Review: Naomi Billingsley – The Visionary Art of William Blake

Within Blake studies, Blake’s visual art tends to be studied less than his poetry and illuminated books. There have always been notable exceptions, of course, from Anthony Blunt on, but The Visionary Art of William Blake is an excellent contribution to an area of Blake studies – his painting and engraving not devoted to the prophetic books – that has been comparatively neglected. While Blake’s painting might be under-represented to some degree, since the turn of the millennium there has been some increase in critical works that consider the religious aspects of Blake’s works such as Susanne Sklar’s Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’ as Visionary Theatre and Magnus Ankarsjö’s William Blake and Religion, and in such contexts Naomi Billingsley’s new book is an extremely welcome addition.  Unsurprisingly given its sub title – Christianity, Romanticism and the Pictorial Imagination – the book concentrates on Christ (her own preferred term although Blake tends to use Jesus more frequently). Alongside a discussion of Blake’s Christology, Visionary Art presents an opportunity to discuss some relatively neglected works, such as the designs to Night Thoughts and the Butts temperas.

Visionary Art is arranged into five sections that correspond – generally – to several periods of Blake’s artistic production. These general themes (on resurrection and apocalypse, inspiration, community, Christ as universal form divine and crucifixion as self-annihilation) do not always match perfectly on to their corresponding texts, which include the illustrations to Milton and the designs for the Last Judgement as well as Young’s Night Thoughts. This is a function of any attempt to try and arrange Blake’s concepts into some kind of coherent schema that offers an interesting approach to Blake’s art other than a simple chronological survey, and Billingsley is not tied to that schema (including, for example, examples of resurrection imagery that is not restricted to Young), thus allowing herself flexibility. The only time it became problematic for me was in the discussions of the temperas for Thomas Butts, where it seemed occasionally she had to remind herself that as well as close readings of the images themselves she had set up a framework to discuss Christian inspiration. That said, this is an exceptionally good book for close readings of individual designs as well as overviews of Blake’s various series, with plenty of examples of detailed analysis of sometimes overlooked works.

The first section of Visionary Art, dealing with the designs and engravings for Night Thoughts, is exemplary, not least in that it provides an opportunity for Billingsley to demonstrate her extensive critical knowledge of the historical context surrounding the (failed) publication of Night Thoughts. She draws succinctly upon critics such as Eaves and the editors of the 1980 facsimile edition, building upon them with her own research to offer scholarship as is always evident throughout the book. Despite my previous comment, this is one chapter where resurrection as a thematic approach does work very well alongside a study of the failed project, with its emphasis upon Blake’s “endeavour to regenerate Young’s poem through a dynamic of creative conflict” (p.34). Several very interesting points also emerge in this section: that Blake, for example, is often very hesitant to use the image of the crucifixion, at least in the 1780s (hence the creative conflict of his emphasis upon images of resurrection rather than death); that he is not really a systematic theological thinker, at least in his visual series – a well-made point that is a recurring theme of the book); and that he seeks to emphasise an active Christology in which Jesus is full of energy and vitality as an example intended to transform the viewer.

The second chapter, dealing with inspiration and prophecy is, as previously indicated, where I felt the schema of Visionary Art was less successful. Despite this, the chapter offers once more an excellent reading of the tempera paintings for Thomas Butts (again, with some very good historical context) but occasionally it felt as though the dual demands – to provide as comprehensive reading of these paintings while also linking them to the overarching theme of inspiration and prophecy – could not always be reconciled. With regard to the thematic approach, I would have preferred something more wide-ranging across Blake’s entire oeuvre, but as an exploration of the Butts temperas in their own right this is one of the best accounts I have ever come across. Thus, for example, while considering the relevant critics such as David Bindman and Mary Lynn Johnson, Billingsley shows masterfully how the temptation to discover “a complete understanding of the series is impossible on secondary grounds, and may not have been intended by Blake in the original scheme.” (p.65) With this in mind, she draws links very well between individual designs, such as those depicting Christ’s nativity and his life, a theme through many of the paintings, without being bound to try and explain the entire series as a coherent and systematic Christology. She is also extremely good at drawing attention to Blake’s innovations, such as his depiction of the baby Jesus springing upwards from Mary at the scene of his birth and, in a comparison with J.M.W. Turner’s Holy Family (1803), draws attention again to how Blake’s paintings are intended to inspire the viewer rather than seek out the historical Jesus, this being a common factor of his Christology. As such, the Butts series is better read as “a web of recurring themes… in the context of Blake’s theological mythos” (p.86) rather than a systematic arrangement of narrative or theological ideas.

