Seen in My Visions

Seen in My Visions: A Descriptive Catalogue of Pictures. William Blake (edited by Martin Myrone).
London: Tate Publishing, 2009. pp. 128. £12.99. ISBN: 978 1 85437 863 7.

Published to accompany the exhibition at Tate Britain last year that recreated Blake’s private show of 1809, this small, elegant book presents Blake’s once neglected Descriptive Catalogue with quiet, understated authority. Much of this, of course, is due to the great change in status that Blake’s work has undergone since his death, yet the collection of colour plates presented here, along with the Catalogue itself and Martin Myrone’s introduction and notes, provides Blake’s one-man show with a cultural significance that would have astonished the Romantic artist’s contemporaries.

Seen in My Visions is divided into four sections: Myrone’s introduction and a bibliographical note is followed by the Descriptive Catalogue itself as well as the paintings that were included in the Tate 2009 exhibition. The volume concludes with a glossary of art terms used by Myrone and Blake. Myrone’s essay, “The grand Style of Art restored”, is concise but extremely informative, providing within its few pages a surprisingly comprehensive (and comprehensible) account of the contexts of the fine art scene as it existed in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Myrone’s main concern is the institutional practice of the Royal Academy, designed as a showcase to promote contemporary British artists and one that very quickly prompted opposition that resulted in alternative one-man shows, beginning with Nathaniel Hone’s exhibition in 1775. Leading artists such as Gainsborough, Barry and Fuseli sought alternatives to the hegemony of the Academy; as such, Blake’s decision to exhibit was by no means as eccentric as (in the eyes of those few contemporaries who saw them) were the works of art on display. As Myrone concludes, Blake was not that unusual, and many artists “had tried to acquire a public reputation, and avoid the pitfalls of the big annual exhibitions, by setting up their own shows” (p. 18).

While Myrone effectively contextualises Blake within a sphere of contemporary practice that was not, then, particularly unusual, the Descriptive Catalogue itself cannot but appear idiosyncratic even after two centuries. The longest section of text describes a a painting of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales which emulated a Gothic, medieval style that was considerably out of favour with early nineteenth-century tastes. Charles Lamb described this as one of the finest pieces of criticism he had ever seen, and certainly it demonstrates Blake’s incisive opinions, but other readers such as the Hunt brothers and Robert Southey who encountered his denunciations of Rubens and Titian, as well as his declarations of the primacy of semitic over classical art considered him at best eccentric, at worst mad.

The plates of surviving works (eleven out of sixteen included in the 1809 show) include some of Blake’s most famous images, such as The Spiritual Form of Nelson Guiding Leviathan and Christ in the Sepulchre, guarded by Angels, as well as early, more conventional examples of Blake’s art such as The Penance of Jane Shore, which he had painted in 1793 for exhibition in the Royal Academy. Some of these paintings, notably the rich temperas of which Satan Calling up his Legions is a good example, have suffered considerably over time, the canvas having cracked and darkened. The watercolours, however, particularly the glorious angels guarding Christ, remain translucent and vivid. By displaying mainly biblical subjects or those drawn from contemporary poetry (for example Gray’s The Bard), rather than those figures that comprised his own mythology, Blake attempted to present himself in a relatively conventional light, yet the non-mimetic, gradiose figures elevated from flat, pre-Renaissance backgrounds, could not have appeared as anything other than impossibly bizarre to most viewers at the time.

Myrone’s glossary, as with his footnotes to the Catalogue, provides a lucid explanation of various terms. The book as a whole has been designed as a catalogue for general readers (and visitors to the 2009 show) rather than academics, and the strength of Myrone’s style is his ability to convey the complexities of art history with an assured, light touch. Blake’s painting, in contrast to his poetry and printmaking, tends to be a neglected subject, but recent exhibitions and the continuing interest of twenty-first century artists in Blake indicate that “Seen in My Visions” probably marks the start of a new trend in Blake studies that will pay more attention to that art.

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