William Blake Exhibition at Tate Britain

William Blake self-portrait

William Blake self-portrait

This article first appeared in The TLS, October 18th 2019

I first met William Blake when I was ten years old. At primary school the class was set to learn by heart one of the poems in our colourful book of poetry for children. My hand shot up to claim Tyger for the incantatory magic of its words and the cunning of the picture, in which a tree climbed back up through the verses as one’s eyes reached the end. Our kindly teacher responded to my enthusiasm by telling me that this was the only page in the book where the same man who had written the words by hand had also painted the picture; one creation made of two activities. The school was in Clapham, an area known to Blake as part of the southern outskirts of London that he loved, such as ‘pleasant Camberwell’ and Peckham where I live now and where, also at the age of ten, Blake met his first emissaries from the visionary world, a sparkling cluster of angels gathered in a tree.

Five or six years later I did not have to look far for more of this magic artist since, on most Saturdays, I took the 88 bus from Clapham to the Tate Gallery. My visits would usually end in a special and dimly lit sanctuary hung with Blake’s watercolours, infinite riches in a little room.

Blake was born in 1757 and, supported by his parents, took up a seven year apprenticeship with an established engraver, James Bazire, who was strict but generous and over the years allowed Blake increasing responsibility and autonomy. This was followed by some months at the Royal Academy Schools with the customary disciplines of drawing from antique statuary and from life, which he growingly found an irksome alternative to ‘copying’ from the imagination.

Thereafter the bulk of his working days were spent as an engraver, largely reproducing the designs of other hands. It was an age when illustrated books were very much in fashion. There was work to be had in a career open not only to men but to women, such as Ann Taylor and Caroline Watson, who were well respected in what was regarded as craft rather than art, though it had its own luminaries such as Bartolozzi and Schiavonetti.

Ironically it was Schiavonetti who was involved in the only best seller, Blair’s Grave, whose designs were commissioned from Blake. Although these were accepted it was Schiavonetti (whom he later referred to as ‘Assassinetti') that was chosen to make the engravings.

The enterprise of reproductive engraving represents the other Blake who produced hundreds of scrupulous plates that are not shown in the exhibition for, however fine many of them are, even a selection would swell the show to the point of indigestibility. It is one of the pleasures of looking at books of the period to come across the words ‘Wm Blake sculpt.’ beneath a plate, as for example one does often in a grand opus such as Lavater’s Physiognomy.

The greatest good fortune that Blake enjoyed was to find Catherine whom he married in 1782. They were to be together until his death forty five years later. Though she is most often quoted as saying ‘I have very little of Mr Blake’s company; he is always in Paradise’ (a remark I take as an example of her good humour rather than complaint) theirs was a life of shared industry, as well as domesticity. Catherine was no Beatrice of the imagination but a living soul who handled inks and proofs and the binding of books as well as becoming growingly adept at the hand colouring of plates. To complement his world of visions (meeting with spirits and conversing with such as Milton) she provided a quotidian reminder of actuality. She also managed their often meagre finances, occasionally using the half jesting trick of putting before him at lunchtime an empty dish to remind him that it was time to get back to the various engraving commissions on which their existence depended.

What was essential to Blake was his wife’s faithful trust in that visionary world, which for him was no vaporous projection of imagination but a strict reality. She was never in doubt that this was a fact of his daily life and as normal to him as the tables and chairs in the room. In a notebook Blake touchingly summed up this sense of reassurance:

I have mental joys and mental health
Mental friends and mental wealth;
I’ve a wife that I love and that loves me,
I’ve all but riches bodily.

It was Catherine also that was the more able in dealing with what few patrons his creative work attracted, a stock of which afforded her a small income in the few years by which she survived him. A loyal Republican to the last she however refused a gift of a hundred pounds from the daughter of George III. The Songs of Innocence and Experience attracted a small clientele and her ability to print and colour these and other separate images was a godsend.

