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William Blake: What Immortal Hand or Eye

William Blake, the artist and poet who died in obscurity only to be resurrected decades later as one of Britain’s favorite sons, gets rediscovered yet again.

William Blake, Newton, 1795-c. 1805,

William Blake, Newton, 1795-c. 1805, color print, ink, and watercolor on paper, 460 x 600 mm

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In 1809, William Blake staged an exhibition of his paintings in the domestic room above his family’s London haberdashery shop at 28 Broad Street. To the present-day art aficionado accustomed to all manner of pop-up exhibitions in locations intended for otherwise practical uses (this writer alone can readily think of a sculpture show in the McDonald’s fast food restaurant on Canal Street in New York and an avant-garde music set in the basement of a Bensonhurst dance academy), Blake’s exhibition sounds like a pretty hip scene.

The painter, engraver, and poet wasn’t the first to stage a rogue art show in London at the turn of the 19th century—the Irish-born Nathaniel Hone and Swiss-born Henry Fuseli gave them a stab in the 1770s and 1790s respectively, while J.M.W. Turner started routinely exhibiting his work at his Harley Street house in 1804 and had found considerable success in doing so by 1808.

Blake, unfortunately, wouldn’t achieve the same success. His “Exhibition of Paintings in Fresco, Poetical and Historical Inventions,” which featured 16 paintings and an accompanying Descriptive Catalogue, received only a few visitors despite its 12-month run and generated zero sales. Its sole review, by Robert Hunt writing for The Examiner, not only described Blake as “an unfortunate lunatic” but also called his works wretched and his catalogue unintelligible. Needless to say, the exhibition was a failure.

From September 11 through February 2, the ill-fated show will get a second chance at “William Blake,” a new exhibition at Tate Britain. The hulking presentation puts more than 300 works on view, shining a light on the visionary artist’s enduring place in British art history and modern culture. For those primarily acquainted with Blake as a Romantic poet, the exhibition will be a primer on his image making, and for those familiar with his graphic output, aspects of his process, like his wife Catherine’s role as a watercolorist on many of his prints, will come as a surprise. But in perhaps its biggest revelation, Tate Britain will recreate the Broad Street room and Blake’s solo exhibition, allowing contemporary viewers to experience Blake’s paintings just as, well, a few people did in 1809.

Included in the restaging will be The Spiritual Form of Nelson Guiding Leviathan (circa 1805–09, tempera on canvas) and The Spiritual Form of Pitt Guiding Behemoth (circa 1805, tempera on gold on canvas), two paintings the artist hoped to get national commissions to enlarge. Blake envisioned these works as monumental public frescoes with colors “as pure and as permante [sic] as precious stones” and figures “one hundred feet in height.” The Tate has realized this dream for Blake, in a way: both paintings will be digitally enlarged and projected on walls near the original canvases. Though Blake seems to have been irritable and quick to take the unpopular opinion, this writer will go out on a limb here and say he would have liked this display.

The “Exhibition of Paintings in Fresco, Poetical and Historical Inventions” was Blake’s only significant attempt to enter the London art world as a painter and can be seen as a sort of symbol for the whole of his career. A native of the city, he had trained as an engraver and supported himself and his wife with this trade. But in the lead-up to the 1809 show, Blake was coming off what was probably his biggest success within the art establishment—his illustration of a luxury edition of Robert Blair’s 1743 poem The Grave (1805–08). The edition, published and rigorously promoted by Robert Hartley Cromek, was praised by Fuseli and the sculptor John Flaxman and found subscribers in several Academicians, the patrons Thomas Hope and William Locke, engravers Thomas Bewick and John Landseer, and architect Sir John Soane. No doubt, Blake was looking to capitalize on this success.

The show, however, suffered for several reasons. For one, the works were in watercolor or tempera, which the Royal Academy recognized as inferior to oil. They featured heavy outline, a stylistic feature Blake prized as a sign of individualism but the informed viewer likely saw as unfinished or antiquated. The exhibition’s Broad Street address was not close enough to the Strand, London’s hub for leisure activities, and thus attracted little foot traffic. The neighborhood of his family’s business had changed at the turn of the century, with tenants of artistic or specialized professions replaced by blue-collar workers. The exhibition also had considerable competition—the London art world’s biggest event, the Royal Academy’s summer exhibition, was running at the same time that Blake opened his show. Blake did this purposely, and he also, rather audaciously, charged the same admission as the Academy’s show—one shilling (additionally, his catalogue was priced at two and a half shillings). Though Blake had attended the Academy and had two of his watercolors included in one of its shows as recently as a year before, he felt spurned by the institution and was critical of its first president, Sir Joshua Reynolds. In fact, if there was one thing his “unintelligible” catalogue made clear, it was his disdain for the London art world’s powers that be.

