1805; Tate; no.124). When the lights fade, Blake’s discoloured images all but disappear. An empty frame has been mounted on the adjacent gallery wall to mark the size of The ancient Britons, now lost but in 1809 the largest of the works on display. Nearby, the sense of unfulfilled ambition is enforced by a digitally manipulated photograph showing a huge blow-up of the Crucifixion watercolour (c.1805; Tate; no.69) above the altar of St James’s Piccadilly. This offers an idea of the scale on which Blake may have hoped to work, although the neighbouring digital installation, panning over the Spiritual form temperas at enormous magnification, makes a strange addition. Blake said he wished to execute these pictures at ‘one hundred feet in height’, but he may not have meant it so literally.

From the gloom, we emerge into the brightness of a final burst of energy in the 1820s. Notable here is the inclusion of twenty-eight watercolours illustrating Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (1824–27; private collection; nos.159–64). These were deaccessioned by the Frick Collection, New York, in 1995, apparently on account of Catherine Blake’s involvement in the colouring, but are here displayed alongside a number of Blake’s luminous Dante watercolours (1824–27; nos.142–58), many on loan from the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne (no.145; Fig.18). The exhibition affords numerous opportunities to view Blake’s watercolours in series, often by reuniting works dispersed in multiple collections. It is enhanced by choice loans of exceptional quality and provenance. Henry Fuseli’s copy of For Children (1793; Yale Center for British Art, New Haven; ex-cat.) is one of a selection of Blake’s books in original or early bindings, and The First Book of Urizen (Copy G) (1794, printed c.1818; Library of Congress, Washington DC; no.58) is a gilded jewel. A number of hanging decisions stand out for their elegance and good judgment, such as the juxtaposition of Blake’s student Drawing of legs of Cincinnatus (c.1779–80; Bolton Museum & Archive; no.9) with the Royal Academy’s eighteenthcentury cast of the sculpture itself (no.8), probably the very object from which he drew. The Tate’s objective is to offer a sense of how Blake’s contemporaries experienced his work. But where it is most successful is in providing something none of them could have enjoyed: a retrospective overview in which we can see how forms and themes appearing early on recur and are reiterated throughout the artist’s career.

1. Catalogue: William Blake. By Martin Myrone and Amy Concannon with anafterword by Alan Moore. 224 pp. incl. 200 col. ills. (Tate Publishing, London, 2019), £25. ISBN 978–1–84976–644–9.

2. The exhibitions were reviewed by David Bindman in this Magazine, 120 (1978), pp.418–19 and 421; and 143 (2001), pp.172–74.

3. Reviewed by David Scrase in this Magazine, 157 (2015), pp.206–07; see also M.W. Phillips: exh. cat. William Blake: Apprentice & Master, Oxford (Ashmolean Museum) 2014.

4. D. Weir: Brahma in the West: William Blake and the Oriental Renaissance, Albany 2003.

5. G.E. Bentley Jr.: William Blake in the Desolate Market, Montreal 2014.

6. S. Haggarty: Blake’s Gifts: Poetry and the Politics of Exchange, Oxford 2010.

7. M. Myrone, ed.: ‘Seen in My Visions’: A Descriptive Catalogue of Pictures, London 2009. 

For further reading, from our archive: 

William Blake and Popular Religious Imagery, by David Bindman (1986)