The longer texts and Prophetic books into which Blake put so much of his belief and energy were never in any proper sense published. Various combinations of sheets did however circulate in the world of private connoisseurship, though sales of them often had a charitable aspect. It is refreshing to see in the middle of this show a selection of bound volumes on display to assert Blake’s identity as a man of the book.

In these ambitious poems he adopted a personal form of free verse whose eccentricity matches that of his graphic work. He avoided ‘the modern bondage of rhyming… the monotony of blank verse as used by Shakespeare and Milton’. This led to ‘a variety in every line both of number and syllable. The terrific numbers… reserved for the terrific parts, the mild and gentle for the mild and gentle and the prosaic for inferior parts.’ Such categories in some sense provide a key to the designs which so often accompany them. Likewise the words had their other worldly source. Of the epic Jerusalem he claims ‘I have written this poem from immediate dictation, twelve or sometimes thirty lines at a time, without premeditation and often against my will.’

Much of his writing has not survived, including his many plays ‘each longer than Macbeth.’ No doubt these also had their ‘terrific’ parts though remaining fragments do not seem promising. A kind fate has left us with the best of him which is what the exhibition so amply supplies. Even here one can tire of languorous ladies in shifts and bearded men in nightshirts going through their celestial exercises. But soon one is halted by some new invention of stark simplicity or powerfully convoluted energy.

The Tate website gives the by now standard ‘warning’ that the exhibition’s visitor might meet nudity, violence, sexual excess etc. Blake himself might have formed that into an encouraging guarantee. As far as ‘sexually explicit’ elements I noticed only one, which indeed delivers a surrealistic shock, showing as it does Satan delivering the forbidden fruit to Eve in an intricate act of oral congress.

A show of images on the wall can never quite do justice to the poetic aspect of Blake’s work. It would be an unpopular visitor to a crowded exhibition who spends half an hour reading an entire page of the artist’s densely packed script. Before turning up I felt I should plunge once again into one of the Prophetic books which have always daunted me. The obvious choice had to be Europe: A Prophecy. ‘In troubled mists o’ercrowded by the terrors of struggling times’… so far so good, and the twice mentioned ‘Trump of the last doom’ raised a smile, but, in spite of gems like the wonderful phrase ‘the lineaments of gratified desire’ I was soon lost among the oddly named denizens of Blake’s all too personal mythology, finally coming to a halt with ‘Manathu-Vorcyan’ a creature whose title, apparently without etymology, meant nothing at all to me. This book will always however stand out because of the famous image that prefaces it, The Ancient of Days, which was his own favourite; so much so that refining its colouring for a final time was one of the last tasks he undertook. It is this picture that sells the event on the cover of the excellent catalogue, and on posters everywhere. Although ‘iconic’ is one of the laziest words in current use ‘ikonic’ fits the bill exactly.

From an exhibition of over three hundred works it is hard to select a few individual items. Naturally I remade my acquaintance of what I had seen in the same building seventy years ago. I was not disappointed. Nebuchadnezzar and the Ghost of a Flea still made flesh creep. I was surprised however to discover another link to my boyhood experience of graphic excitement, the early DC comics that came to my family in wartime parcels from America. Here also were superheroes and bestial villains (with their own mythologies) whirling in muscle-hugging outfits all linked by shaped panels of handwritten text. With their vivid colours, added to the tight line work in a separate operation, they had much in common with Blake’s own procedures.

As another connection with my own working life I began belatedly to appreciate what I can only call the stagecraft of so many of the designs. In picture after picture I saw, as if a curtain had just been raised, inventively lit scenes where characters were gathered in dynamic groups against scenery that echoed or predicted their movements; ballets about to spring to life. Who better to design and choreograph the Rite of Spring?

Occasionally I also experienced moments of technical jealousy, as when looking at the tiniest works on show, a group of wood engravings done to illustrate a school edition of Virgil’s Pastorals. I spent many hours at art school trying to master the technique of wood engraving, which involves using a tool to incise on end grain boxwood lines that would appear white when printed, the exact opposite of Blake’s normal practise of black line engraving on copper. He attacked the medium only once and mastered it completely at first attempt.