The exhibition also piggybacked on Blake’s falling out with Cromek. After The Grave, Blake set out to illustrate the characters of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and sell it as an engraving. He shared the idea with Cromek. Blake would later accuse Cromek of stealing it after the publisher released an identical project with Thomas Stothard as artist instead. While the Cromek-Stothard endeavor became a success, Blake’s work, titled The Canterbury Pilgrims, did not. In efforts to promote it, he gave the work pride of place in the 1809 exhibition and devoted much of his catalogue to a largely ignored analysis of Chaucer’s writing. For the next decade, Blake would make new impressions from the plate despite a lack of interest from buyers.

The Canterbury Pilgrims was not made in vain, however. Like so much of Blake’s work it would be rediscovered in the late 19th century and re-released throughout the 20th. It became one of his most recognized images, with an impression entering the Tate’s collection as recently as 2016. His writings in the Descriptive Catalogue became a seminal and regularly anthologized work of Chaucer criticism. Eventually people got it—Blake’s story in a nutshell.

Blake died in obscurity in 1827. His reputation was that of a hopeless kook. His engravings of The Grave, Edward Young’s Night Thoughts, the Book of Job from the Bible and Dante’s Divine Comedy (which he never finished) and a brief mention in Alan Cunningham’s 1830 Lives of the Most Eminent British Painters made up the bulk of his wan legacy as an artist. His “Prophetic Books”—illuminated volumes of writings and poetry that he began self-publishing around the 1790s—were not in the public consciousness. The fan base for his poetry was comprised of a small group of young men who dubbed themselves “The Ancients”—today’s equivalent might be a lively sub Reddit.

Blake’s revival hit a snag when Alexander Gilchrist, an enthusiastic barrister-turned-art critic-turned-biographer and acquaintance of the Pre-Raphaelite Dante Gabriel Rossetti (who had some unpublished works by Blake in his collection), died in 1861 while writing a biography of the artist. Gilchrist’s wife Anne, a writer who published magazine stories on scientific subjects and had been assisting him all along, finished the two-volume biography, which was published in 1863. The thorough and artful Life of William Blake was an immediate hit with the likes of Robert Browning and the Pre-Raphaelites. Art dealers responded in the ensuing years by reprinting Blake’s work, and William Butler Yeats edited an important edition of Blake’s collected writings in 1893. Blake’s cultural influence thereafter, on everyone from Jung and Freud to the Surrealists, beat poets, and members of the ’60s counterculture, need not be discussed.

A standout of the Tate’s show is the engraved and hand-painted Songs of Innocence and of Experience (1794), a major achievement of radical poetry that made nary a dent during Blake’s lifetime (it sold less than 20 copies in three decades). The elegantly illustrated volume includes “The Tyger,” which was the only poem anthologized before the Blake revival and is now considered by some to be the most anthologized poem in the English language.

Iconic images from later in Blake’s oeuvre, such as Ghost of a Flea (circa 1819–20, tempera and gold on mahogany), will also pervade the Tate’s show. The image presents an apparition Blake claims to have seen rushing down his stairs at him two decades earlier. He conjured the ghostly image again in 1818 in a séance imposed on him by the artist and astrologer John Varley (though, it should be noted Blake was open to supernatural revelations). As it appeared before him, Blake sketched the spirit, which told the artist that fleas were possessed by the souls of bloodthirsty men—their grand, murderous schemes reduced, in proportion to their scale, to mere bites on the leg. Varley commissioned a finished version of the sketch, which in turn became Ghost of a Flea. In the image, the striding humanoid insect gazes into a cup of blood it holds in its hand, its eyes crazed and ravenous.

The exuberant color engraving Albion Rose (circa 1793), the work that opens the Tate exhibition, conjures a brighter vision. Also known as Glad Day, this particular version of the image comes from The Huntington Library in Los Angeles. Etched around 1793 and printed around 1796, it was originally part of a volume of the artist’s prophetic book “The Song of Los.” The image features a male nude standing on a rock, his arms outstretched in a gesture of openness that would make a flying squirrel feel uptight. A prismatic burst of color is behind him, cradling and framing his ideal form. In Blake’s mythology Albion, a giant, was the son of Poseidon. He was the mythic founder and personification of England. While the earth below him is dark, he springs forth in brilliant light, a symbol of universal humanity. It has come to stand for freedom, revolutionary political action (Blake was a supporter of the French and American revolutions during the time of Albion Rose’s making and an enduring critic of organized religion), and counter-culture. Alexander—or Anne—Gilchrist called Blake a “gentle yet fiery-hearted mystic”—a descriptor that feels applicable to this rendering of Albion.

The Gilchrists wrote something else about Blake that would have been a fitting “clapback,” as they call it today, to Robert Hunt and any other critic of the artist’s unusual 1809 art show: “Does not prophet or hero always seem ‘mad’ to the respectable mob, and to polished men of the world…?”

By Sarah E. Fensom

Author: Art & Antiques Magazine | Publish Date: August 2019

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