Chapter three, on Jesus as facilitator, concentrates on the watercolours created for Butts during and after Blake’s time at Felpham, offering a view of Christ’s ministry as a means of building a community. This is an ecclesiology that, as Billingsley rightly observes, is concerned less with church structures as with participants in the divine body of Christ. The watercolours produced during this time for Butts are often more vivid and memorable than the temperas, perhaps due in part to Blake’s renewed engagement with – even a reconversion to – Christianity during his time at Felpham. It is in this section that Billingsley offers some of her most insightful readings of images that are frequently neglected, such as The Hymn of Christ and the Apostles (c.1805), a depiction of the disciples playing musical instruments that is “a clear manifestation of Blake’s statement that ‘Jesus & his Apostles & Disciples were all Artists’.” (p.127) The focus on the ministry of Jesus as an embodiment of the human form divine, a community of believers joined in the practice of art (which is, ultimately, to perform actions with love, care and devotion) works more effectively in this chapter, returning to a constant theme in The Visionary Art of William Blake, which is that by seeing these pictures the viewer is also intended to “internalise the processes of regeneration and inspiration” (p.131) and thus, by recognising their own human form divine, become part of that community.

In the following section, Billingsley explores how, in the penultimate decade of his life, “Blake was intensely engaged with fundamental questions related to art and Christianity” (p.164), exploring these particularly via his illustrations to Milton and various designs for The Last Judgement. Regarding the former, again she notes the slight variations and repetitions between the versions for Joseph Thomas, Thomas Butts and what was presumably an unfinished series for John Linnell. The focus on depictions of Christ, with five out of the twelve watercolours presenting the Son at the centre of the image, allow Blake to “Christologize” Milton’s poem, for example by making him central to the creation of Eve as well as the rout of the rebel angels, and she once again demonstrating her critical skills in a close reading of The Rout of the Rebel Angels that draws parallels and contrasts with The Ancient of Days, Christ circumscribed within a sun from which he casts error just as Urizen, similarly encircled, creates error. The centrality of Christ is another feature of Blake’s multiple designs for the last judgement, which also serves as a major source for his aesthetic theory. A common element of those designs (which take their inspiration from Michelangelo’s famous fresco for the Sistine Chapel) is the position of Christ at the centre of the image, which “does not make him a formidable law-maker, but subverts such a conception of God: that throne becomes the Mercy Seat and the book of Law becomes the Book of Life (Revelation 20:15).” (p.153) Such insight is one of the joys of Visionary Art, demonstrating a profound sympathy with Blake’s visual art as a means of conveying the complexities of his thought. The chapter, covering as it does the period of 1805-1811, also deals with a series of four unusual pieces – including The Virgin and Child in Egypt (1810) that are completely unlike anything else produced by Blake’s contemporaries, approaching almost the form of the icons of the Orthodox church.

Iconography and iconoclasm segue into the final chapter on crucifixion as self-annihilation. At first glance, this chapter would appear to contradict Billingsley’s earlier assertion that Blake disliked the crucifix as a subject, particularly considering later examples as on plate 76 of Jerusalem, but there is an important qualification: she is right to assert that he “regarded the doctrine of the Crucifixion as Atonement (the Son being offered as a ransom for humankind’s erring from the Father’s Law) as abhorrent” (p.168), and also notes that the subject was not popular in eighteenth-century art as probably too popish. Instead, in Blake we see a movement from cruciform figures, such as Orc in America, which are exemplars of violence upon the human form divine, to a vision of Christ’s ultimate generosity in self-sacrifice as the breaking of Urizenic law. As well as a close reading of the Jerusalem crucifixion and Michael Foretells the Crucifixion from Paradise Lost, she ends the chapter with a consideration of the same subject in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and Dante Adoring Christ from his illustrations to The Divine Comedy, showing how Blake’s attitude towards the crucifixion became more positive in his final years.

The Visionary Art of William Blake is a compelling and scholarly contribution to Blake studies, which draws attention to often overlooked paintings and also reiterates the importance of Christ to his art, while avoiding the temptation to provide some kind of systematising tendency to his Christology. Rather, Blake’s relations with Jesus – as inspiration, source of revelation and, above all, the supreme example of the human form divine – is one which fluctuates and develops across his lifetime. If her thematic schema does not always map out entirely onto the historical survey of Blake’s work, this is due to an attempt to provide more than a mere catalogue of oft-neglected images. As a work of art history, placing Blake in the contexts of religious art in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, this book is intensely rewarding.

 

Naomi Billingsley, The Visionary Art of William Blake: Christianity, Romanticism and the Pictorial Imagination, London and New York: I.B. Tauris and Company, 2018, 256pp. RRP: £69. 

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