One single and singular exhibit that occupied me most was a pencil and wash self-portrait cautiously catalogued as ‘attributed to William Blake’. Though it was unfamiliar, it left me in no doubt as to its authenticity. There is surely no mistaking those features of fearful symmetry or those widespread eyes staring into another world, his Doors of Perception, uniquely cleansed. It is certainly not the standard me-in-a-mirror view of an artist’s face but rather an attempt to make a likeness of his envisioned soul. One wonders what the encyclopaedic Lavater would have made of this particular physiognomy.

One aspect of Blake’s prodigal abilities will forever elude us since he announced ‘I can be Poet, Painter and Musician as the inspiration comes.’ Like his wife he was a good singer and one account of him at a social gathering in his early years told of his singing poems ‘to tunes most singularly beautiful… which were noted down by musical professors.’ Blake sang to the very end of his life: as Catherine told a friend, ‘On the day of his death he composed and uttered songs to his maker so sweetly to the ear!’

It is intriguing to guess what these improvised settings were like. To have learned that the short poems existed in some cases not only with pictures but with melodies would have made my early appreciation of Tyger even greater. Blake has inspired many composers. Perhaps a setting nearest to the flavour of Blake’s own may be the elegiac version by Benjamin Britten of The Sick Rose. At the opposite end of the scale is Parry’s famous Jerusalem, which I heard only a few days ago sung at The Oval by a large section of a crowd of over 20,000 cricket spectators. Led by the beefy (and beery) male voices of the Barmy Army this sounded dangerously like the battle anthem of the Brexiteers.

Blake, the man, is best known to us from the sympathetic biography written by Alexander Gilchrist of 1868, written when many who knew the artist were still alive. As with Cézanne who attracted disciples late in life from a new generation of artists, Blake was befriended and supported by the likes of James Linnell and the even younger Samuel Palmer who was nineteen when he met his sixty-seven year old mentor.

It was Linnell who introduced to Blake the idea of illustrating Dante which led to some of his finest designs. The unfinished project occupied the last three years of Blake’s life. One can see that in Dante he had met his visionary match, since Dante writes in terms of walking and talking with Virgil and conversing with the dead and damned in exactly the way that Blake met and spoke with dignitaries of the past. The pictures have a substance and reality that quite escaped Blake’s erstwhile friend and supporter Flaxman, whose own illustrations to the Commedia were anaemic by comparison. Though suspicious of Dante’s politics Blake made efforts, by learning Italian (while of course studying Cary’s fine pioneering translation) in order to be even closer to the great Florentine. This group of pictures, some of which are inevitably in a sketchy state bring the exhibition to an impressive end. Not quite an end however since, as in almost all major exhibitions, one finds with tired and worn feet there is still a room or two to go.

The final flourish is one of the show’s rare miscalculations, a huge blow up of a small fresco (as Blake called his mostly self destroying experiments with gilding and body colour). The idea was to show the immense paintings that Blake hoped eventually to make with ‘figures a hundred foot high’. The result, using such a damaged source is incomprehensible. it is coupled with a reconstruction of the puny room in which he held his ill fated one man exhibition in 1809 which only a handful of people paid a shilling to see.

His reputation as a good and diligent craftsman would have carried little weight in the world of ‘fine art’ at the time. This was represented by figures such as Reynolds whose Discourses in Blake’s copy were peppered by intemperate abuse, especially since Reynolds was the country’s premier painter in oils, a process Blake categorises as ‘a fetter to genius and a dungeon to art.’ Not even Rubens, a ‘blockhead’, or Titian with his ‘sickly daubs’ escaped whipping in his writings. In fact Blake had only scant acquaintance with what were called ‘the old masters’ and approved mainly of those like Dürer whom he could know from their linear work. This sense of being underrated by a public (who largely in fact never saw the work here on ample show) provided the shadow side of Blake’s life. Otherwise he was an outgoing and genial man of robust good spirits. Palmer, writing to Gilchrist said ‘If asked whether I ever knew among the intellectual, a happy man, Blake would be the only one who would immediately occur to me.’