The new Blakes at the Tate

On Monday, during a visit to Tate Britain, I had a chance to see the William Blake prints that have recently been acquired by Tate and are currently undergoing restoration.

Tate purchased the eight prints at the beginning of this year, with funds largely raised by members and patrons (you can read the original news story here). A certain romanticism has already started to accrue to the prints – most notably their discovery inside a railway timetable (a small myth that caused at least one of the conservationists to roll his eyes in disdain). In any case, the collection is undoubtedly beautiful, consisting of eight prints from an original series of ten according to the numbers on the pages. Six of these are taken from The Book of Urizen, with the other two being drawn from The Book of Thel and The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. The works had apparently been loaned for a 2007 exhibition at Tate, but this was my first chance to see them in detail.

One of the most fascinating features of the prints, beyond the immediate, vivid colouring of dark blues and turquoise, bold, fiery orange-golds and reds and, of course, Blake’s powerful designs, was the patina of dirt and mild abuse that had built up in the intervening two centuries, traces of the material history of the prints subsequent to Blake’s composition and execution. The starkest example of this was the print taken from the final plate of The Book of Thel, which has thick fold lines in the paper where someone had probably wrapped its corners to fit it into an oval frame. As David Worrall remarked, the chances were that an owner of these prints identified this single image as the only one really suitable for public display, the others being shuffled away somewhere into a private portfolio. Similarly, the stab holes alongside each image indicate that at some point all were bound together, but the absence of creases indicates that they were not viewed as a book, instead simply being gathered together for safe keeping.

All the images found here were originally produced as part of Blake’s composite art, combining text and image to convey the prophetic messages of Blake’s illuminated books. As with his Small Book of Designs, however, it is quite clear that the original collector, while interested in Blake’s visual art, had little time for the artist’s idiosyncratic poetry. As such, the relief etchings were masked off so that no text was displayed and then worked up as painted copies, with hand drawn borders surrounding the printed area.

The prints are due to go on display at Tate Britain in July 2010 before being included as part of a major exhibition at the Pushkin Gallery in 2011.

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